Soaps.com Talks To M.I.T Professor About Soaps! image

Courtesy of Sam Ford

Recently, Soaps.com had the privilege of speaking with a professor who will be teaching a course on the American Soap Opera at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) in Cambridge, Massachusetts this spring!

Sam Ford, Professor and Project Manager of the Convergence Culture Consortium Program in Comparative Media Studies at M.I.T, describes his course as…

“The television landscape has changed drastically in the past few years; nowhere is this more prevalent than in the American daytime serial drama, one of the oldest forms of television content. This class examines the history of these "soap operas" and their audiences by focusing on the production, consumption, and media texts of soaps. The class will include discussions of what makes soap operas a unique form, the history of the genre, current experimentation with transmedia storytelling, the online fan community, and comparisons between daytime dramas and primetime serials from “24” to “Friday Night Lights,” through a study of Procter & Gamble's As the World Turns.”

While going for his Master’s degree, Sam did his thesis on soaps, which can be viewed here, and currently has a couple of books in progress surrounding the state of daytime serial dramas today! Last spring, Sam and others at M.I.T hosted well-known daytime scribe Kay Alden at the Institute, who happened to be a member of Sam’s thesis committee! To view the podcast from this event, featuring Kay Alden, Click here!

We were very curious as to what initially made Sam decide to do his thesis on soap operas or if it was partially due to Ms. Alden being part of his thesis committee. We couldn’t help but wonder if she had a hand in guiding him through…

“Both as a scholar and as a fan of media texts, I've long been fascinated with what I have come to call "immersive story worlds," Sam said. “Immersive story worlds have a few key characteristics. The stories from these worlds are chiefly serialized, in that what happens in one installment theoretically is relevant to the next, and events in the installments that follow might refer back to that previous episode. These stories have likely been managed not only by multiple creative forces simultaneously but by a variety of creative teams over time. As time passes, these narrative worlds develop a long-term continuity that becomes a major focus of the fan discussions surrounding them. Since these worlds have large ensemble casts of characters, and since not all of these characters are featured all the time, there develops a long backlog of characters who have appeared in a particular story world. And, as this history develops, fans become interested in current ties to that long-standing history. What all this creates is a sense of permanence for these fictional worlds, that the fictional towns or spaces that they have been constructed in will be the source of ongoing stories.”

Applying some of his teaching skills, Sam proceeded to provide us with the characteristics of these immersive story worlds…

1.) Serialized

2.) Multiple Creators

3.) Long-Term Continuity

4.) Backlog of Characters

5.) Contemporary Ties to History

6.) Permanence

“For me,” Sam continues, “I grew up a fan of comic books. The superhero universes of Marvel Comics and DC Comics are great examples of immersive story worlds, in which there are more texts than any one fan could possibly memorize and which generate multiple new stories each month, which may make reference to or draw upon a huge body of work from the past. I also grew up a major fan of professional wrestling, and wrestling likewise fits all of these categories. World Wrestling Entertainment today has five hours of original programming each week, and WWE regularly calls upon or brings back characters from the past, references historical events, and maintains an ensemble cast of characters. After doing research as an undergraduate on my interest in professional wrestling, I became interested in its ties to soap opera. I grew up a soaps fan, particularly of As the World Turns, which I watched with my grandmother and my mother. Today, I watch with my wife. Each soap opera narrative has the six characteristics mentioned above, and I think these are the strengths of the genre.”

“In soaps, most shows have a community of viewers, many of whom have been watching the show longer than the current creative team has been writing it,” Sam reminds us of this sometimes forgotten fact. “That relationship fascinates me, and I was interested in how soap operas are experimenting with telling narrative and communicating with their fans in the current era, especially when the "permanence" of some of these soaps have been brought into questions by current ratings.”

“When I first proposed the idea for this thesis, I wanted to conduct a project that contributed meaningfully to academic research on fandom, television, and media, but I also wanted to conduct research that was relevant and contributed to the knowledge of the soap opera industry and which both drew from and contributed to the knowledge of the fan communities surrounding these shows. My goal was to have a thesis committee that included academics, someone from the fan community, and someone from the industry. Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio, the directors of our Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT, were my academic representatives, while I met Lynn Liccardo - a Harvard graduate and former contributor to one of the well-known soap magazines - through an online fan discussion board. I was put in contact with Kay Alden through a common acquaintance, and Kay expressed strong interest in the questions I was asking. She was very supportive throughout and helpful in both challenging my ideas from an industry perspective and explaining what would be of interest to the industry and why.”

Having totally peaked our interest with his knowledge and admiration for soap operas, we wanted to know more about Sam’s thesis and where he obtained his research…

“My research was on the contemporary state of soaps, using As the World Turns as a case study. Since ATWT is the oldest soap opera, which began on television, and since it was the ratings leader for much of soaps' biggest ratings period (1958-1978), I thought it would be a particularly appropriate story world to examine,” Sam enlightens us. “It also helps that I've been a longtime viewer of that show. In short, I looked at the long history of how fans communicated with one another around their soap opera, from one-on-one discussions to fan clubs to the soap opera press to the ways in which online fan communities have changed the ways soap fans talk to one another, and the ways in which the industry might understand and communicate with fans. Other chapters focused on what has been done and what might be done with product placement, utilizing the large archive of soap opera content for these shows, and transmedia storytelling such as Webisodes, books, etc. One of my strongest messages was that the focus narrowly on the target demographic for soap operas must take into account that the fandom of these shows are necessarily transgenerational, both in the ways these soaps tell stories and in the fan community. Long-time viewers may not be in the target demographic, but they may be key for getting the target demo. As I talked with soaps fans, I find a majority of them are like me--they started watching because they grew up with these shows, and they knew longtime viewers, many of whom were older than the target demo. For advertisers, these viewers may be worth little or nothing, because they are not who these shows are selling products to. Nevertheless, grandmom or mom may be the best way, or perhaps the only way, to reach daughter and granddaughter, or son or grandson in my case.”

As all Soaps.com fans know, we always stay in touch with our friends at the shows and with their actors, so we had to ask if Sam would be working with anyone at Tele Vest and As the World Turns during the duration of his class – or if he planned for any special guests to be brought in…

“I had the chance to talk with a few people at TeleVest and ATWT when conducting my thesis work, but they have no involvement with either my research or the class I'm teaching in the spring. I am certainly open to having industry folks visit my class and have had some preliminary discussions, but I'm still early in the process of planning my syllabus, so I don't have anyone definitively planned to come here to Cambridge.”

Should Sam finagle a guest or two, we’ll be sure to let you all know! With prior talk of Sam’s current books in progress, we were lucky enough to get a little glimpse inside their premise…

“I have been in discussion with a university press about having a version of my thesis published in book form. I am also co-editing a collection of essays on the current state of American soap operas with Dr. Abigail Derecho of Columbia College Chicago,” Sam says impressively. “This essay will include essays and interviews with established scholars who have done research on soaps, emerging academic research on the current state of American soaps, and a variety of critical pieces looking at interesting current case studies, from General Hospital: Night Shift to American soaps abroad to the writers' strike.”

Although the majority of Soaps.com’s audience is made up of women, we do have a few men who visit our website and post their insight on our message boards, making it nice to be able to see a male’s perspective of soaps, which led us to wonder how long Sam has been watching soaps, what his earliest soapy memory was and ultimately what show he crowns as his favorite…

“As mentioned before, the only soap I've watched regularly is ATWT. My earliest memories of ATWT are of some of the evil schemes of James Stenbeck and the usually outrageous actions of Dr. John Dixon. Sadly, those two long-time characters don't appear regularly in Oakdale today, but ATWT retains more familiar faces than most other shows, with Helen Wagner holding the world record for longest time of playing a fictional character with her portrayal of Nancy Hughes. The show still has perhaps the best ensemble cast in daytime.”

We have to agree with Sam, those are some wonderful soap memories! Thanks for reminding us of those storylines!

Sam wants everyone to know that while the course will be taught at M.I.T, students from Harvard University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Wellesley College are welcome to enroll too! Classes will be held Mondays and Wednesdays from 1:00PM till 2:30PM, as well as a viewing lab on Monday nights from 7:00PM till 10:00PM. For those who are interested in taking part in his class, you can contact Sam Ford by email at samford@MIT.EDU.

Soaps.com wants to send a big thank you to Sam Ford for alerting us to his upcoming class at M.I.T and for taking the time to give us a look inside his world as a teacher and into his thoughts as a soap opera fan! We only wish such classes were available when we were going through college!

Amy Mistretta
Assistant to the Editor-In-Chief
Soaps.com