Oakdale post-mortem (Part Three)

Here’s the final part of the comments about the end of As The World Turns that writer and media analyst Sam Ford shared with me. Sam is co-editor of the upcoming book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era. (Here’s where you can find Part One and Part Two.)

1000WORLDS: Have you heard from any of the students who took your MIT course since the cancellation was announced? What was their reaction/feedback? What about other academics who study soaps and who you collaborate with?

SAM FORD: I have heard from some students who weighed in on ATWT over the years and a bit since the show was cancelled. Several watched for awhile after the class ended. Some kept up even after they quit watching. I don’t think any sustained their viewership, in part because they lost their social ties around the show, which is what I believe has always been key for sustaining viewership in the vast majority of cases. As for scholars, most people know ATWT was “my show.” We were working on the draft of our book during ATWT‘s cancellation, so I’ve talked to many scholars about the show’s ending. On the one hand, people are shocked because ATWT was not drastically below other shows in the ratings and had maintained so many historic characters/actors. On the other, I think the surprise was much less because of what we went through with Guiding Light so shortly before.

You’ve had some collaborations over the years with people in writing and production. Was there a sense that this was expected? Any specific reactions from people close to the production or who had been in the past? Again, I think the reaction from the industry was very muted. People sort of expected it after what happened to Guiding Light. Even though things had seemed promising for ATWT‘s renewal at points, everyone had it in the back of their mind that this was inevitable. Some felt that TPTB at ATWT were burned out, anyway, as evidenced by Chris Goutman’s comments in the press about not listening to fan reaction or about fans not wanting to watch a daily drama anymore. Few thought the show could be turned back around into prominence because no soap opera is expected to make it back to where they once were. And I don’t think anyone–in the industry, in the academia, or in the fan community–believed the show could actually find an alternative model of distribution that would work.

ATWT seemed to be a strong show (at least ratings-wise) just a few years ago. What do you think led to such a rapid decline in audience? The decline in ATWT‘s audience isn’t so much worse than any other. The distance between #3 and #7 in overall ratings is minimal. ATWT would be #6 one week and #3 the next for awhile. With Y&R‘s unmatched perch atop overall ratings and B&B pretty solidly in #2, it seemed that people just traded spots among tenths of ratings points. This speaks to the arbitrariness of a system built on Nielsen ratings, to be sure, that ATWT would be cut for being in “last place” when there really isn’t that huge of a difference compared to other shows. The main issue, though, was the demos.

ATWT has drawn an older-skewing viewership for a long time. In fact, it’s been seen as an “older show” for decades–in part because it was the longest-running show on the air. In fact, it had retained much more of its history than GL. Instead of being rewarded for maintaining viewership, it actually was hurt significantly by having its viewership skew older.

But all the soaps continue to see a decline for many of the reasons listed above, and I don’t think we are going to see the kind of intervention necessary to turn things around. The one thing that would help soaps most at this point without fixing larger issues would be more properly valuing and promoting timeshifting and online distribution. For a show like Y&R, for instance, Sara Bibel has made a convincing argument that the show hasn’t lost nearly as many viewers as it seems, when you look at SOAPnet viewership, DVR viewing, online viewing, and so on. Of course, a viewer is worth a lot less through these alternative channels than they are during the day or when watching it within three days on DVR (but only then if they have a Nielsen box). Unfortunately, this seems to be a pretty big issue to solve in itself and one that all networks and shows continue to struggle with.

What do you ultimately see as the ATWT legacy? In your opinion, what can other shows (daytime, nighttime or Web shows) learn from ATWT‘s history?
The creative legacy for ATWT is in part how the show was both Irna Phillips’ and Doug Marland’s masterpiece. The runs of Helen Wagner, Don Hastings, and Eileen Fulton on this show will have a permanent place in television history. The show’s tie from being the first 30-minute soap through all the changes through the decades–and maintaining a focus on some core characters and families throughout that whole run–demonstrate what soaps are particularly good at.

The ratings ATWT posted in its 20-year run as the number one soap will never be matched. And the talent this show produced continues to amaze, with an alumni group that has populated primetime television and Hollywood with many great stars. For other shows, I hope they take away the creative potential possible when characters are maintained over decades. I hope they learn the great power an ensemble cast can bring to keep people engaged, even through creative lulls. I hope they realize that there’s still great potential in transgenerational storytelling. And I hope there is a drive to find ways to archive and make available the great work that was recorded from this show’s 54-year history.

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