Turning the page: the soap press

Could it be....a GL cover?

Could it be….a GL cover?

Many soap fans have had a contradictory relationship with soap magazines.

On the one hand, they were, for many years, the ONLY place we could read about our shows, or the performers who appeared on those shows.

On the other hand….well, how do I say this nicely? They didn’t aim very high. It was mostly recaps and, if you were lucky, an occasional interview. Many interviews came right out of the publicist’s playbook. Yes, I love my character. Yes, we are all one big happy family! Yes, yes, yes…..

I’m thinking about this and writing about this because Soap Opera Digest (SOD), the grande dame of the magazines, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

It’s the one with the longest history, perhaps, but its main history, let’s face it, has been as a promotional program guide for soaps.

It has, over its long life, featured criticism, but aside from some Carolyn Hinsey’s former column, and a few other earlier voices (Michael Logan, if I remember correctly), that criticism has mostly been whispered, not shouted.

Why do I say this?

I could have told you in 1996 – twenty years ago – that Days of Our Lives, General Hospital and The Young and The Restless would be three of the last soaps standing.

That’s because SOD, for most of the last 25 years, has had a laser focus on promoting those three shows.

It was so ridiculous in the mid-and-late 1990s that I often referred to SOD as Days of Our Lives Digest. Some variation of a handful of characters (Bo, Hope, Billie, Sami, Austin, Carrie, John and/or Marlena) were on the cover almost every single week.

There were rumors of a Digest/DAYS squabble, and a time where DAYS called a turf war with Digest precisely because it wouldn’t feature those stars all the time.

This rumor reared its head again a few years back, when the word was that a certain Y&R leading performer would not talk to Digest unless they were guaranteed a cover.  (Which explained the omnipresence of said performer on Digest covers around that time.)

This dovetails quite closely with the time period I’ve talked about before with P&G, and how the P&G shows started to falter.

Granted, Guiding Light, Another World, and As The World Turns never had that sort of sparkling promotional spotlight that the above shows had.

ABC had a fierce promotional machine, one forged in the white heat of the Luke and Laura phenomenon at GH.  Y&R had a broad audience, and DAYS had a serious fanbase that eclipsed their actual ratings performance (and often still does).

But I can say as someone who bought Digest nearly every week for thirty years that, at least in those early days, GL and ATWT (and to a lesser degree, AW) were in rotation for covers.

The chicken or egg question is whether GL started to slip, started to be moved to mornings, etc. because it stopped getting covers…or whether the move to the print magazine back burner was because GL’s star was falling.

I tend to think the magazines had a big impact on the fortunes of the shows. How could they not?

It’s telling that, outside of a show anniversary, one of GL’s last full-page covers was for the notorious clone storyline.

Even the esteemed Weekly had DAYS’ Patch and Kayla as their first cover. (Updated to add: I stand corrected thanks to a reader comment, pointing out that the cover was Patch and Marina – see comments for details.)  They knew what would catch the eyeballs at the checkout line.

Weekly was, for much of its life, head and shoulders above Digest in talking about all the shows, between the features and Marlena DeLacroix’s “Critical Condition.”

I miss Weekly’s editorial voice, and its array of stories, though I’ve encountered a small but vocal group in online communities that believes Weekly was too generous with spoilers, and damaged the shows as a result.

But even it fell in its later years into a narrower focus, and eventually became redundant to sister publication Digest.

It’s a reminder to me that, for all of the work online by bloggers and sites like We Love Soaps and Daytime Confidential (where many people get their news now),  there’s still a core, measurable audience — of the audience that still watches — who was probably captivated by those early stories, their attentions captured by what the magazines promoted to them.

And it was THAT combination of story, and subsequent advertising, masquerading as magazine content – that’s kept them watching.

For a genre essentially created by and for advertising, we sometimes forget to make that connection.

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5 thoughts on “Turning the page: the soap press

  1. The first two days of April certainly resonate for ATWT and GL fans: As noted, there was the worst April Fools Day joke ever in 2009. And today marks 60 years since “World Turns premiered. Amazing that six years after the show left the air, there’s still a lively conversation over at the Soap Opera Network board.

    In total agreement re the superiority of Weekly (and not just because I wrote for a few pieces for them). Although, in fairness, Digest did publish some excellent articles over the years.

    Re covers: ABC Daytime certainly had a fierce promotional machine that promoted a clearly identified brand, made easier by the fact that ABC owned all their soaps. Not so for CBS where the striking stylistic differences between the Bell shows and P&G’s made it difficult to create a cohesive brand for their shows. I also think ATWT and GL were hurt when B&B premiered in 1987 and the CBS schedule was split: Y&R and B&B followed by ATWT and GL. Also complicating matters: CBS and P&G each had their own publicists. I experienced firsthand, and heard from others, how P&G would obstruct CBS’s efforts.

    Lynn, as always, you make some great points, especially the disconnect between PGP CBS and Bell CBS.

    Ironically, I’ve seen a few Digest articles recently where they were doing the kind of work I hadn’t seen from them in years. They did a piece probably a month ago about soap production as it is now. I remember it because one source said (I’m paraphrasing): “Not many teenage girls are leaping at the chance to watch our shows. Why not make a show that pleases the audience we have?” That should be blown up to 200 point font and put on a cover of Digest!

  2. The soap rags!! Wow! This should get people some people talking. I certainly have lots to say about the soap press. I’ll refrain from writing too much on the subject. For now. But know that I am very opinionated on this topic.

    I agree that Soap Digest does not aim too high in the level of writing. That became obvious when Soap Weekly debuted and raised the bar by writing intelligent, thoughtful pieces that treated the soaps and soap viewers with respect. What a concept!!

    Soap Weekly was a joy to read during the 12 years of Miimi’s editorial reign. I had such a new appreciation for the art form of the soaps and the art of soap journalism. I greatly miss Soap Weekly and wish I had saved the issues like I did my Soap Digest issues (I have 35 years worth of Digests in boxes). Perhaps if Weekly had been printed on higher gloss paper, it would have felt like it carried more importance and should be preserved; but being printed on the same grade paper as the National Enquirer made it feel so very disposable.

    As much as I adored Soap Weekly, I also feel that it contributed significantly to the decline of the soaps by introducing detailed spoilers in every issue. Before Weekly began publishing, you got some tidbits here and there, but nothing like the point by point breakdown of a storyline before the it aired, that Weekly ran routinely.

    Oh the detailed spoilers and Red Letter Days were fun at first and I certainly ate it up for several years. But gradually I saw that knowing what was going to happen was contributing to my growing dissatisfaction with the shows and my willingness to miss an episode or four. Apparently many others felt the same way since the ratings started heading south in mid 1990s.

    Of course, all the soap rags started printing detailed story spoiled and featured them on the cover. I remember in 2003-2004 when James Reilly had a serial killer on Days killing off so many longtime cast members. It was a compelling storyline and very buzz-worthy. I deliberately avoided the spoilers as I wanted to enjoy the storyline as it played out. However, a full week before the killer was due to be revealed on screen, I was standing in line at the grocery store and glanced over at the new Soap Digest on the rack. On the cover was the headline “Days Killer Revealed” with a photo of Marlena! Storyline ruined! Thanks so f–ing much! All my effort to avoid spoilers go to naught.

    That incident was the absolute worst of the worst! I considered it irresponsible journalism! Others seem to have agreed as the mags backed off somewhat from revealing story points on the covers since then.

    But its a blurry line between news and promotion. And as you point out, the soap rags primary purpose is promotional. We must always keep that in mind.

    Alright, enough of me for now. Thanks for letting me rant.

    James, I’ve heard people talking about spoilers re: two stories in particular – the one you mentioned, and the Georgie reveal on OLTL.

    I actually wonder if it was a shipping-to-the-racks issue. I remember that the magazines were delivered to the grocery store SO early. It seemed way earlier than Digest had ever been. And therefore some of us more eager soap fans read a new issue of Weekly on a Thursday that maybe wasn’t really meant to hit the racks until the following Tuesday.

    I wonder if it was a competition with Digest?

    And I’m not trying to disagree – I totally hear you and recognize what you’re saying. Overall I do agree with the general idea that spoilers were an issue. I think that’s been one of the wisdoms of a few of the nighttime show runners, like Matt Weiner at Mad Men and Shonda Rhimes – a virtual lockdown on spoilers.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. It’s more than a disconnect between the Bell shows and P&G. Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that moving ATWT from 1:30 to 2pm took its toll on ratings, which dropped as B&B’s rose.

    When B&B debuted in 1987 (at 5.6), ATWT was at 7.
    By 1989-90, ATWT had dropped to 5.8, with B&B just behind at 5.7.
    In 1992-93: B&B, 5.9, pulls past ATWT 5.7.

    I know that Bill Bell insisted that B&B follow Y&R, and I certainly understand his reasoning, and I can’t believe that his intention was to hurt ATWT. But, I wonder if he had any idea that the new time slot would so damage ATWT’s ratings over the long haul?

    I never realized the drop was so significant!

  4. Re the Weekly spoilers: floating somewhere around the web, Mimi acknowledged the spoiler issue.

    Another worst was when Weekly spilled the beans about a proposed storyline on ‘World Turns. Lisa Brown had gotten wind that the Snyder farm was going to burn down and, thinking that the Snyders were going to be written off, hit the panic button and leaked the info to Weekly, which ran it. Ironically, the plan had been to bring the far-flung Snyder characters back to the show. But, Laurie Caso was so pissed he killed the story.

    Wow – again, I had no idea!

    We really need to catch up, Lynn! And maybe one of these days I’ll do a radio show or podcast yet!

  5. It was actually Stephen Nichols and Hunter Tylo on the cover of the first issue of Soap Opera Weekly, as the Patch and Marina story was really heating up.

    I agree that Weekly was far superior editorially to Digest — their feature interviews would go above and beyond the standard PR line and the subject would occasionally reveal something interesting or provocative.

    I never understood why the shows gave the magazines so many spoilers when it was clear the damage far outweighed any benefit from a promotional standpoint. (Sure, the magazines had sources, but most of it came straight from the shows’ publicists.) I would have give my right arm to see an EP or HW in the late 90s-early 2000s (when spoilers started to become completely out of control) with the stones to totally shut down the spoilers provided by show publicists, as well as doing away with the “On the next…” teasers that ABC used at the end of every episode. (I think GL did them at some point as well.)

    You’re right! I keep forgetting that. Thanks for the correction re: the cover.

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