Monday, September 27, 2010

How The Internet Killed The Great American Serial

The Internet is a great thing. It has been, without a doubt, the most important technological breakthrough to occur in my lifetime. It makes possible seamless, real-time communication between people from all over the globe. Early this year, Astronauts sent the first Tweets and Twitpics from space, expanding even further the reach of Everyman. When people of my parents' generation talk about the assassination of JFK, their descriptions are of hearing the news on the radio, phone lines going down with so many people calling all over to share the sad news, and people gathering around television sets in hopes the reports were mistaken. When I think about the death of Princess Diana, I remember being logged into a chat room full of Australians and New Zealanders, all of us getting the news as it happened, directly from Internet-based wire services, the television playing in the background, the phone barely a consideration, and the radio nowhere in sight. The world had changed. How we got news had changed. How we shared collective sadness had changed.

The fact is, the advent of the Internet has changed the playing field, for all of us, forever. Some - in my opinion, most - of these changes have been positive. There are, however, drawbacks to having access to all kinds of information almost all of the time.

How It Used To Be

If Mr. Peabody were to take you on a trip in the Wayback Machine to witness the impact the Internet has had on entertainment, specifically serial drama, he might choose as a destination Pine Valley. Here, he would show you star-crossed lovers Jeff Martin and Mary Kennicott, who have overcome hurdle after hurdle and finally found their way to one another after years of struggle. They are newly married and in the process of adopting a young foundling named Tad. Yes, that Tad. It is an afternoon in 1975 and you are watching All My Children.

All seems normal. Mary arrives home from the grocers and finds two intruders in the house. She has stumbled upon burglars who have no intention of letting any eye-witnesses survive. When little Tad enters the apartment and finds his adoptive mother in the clutches of armed robbers, Mary causes a distraction that gives the boy just enough time to escape. Tad makes it out but Mary is shot dead by the intruders. It is a heart-breaking moment, and a shocking one. Mary is a major character, and a much beloved one. No one could have seen this coming. Every AMC fan sits still in shock, horror and sadness. It is, after all, 1975. The word "spoiler" isn't even a part of the television viewing lexicon.

The Tide Turns

The Internet has broken down many barriers to communication. In the process it has made secrets almost impossible to keep. In 1975 there was really only one game in town, when it came to getting news about soap operas: a new magazine called Soap Opera Digest. For the most part, SOD consisted of re-caps and interviews. The recaps were mainly aimed at women who, for whatever reason, had missed their soaps and wanted to catch up. Remember, this was before VCRs, let alone TIVO, Youtube or Soapnet. You'd buy a copy of SOD to find out what had happened on your favorite show last month, and to read an interview with Susan Lucci or Robin Strasser. Actors who were interviewed never gave away any upcoming story lines. Instead, Lucci might talk about what it was like when fans saw her at the airport and made comments about Erica's latest evil-doings. Back then, the closest you'd come to a spoiler would be an announcement about someone joining the cast of a soap and, really, announcements like this were only made when it came to known entities. When George Reinholt and Jaqueline Courtney, who had been incredibly popular on Another World joined the cast of One Life To Live, it was news, at least for soap viewers. And soap news was most definitely not mainstream news. Again, this was before Luke and Laura broke through that  fourth wall. In 1975 - and for many years after - soap opera viewers were an almost negligible niche market. What's more, television viewing was a strictly passive activity. In 1975, we sat back and watched. This isn't to say that we didn't react to what happened on the screen - of course we did. If something was sad, we might get teary. If something was funny, we laughed. Soap viewers, especially, have always been heavily invested. A habit I still have today is that of talking to the television: "Oh, Erica, shut up." "It serves you, right, Nikki, for thinking Victor is anything but a control freak, after all these years."

Today, television viewers don't just react to what happens on the screen - they gather to dissect it, they write blogs and articles and even university level papers that critique it, and they mobilize to shape it. The Internet and its capabilities as a powerful networking tool has turned television viewing into an interactive experience. Viewers are no longer content to just watch what happens. Fans of a specific show can hold virtual screening parties online and discuss the action in real time. Your favorite character has been killed off? You don't have to accept this - why not start a global Internet campaign to bring him back from the dead? Sick of reading other people's opinions about your favorite show? Start a blog or an online forum. After all, what makes the people who write Soap Opera Digest any better at watching television and forming opinions than you are?

There's The Rub

So, we now have a community of television viewers who are also self-proclaimed know-it-alls/critics/reporters. And, no, I don't exempt myself from this group because: hey - most of what I've written about on this blog during the last year has had to do with television. (Superhero Lunchbox used to be a very different blog, but older content has been deleted.) In addition, the Internet makes it possible for people such as myself to communicate not only with other television viewers from around the globe, but with television actors, writers, casting directors, and journalists. In many ways, the barriers that once existed between television viewing and television production no longer exist. If you don't think this is true, think about this: in the grand scheme of things I am nobody - just someone who likes to watch television and happens to enjoy the Internet. This is unremarkable. It describes about 90% of the people I know. I do not hold a degree in television production or broadcasting. I have never worked for a television network or motion picture producer. I am not an actor. The writing I've had published has had absolutely nothing to do with television or entertainment, at all. I don't have an uncle in the business. I am just someone who likes to watch television and dissect it. Big deal. In 1975, this would have earned me a seat on the couch and a subscription to TV Guide. In 2010, it means I interact (mainly via Internet and telephone) with television actors, writers, casting directors, and journalists. And this isn't remarkable. Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can reach out and start a conversation - there's no guarantee anyone will respond, but my experience tells me that lots of people do. Let's put it this way: if I can get interviews with actors, have long talks with writers and get casting directors to read my email and follow up with phone calls, anyone with a PC and an Internet connection can.

Television is no longer just a spectator sport.

Monster in a Box

With this shift in paradigm comes some problems. If the Internet makes it possible, in theory, for everyone to share information, it also means the chances of keeping anything a secret are next to nil.

In 2009, as Guiding Light was winding down, I was privy to some information about the show that some of the TPTB wanted to keep under wraps. Again, there is nothing exceptional about me as a television viewer or as a blogger. The moment I got wind of this information I thought to myself, "If someone connected to the show sees fit to tell me about this it means there are lots of others - people with actual credentials - who know about it, and probably have for a long while." One of these bits of information was Maureen Garrett's return to the GL set in the role of Holly. It was presented to me as something GL wanted to keep under wraps - a bit of a gift to the loyal viewers. I remember getting this information, being really excited that my favorite GL actor would be back, and thinking, "I won't leak this, but this secret won't keep for long." Two weeks after I learned of it, news of Garrett's return to GL was all over the Internet. Some people were happy to have gotten the "scoop." I thought it was kind of sad that die-hard GL fans were deprived of what could have been a pretty cool surprise. But, as I said - I knew that if I had been told, many, many others had also been told, and at least one person was going to let the cat out of the bag. It was inevitable.

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that every leak is accidental. Planting stories and planning leaks is the bread-and-butter of entertainment PR. But I do know there was at least some desire to end the show with a few surprises, and that just was not ever going to happen. So strong was the desire to keep certain details under wraps, that one of the interviews I conducted for The Guiding Light Project was granted only under the condition that a P&G representative be present to make sure there was no specific discussion of the final episodes, and that the actor didn't inadvertently slip up and tell me more than I was supposed to know. This effort turned out to be moot, as well: the specific details that the P&G exec took such pains to guard became common knowledge when a cameraman posted still photos of the final days of shooting on Twitter.


Last week, One Life to Live aired what (while badly executed, IMO) was clearly intended to be a Mary Kennicott moment: the big reveal about Tea still being alive. Is there a single viewer who was genuinely shocked? Did anyone believe, for even a minute, that she was dead? Stories about Florencia Lozano's being let go from OLTL, only to be rehired (thanks, in part, to noise made by fans) had been circulating for months. We knew Tea might be gone for a little while, but we also knew she wasn't really dead. What could have and should have been a classic, "OHMYGOD, TEA'S ALIVE!" moment fell flat. Hear that sound? It's the sound of crickets chirping. And here's the thing - while soap viewers love continuity and familiarity, we also love waiting to see what happens next. As serial dramas, they're meant to carry over from one episode to the next with some semblance of suspense.  And we really love a good shocker. Remember when AMC's Cliff, heartbroken that Nina had perished in a plane crash, stood in front of an elevator whose doors opened to reveal...Nina - alive and well!?!?! Or the wedding where "Adam"'s mask was pulled off to reveal GL's Roger, back from the dead? Or every, single time James Stenbeck shocked the hell out of Barbara by showing up, again? Those were true shockers. Those were scenes with which to end a Friday episode...scenes that guaranteed viewers would be back on Monday. That element of surprise no longer exists. Nothing about the big reveal regarding Tea compelled me to go back for more on Monday.

There can be no more Mary Kennicott, Nina Warner, Roger Thorpe or James Stenbeck moments. In a world where your favorite soap writer is your pen pal, and your favorite actor is part of your Mafia Wars family, the air of mystery is all but gone. The monster is out of the box, and he's got no plans to crawl back in.


bl said...

I find the fact they killed Mary in that fashion so tragic, and found it shocking when I read about it in All My Afternoons. Nowadays a soap does that, people would freak.

Talking to the television shows investment, though on some shows I refrain until I'm ffing.

If anything I must admit I'm a "spoiler whore", but that happened as by the time I was reading soap magazines they gave information as to what episodes to stay home sick or leave school early to watch. When people open a soap magazine or go on-line to talk about television, they should know there is a possibility things will be leaked before airing.

Once GL had morning and afternoon markets, as I got the show in the afternoons, I would have to avoid the web until I could see the show to not get prior information or not log on at all until I saw the program. When I was in a day-behind market, if I wanted to not know what was going to happen, I only could be online reading GL related items from 11 am to 3 pm (and not at all during the weekend) as once GL started in the east, people would be discussing things I hadn't seen yet.

The one negative to this is that sometimes things would be hyped up by friends as being really awesome and then I was underwhelmed as they talked up the material too much.

If a spoiler is good, that means I get excited, maybe not in front of the television, but I still become excited. That's the most important part, the joy I get, not where it comes from... If I hear bad news, better hear it early than have the WTH moment while watching a program and hurting my electronics. (I say that only slightly in jest as I do know sports fans who in frustration have done this and broken remote controls.)

I wasn't surprised that Tea was alive on OLTL. I wasn't really shocked if she had ended up being dead either. Then again I was looking at pictures of people outside the OLTL and Florencia was there and they were filming October, so I knew it was a hoax and Tea was dead. Same thing happened with Matt Walton except that was in SOW, in an article about KZ joining that program. He talked about being an extra at GL and how he looked forward to working with KZ. Of course, when Eli died, my first thought was "what SOW....before Eli faked his death I knew he wouldn't did that happen"

In all the years, I've watched soaps I've gone to about a dozen fan events and have sent or called less often than that. Usually activism doesn't work anyway and sometimes people get screwed for it, so I tread lightly.

Anonymous said...


Funny, interesting, and cool are all among the reactions I have to your latest post and to your insightful blogging as a whole. I believe I've earnestly evolved as a serial drama queen from the days of religiously reading the funnies (Brenda Starr, Apt. 3G, Mary Worth)to cutting classes in high school and acquiring the yen for daytime television serials, which I possess to this day. I pray that it is only the method of delivery and not the genre that maybe facing extinction. The one sure avenue for getting and retaining a loyal audience is good storytelling. Hope you're listening, TPTB.
- mzpiggie

Snapper said...

Oh, how I loved Winnie Winkle and Brenda Starr! Mary Worth I could take or leave...she was such a busybody. The other strip I always loved, especially during the 70s, was Dick Tracy, which had a lot of the elements of soap - not unlike Edge of Night.

Anonymous said...

I remember how scared I was when they killed off Mary on AMC. I also remember it being discussed extensively by my elementary school friends. I guess it goes to show you that soaps were not meant for little kids.