Robert C Allen - To Be Continued.pdf - Introduction Robert...

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Unformatted text preview: Introduction Robert C. Allen This is a collection of essays about a form of television drama being watched (quite literally) at this very moment by tens of millions of people around the world. Whether called soap operas. soaps. telenovelas. teleromans. or. as my mother calls them. simply “my stories." television serials together constitute one of the most popular and resilient forms of storytelling ever devised In some television cultures (RussWafi’ are ‘rela- tively new phenomena. in others (the US. Great Britain. Australia. and several countries of Latin America). they have been staples of broadcast programming since the early days of radio. Some serials eventually end (if only after hundreds of episodes) Others. even after a half-century of continuous unfolding. are no closer to their characters living “happily ever after" than when the first episode was broadcast. Whether set in a middle-class American suburb. a Welsh village. nine- teenth-century Rio. or the sacred time and place of Hindu myth. television serials are linked - in the way they are constructed. broadcast and watched - by theirdistinctive serial narrational structure. A serial narrative is not merely a narrative that has been segmented. but one whose segmentation produces an interruption in the reading, listening. or viewing process. Furthermore. that interruption is controlled by the producer or distributor of the narrative. not by the reader. In other words. the producer of the narrative determines not only how and when the narration of the story stops and starts. but also how and when the reader's engagement with the text stops and starts. As Roger Hagedorn points out in his chapter. the serialization of narrative long predates the broadcast soap opera. indeed. the rise of the literary serial narrative in the eigmfltth century marks a crucial taming-point in the development of both literature and publishing. By the 1850s serialization had become a standard means of publishing novels in Europe and America Most of Dickens 3 readers during his lifetime read his works as magazine serials "“lnot published books. One of the key institutional roles of the serial form has been to exploit new technologies of narrative production and distribution. Serialized novels in the nineteenth century helped build consumer demand for mass circulation newspapers and magazines. which had themselves been KUBt-KI I...“ HLLJMV made possible by the development of high-speed presses. Serial comic strips facilitated the exploitation of high-speed color printing around the turn of the century. Movie serials helped to build a regular audience for the cinema in the [9105. Serial narrative was also crucial to the development of national broad- casting systems in a number of countries. and no more so than in the US. Devised around 1930 as one of a number of programming strategies to lure women to daytime radio and advertisers to program sponsorship. within only a few years soap operas proved to be one of the most effective broadcasting advertising vehicles ever devised. By I940. the sixty-four serials broadcast on network radio constituted 92 percent of all sponsored programs during daytime hours. The ten highest-rated daytime programs were all serials. In E943. of the thirty top-rated daytime radio programs. all but live were scrials.’ Serials have dominated daytime television schedules in the US since the 19505. Several serials have run continuously for twenty-live years. and one. - Guiding Light. has been seen or heard {with a short gap in the 1940s) since 193?. making it the longest story ever told. Although the fashion for prime—time set-i ate in the US has waxed and waned since the astonishing success of Peyton Piece in the mid-l960s and the global popularity of Dallas and Dynasty in the IQSOs. daytime serials are no less important to broadcasters today than they were half a century ago and are certainly no less popular. It is estimated that over half of all US women living in homes with television sets “keep up" with at least one soap opera. Such sustained and loyal viewership among women between the ages of 13 and 35 provides the basis for soup opera‘a enormous profitability for US network broadcasters. . The contemporary popularity of serials in the US is overshadowed by what popular jorrrnalists have-taken to describing as outbreaks of “soapmania” in other parts of the world. its Lisa Roi'cl discusses in her chapter. the most popular and talked about television program in China in l991 was Kewong (teen-tings or Expectations), which was. according to the Washington Post. “the biggest hit on television in Chinese history." 'l'clenovclas constitute half of the total output of Televisa. Mexico's largest communications company, and in 199] one Televisa serial was watched by 70 percent of the ¢ population with access to television. Most Latin American television systems broadcast a dozen or more telenovelas each weekday. and they consistently produce higher viewership than any other form of programming -- domestic or imported. in Brazil, choice prime-time slots are reserved for serials. which can be expand to attract an audience of up to 40 million viewers.2 Philip Lutgendorf examines what is perhaps the most striking demons stration of the peputarity of serial television: the seventy-two part weekly serialization of the Hindu religious epic Ramoyun broadcast in India in 19874983 and regularly watched by an audience of 80 to 100 million people. Broadcast on Sunday mornings. the popularity of the Rameyun prompted 2 students at a number of schools to demonstrate against the scheduling of examinations on Sunday mornings and provoked the destruction of an electrical substation when a power failure interrupted a flmydn broadcast. Three thousand sanitation workers in Amritsar responded to the news of the seriat‘s imminent end by going out on strike. the the city braced for a cholera epidemic. business leaders threatened to close their doors unless agreement could be reached with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for the serial to be extended. it was. Although American serials are distributed widely around the world. they are eclipsed by the astounding global circulation of serials made in other cultures. Mexico's Tblevisa exports its serials to fifty-nine countries, includ- ing the US. A 't‘elevisa serial was the most popular program in Korea in 1991. and. as Kate Baldwin discusses in her chapter. in 1992 another became the most popular dramatic series in the history of Russian television. Serials are one of Australia‘s most important media exports. and British serials have been sold to nearly twenty countries. But the prize for the world’s most successful exporter of serial drama goes to Brazil‘s TVaGlobo. the world's fourth largest television corporation. TV-Globo serials have been seen to TDDI’C than 1-00 countrics’ .._....a----uo--- -—---—--. .. -. -¢I|-‘-al'nwfi ---Iv---'-r'-‘---i~e\-v .__ .............. ._._w_______...._._.-_._.. Why do they say such terrible things about soap operas? No other form of television fiction has attracted more viewers in more countries more regularly over a longer period of time than has the serial. Given this fact, it is ironic that. until very recently. serials largely have been ignored in the “serious" literature on television and typically have been regarded with dismissive disdain in the popular press. ElseWhere l have argued that in the United States. this paradox is primarily a function of the being read according to the protocols of more closed narrative forms. Especially when compared to high-brow forms of fiction or drama. the soap opera seemed to critics to be the very epitome of the low. As early as 1940. one American commentator called radio soap operas “serialized rlroolflt Kate Baldwin will use the metaphors of feces and toilet training in discussing the extraordinary popularity of a Mexican telenovela in Russia in 1992. More generally, I would argue. serials have been regarded as some form of trash by critics and commentators virtually everyth their popularity has prompted public comment: as waste-of-time women‘s trash (US daytime soaps): glitzy. tasteless trash (Build: and Dynasty); glitzy. tasteless. Amer- ican cultural-imperialist trash (Dallas in France): badly-produced tresh (Mexican serials}; adolescent trash (Neighbours); adolescent. colonial- revenge trash (Neighbours in Britain): etc.. etc. . 1n the US the very term soap opera marks our the serial's ironic rela- tionship both with high art and the dirt soap is bought to eliminate. The 3 .r" % status of soap operas as a gendered form of narrative and its resistance to ROBERT C. ALLEN "soap" in soap opera alludes to the use of the serial form from its earliest days to the present as an advertising vehicle for laundry detergents and household cleaning products. The “opera“ in soap opera signals a travesty: the highest of dramatic art forms is made to describe the lowest. (Similarly. western movies were called "horse operas" in the 19305). 'As a “soap opera“ the serial is a drama about two kinds of dirt. In calling his study of the British serial Eosrfinderr. Public Secrets. David Buckingham points to the tendency of serials to be "about" trash: they seem to revel in the concealment (to other characters and initially to the viewer} and revela- tion (to some other characters and to the viewer) of the dirty little secrets of characters' lives.“ One of the most common ways for a serial character to demonstrate his or her villainy is to obtain and threaten to disseminate some “dirt" about another character: his mistaken parentage. her previous lover. hts extramarital liaison. her child given up for adoption; 1n the US and in other countries where serials function within commercial broadcasting systems to attract female viewers there is another dirty drama going on in the commercials that interrupt the narration of the serial. Qharacters in the soap opera commercial have. quite literally, dirty secrets: dirty laundry. dirty floors. dirty toilets, dirty bodies, dirty appliances. dirty children, dirty homes — which require the cleansing only this particular brand and type of soap can offer. Not coincidentally. it is female characters who arolassocialed with dirt in the commercials. According to the commercials' logic. it is their inadequacy in controlling dirt that creates a problem, and it is their responsibility to eliminate the home's sources of filth. Wherever they are shown. the act of watching serials seems to generate snouter kind of dirt: the dirty discourse of gossip. Perhaps more than any other form of television. serials encourage viewers to extend the pleasure of watching to the pleasures of talking about what they watch. Dorothy Hobson has documented the pleasures viewers take In gossiping about serials: what has happened, what might happen. what consequences whatever happens might have on the intricately patterned set of relationships that constitute any serial's sOcial world.5 Like the trash generated by consumer capitalism. the serial has been associated with the masses and mass culture. For cultural critics such as Dwight MacDonald and Ernest van den Haag in the l950s the spectator was being diverted from “serious" art by mass—produced. predigested works of mass culture. anonymously manufactured and distributed in bulk. The sheer quantity of mass culture was drowning real art. they argued. while its. easy pleasures stupefied the spectator and rendered him or her incapable of aesthetic discrimination. MacDonald even singles out radio serials as a prime example of mass-produced mass culture that threatened to inundate authentic culture “by its sheer pervasiveness. its brutal, overwhelming treasury.” Thus. condemned for [[5 ubiquity and written off as the unfortunate con- sequence of progamrning for the least common denominator of audience 4 INTRODHCTION taste. the soap opcra's very popularity has served as an obstacle to its serious scrutiny. ‘With a few notable exceptions, the television critic writing in magazines and newspapers has shown about as much interest in writing about soap operas as the restaurant critic has in writing about McDonald‘s — and for much the some romeo: they are both regarded as “junk." Although the mass appeal of soap operas was an obstacle to their critical analysis. it quickly prompted studies of the soap opera audience, as broad- casters and advertising agencies attempted to measure the popularity of radio serials. The first audience studies in the [9305 were called "mail hooks": during a commercial, an announcer would offer a free gift {a packet of flower seeds. for example} to anyone sending proof—of-purchasc of a product advertised on the show. By extrapolating from the number of letter: received and noting their addresses. broadcasters and advertisers could gain a rough idea of the size and geographic distribution of the serial's audience. In I933 the Pilsbury Company received more than 250.000 responses to such a mail hunk when it was broadcast during an NBC serial. Today's cartons) Another such offer in I934 generated more than I million letters. Initially. at least, broadcasters and advertisers had little interest in examin— ing the soap Opera audience beyond determining its size. constitution. and, geographic distribution. By the early 19405. however, soap operas and their audiences became caught up in a more general controversy surrounding the possible deleterious effect! of radio listening upon particularly vulnerable segments of the audience. In March 1942 a New York psychiatrist. Lauis Berg. claimed in a speech that listening to soap operas caused a variety of emotional and physical disturbancos. ranging from gastrointestinal distress to nocturnal fright. He also compared soap opera listeners with “emotionally distorted“ individuals who enjoyed lynchings and who “in the past had cheered on witch burnings.“ Berg‘s outrageous charges were eventually revealed to have been based on nothing more than his own reactions to listening to soap operas, but not before they had received wide publiclty as “scientific" findings. Berg's jeremlad fed a widely-expressed fear that radio could be used as an effective instrument of mass permission and propaganda. and, particularly among more susceptible member: of the audience.directly influence behavior and attitudes. Broadcasters were in no position to deny entirely the potential "effects“ of radio - the sale of air time to advertisers was predicated upon the hypothesis that broadcast messages were effective in influencing beliefs and behavior. at least when it came to the purchase of commodities. However. they feared that Berg’s attack on soap operas would precipitate is wider, and. perhaps, government-sponsoredinquiry into radio‘s power to mold political opinion and provoke social action. Thus. their response to Berg was not direct refutation of his charges but refraining the issue of soap opera listening from one of (negative) effects to one of audience needs. In a series of studies over the next severals years -- some of them 5 ROE ERT C. A L1. EN commissioned by broadcasters — soap opera listening was investigated in terms of the social. psychological. and emotional needs it fulfilled among its {presumed female} audience. The more generous of the studies concluded that soap operas were a source of advice regarding family and domestic problems and a temporary eccupe from the tedium of household responsibilities, Others cast. the relationship between soap operas and their fans in less positive terms: Women of the daytime audiences are having physical and psychic problems that they themselves cannot understand, that they cannot solve. Being physical, they feel the thrust of these problems. Being poor. they cannot buy remedies in the form of doctors. new clothes. or deciduous coiffures; being unnnaiytieul. they cannot figure out what is really the matter with them; and being titaniculste, they cannot explain their problem even if they know what it is. . . ." In short. American audience research in the 19405 cast. soap Opera listeners as a distinctively different audience group with special needs and lacks. which, presumably. the (male) audiences for other types of programming did not have. The Female fans of soap operas listened so loyalty - so the argument went «- because soap operas spoke to their particular "feminine" needs. Whether conclusions were drawn on the basis of no effects or functionalist model of media engagement. early soap opera audience research in the US constructed the "average" serial fan as a woman suffering from some deficiency - whether emotional. psychological. social. relational. or some combination of them all. This image of the soap opera viewer persisted in both “serious" and popular discourse for decades after the research that produced it was conducted. in part because of the dearth of subsequent studies in the 19509. and 1960s. Despite the form‘s having made a successful transition from radio to television two decades earlier. a 1973 article in Public Opinion Quarterly could still nete that “despite the magnitude of the phenomenon. there has been no published research on television serials."'° Soap operas In contemporary media and cultural studies Given the antipathy of most literary critics to mass culture in general. television more specifically {with the exception of anthology drama in the "Golden Age" of television in the early I950s). and soap operas in particular. it is hardly surprising that it was not until the 19805 that soap operas began to be taken seriously as tests. To be sure. social sole-mists had subjeCIed television soap operas to quantitative "content analysis" in order to compare the construction of some aspects of social reality in the world of the soap opera with their bases in "real life." Such studies assume that fictional tests are (and are understood by their readers to be) direct reflections of objective social reality and further assume that the features of that reality fastened upon in the Study (occupational and sex roles. communication 6 lHTRODUCTiON patterns. causes oldest-h and disease. etc.) function witt-tin the text in the same ways they do outside of it. In general. content analysis tells us little about the way soap operas work as tests. generate meanings, and allow pleasures for their viewers because its procedures deny the soap opera any status as a complex fictional text. Within this historical context. then. Tania Medlestci's discussion of American daytime Soap operas in her dissertation and hook. Loving With a Vengeance (1982). was important for several reasons." Demonstrating the usefulness of applying the methods of post-structuralist criticism to serials. Medleski situates soap operas and their study squarely within the context of feminist theory. She argues that soap operas. along with several other forms of popular culture. position their female “readers" quite differently than more male-oriented tents and matte possible quite different pleasures and meanings. This is not to say that Medleslri celebrates soap operas as feminist or progressive teats: indeed, she sees their formal structure and thematic concerns meshing all too neatly with the domestic demands placed upon Another: within patriarchal capitalism. Denied the oninlpotent reading position to be found in more closed narrative forms. soap opera viewers are asked to relate to the diegetic families of their serials as they are expected to do to their own. “they must exercise patience and tolerance in the face of unending tribulation. arresting pleasure from consolation and sympathy rather than from any expectation of final resolution. The narrative structure of soap operas ~ cutting in the middle ofeonv...
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