Soap operas and the history of fan discussion

Sam Ford

MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—For decades, fans of U.S. soap operas have formed social networks surrounding their shows, and they did so even before the concept entered the vernacular. Soap fans, who started on a geographically local scale and built their communities through grassroots efforts, have found a variety of venues to connect with one another over the past several decades. This study looks at the pre-Internet development of these social networks to show how that trajectory relates to the current online community of soap opera fans. Although several scholars have studied soap opera fandom, few have taken an historical approach at understanding the trajectory of soap fandom, a view especially necessary in an era where online social networks are at the center of audience studies and where cornerstone U.S. soap operas are struggling to retain relevance and audience. To fill this gap, I argue that understanding fan networks today requires looking back to previous methods of fan networking. Soaps' longevity (the youngest U.S. soap is more than 20 years old) and frequency (all U.S. daytime soaps are daily) make them crucial texts in demonstrating how the roots of fan social networks in a pre-Internet era helped shape that fandom's transition onto the Internet, and they also illustrate the continued evolution of these networks as fans move online.

[0.2] Keywords—Archiving; As the World Turns; Community; Discussion boards; Fan clubs; Fan communities; Fan proselytizers; Fandom; General Hospital; Guiding Light; Overcoded texts; Passions; Soap opera; Soap Opera Digest; Soap Opera Weekly; Social networking; The Bold and the Beautiful; The Edge of Night

Ford, Sam. 2008. Soap operas and the history of fan discussion. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Recent interest in understanding fan culture from the popular press and scholars alike has been tied to questions about how digital culture is transforming our society. This rhetoric often looks at aspects of what is now known as Web 2.0 (that is, an interactive, not passive, Web) and the rise of social media as new social phenomena. These online social networks arise in what Yochai Benkler (2006) defines as a shift from an industrial information economy that defined the second half of the 19th century and all of the 20th century toward a networked information economy today, in which the process of cultural production has become decentralized. However, that shift cannot be defined in concrete terms, taking the technological determinist view that new technologies created new patterns of behavior that weren't previously part of a culture. As Benkler states, "Technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice" (2006:31). The technology is not useful if these social practices are not already prevalent.

[1.2] This essay examines the trajectory of soap opera fandom as a social network—or, rather, as a loosely connected series of networks—and argues that the shape that soap fandom has taken in a digital age is informed by the practices that existed in soap fandom culture in the pre-Internet era. Although much has been written about fan activity surrounding serialized television texts as well as the online activities of U.S. soap opera fan communities, there is a gap in the body of current literature in understanding how pre-Internet fan network practices helped shape the ways that soap opera fans relate to one another online. This project seeks both to bridge that gap and to demonstrate how soap opera fandom provides an explicit case to understand how virtual communities must be examined within the context of what came before, with fans searching for new technologies to facilitate interaction and engagement with social practices. This study culminates with the argument that the early development of online soap opera fan communities cannot be seen as the end of that process because the dynamics of soap fandom networks continue to evolve.

2. The soap opera

[2.1] From slash fan vids surrounding the CW's Supernatural to elaborate theorizing about the mysteries surrounding an island on ABC's Lost, serialized storytelling has been shown to provide ongoing texts on which fan communities can build community through interpretation, speculation, and criticism. This serialized structure has a long narrative history, from oral tales of folk cultures to literary magazines and comic strips in the 19th century. Television as a commercial medium has accelerated the pace of serialization because the explicit goal of the advertising-based business model in the United States has been to bring audiences back to the network so the audiences can be sold to advertisers.

[2.2] Nowhere has that been made more explicit than in the U.S. soap opera. The genre, named after the soap companies that sponsored the content, was launched in the 1930s as short daily radio texts that focused on the plights of a family in a drama centered on the ongoing development of an ensemble cast. The transition to television in the early 1950s eventually brought with it the expansion of the daily soap opera text to 30 minutes (in 1956), as soap operas brought on more characters and focused even more explicitly on the events in the daily lives of a core community and how decisions made by individual characters affected that community as a whole. The move to 1-hour shows in the 1970s and the doubling of soap opera cast sizes furthered an evolution that sees contemporary soap operas produce 260 hours of television per year through hour-long daily weekday texts with no off season.

[2.3] These shows attract an audience through the creation of an immersive story world defined by characteristics such as: a serial storytelling structure; a sense of long-term continuity built through years, even decades, of key characters who are featured daily or weekly; a deep character backlog that has developed over time; an ensemble cast of 30 or 40 characters who are featured on the show at any one time; and self-referential ties to events from a rich textual history. Further, these texts are defined by creative powers that are in constant flux: not only are hundreds of people employed to create soaps, but characters and story arcs will pass through various creative teams. Any U.S. soap opera that survives for decades will eventually see its creative team completely turn over.

[2.4] All of these factors combine to give these immersive story worlds a sense of permanence greater than that provided by the current creators of the show and by the individual fans (note 1). As with sports franchises, the professional wrestling world, and the superhero comic book universes of Marvel and DC, soap operas are known for their constant presence in the lives of fans. Like these other texts, soaps are immersive both in terms of depth (frequency of content) and range (the deep history of these narrative worlds).

[2.5] Although soap opera producers are of course responsible for turning out these daily texts, the power of soaps lies in the social nature through which they are read. Because of the depth and range of content for any particular U.S. soap opera, there is no way to master the content and meticulously map out the narrative world of these shows. Many episodes were never archived, especially early episodes of long-running shows that aired live, but even the youngest and shortest of the current soaps—CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful (1987–present)—would require viewing 130 hours of content each year for more than two decades if all the episodes were available. The ongoing vitality of these shows, then, is dependent on the relationships built around these daily texts and the collective intelligence the fan community provides each member in helping contextualize, explain, and understand how each day's new episode fits into the massive archive of official text.

3. Soap opera and fan discussion

[3.1] Soaps do not exist in a vacuum, and a show's daily texts can only be understood in the context of the decades-long dynamic networks of fans surrounding them. Instead of imagining the audience as a passive sea of eyeballs measured through impressions, this approach views soaps as the gathering place for these social networks. Soap operas are dynamic social texts that are created as much by the audiences that debate, critique, and interpret them as by the production team itself (note 2). Viewers often build on their own interpretations of the text through a collective attribution of meaning, an act that often becomes a strong motivation for continued viewing of the show. Conversations among family or friends while watching, post-"story" phone calls among friends, and conversations at the workplace add interpretive layers to each day's text. Although the larger and more organized public discussions afforded through online discussion boards today add new layers to these interpretive and community-building processes, these online practices have roots in the offline communities that preceded them.

[3.2] The creation of community begins with the text itself. Soaps have always had a correlation with the lives of their viewers. Soap operas invite viewers into a community where they get to know each member intimately. Most often, viewers are privy to the daily actions of people within that community, but not to the inner thoughts and motivations of characters (although voice-overs may be used, albeit rarely, to provide such information). The most common drama point on any U.S. soap opera is the moment before a scene cuts away, in which the viewer is invited to interpret the sincerity and motivations of characters by examining their facial expressions, leading to speculation about what the characters will say or do next. As Bernard Timberg puts it, the visuals of soap operas are designed to make viewers "feel somehow complicit in the ebb and flow of relationships and emotions" (1987:164).

[3.3] Because soap operas generally do not have one central character, viewers are given conflicts where the text does not clearly privilege either side. Viewers then spend as much (if not more) time watching characters recreate, react to, and debate events as they do watching new events occur. Further, because these characters age alongside the viewer, fans are able to see this community and its individual members evolve over time, along with changes in their own lives. Thus, while these shows build themselves off the performances of their ensemble casts, soap operas are, above all else, about Oakdale, or Llanview, or Salem—the communities these shows are set in.

[3.4] The degree of intimacy and connectedness of daily viewing may cause soap characters to feel somehow more "real" than those on other shows, and anecdotal evidence has always pointed to that being the case. For example, one of my high school teachers recalled listening in horror one day as her mother described a bad situation that one of her friends was going through. Only later did my teacher realize that it wasn't a story about someone who lived on her mother's block but was instead about one of the Lowells on As the World Turns (1956–present). This sort of story is not unique: soap opera watchers have always discussed, often informally and in unobserved, unrecorded everyday conversations, the situations and characters. The lack of documentation about the power of social connectedness in soaps in these earlier days is unsurprising precisely because these discussions were casual and oral.

[3.5] Even as the channels through which fans can discuss soaps have changed, the personal interaction with family and friends about the text of the show that was at the heart of the social connections surrounding soap texts from the beginning of the genre has not (Rapping 2002). Because social connections around soaps were limited to these direct interpersonal relationships in the earliest days of the genre, soap opera characters may have seemed particularly localized, a personal possession of a small number of viewers who conversed about them, without a wider forum of discussion for these shows. I now turn to the ways in which networks of soap opera fans have interacted over time, moving chronologically from the earliest accounts of fan activity to the current, more visible networks of soap opera fans online.

4. Interacting with the show: Fan letters

[4.1] The earliest accounts of fan activity surrounding soap operas came from individual letter writers looking to voice their opinion to producers. Before soap opera fans started forming prevalent collective organizations, individuals or small groups were documented anecdotally in press accounts and actors' memoirs as being particularly passionate in their care and concern about the continuity and direction of characters on the show. Fan letters provided a way for small groups of fans or individuals to try and create a connection to the show itself, much as groups befriend, comment on, and link to official sources within the soap opera world in the Internet age.

[4.2] For As the World Turns, the famous incident that drove a significant amount of fan letters to the show involved what show historian Julie Poll has labeled "the first soap supercouple before the phrase was even coined" (1996:215): the relationship between Jeff Baker and Penny Hughes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the height of popularity for this couple, the actor who portrayed Jeff Baker opted to leave the show, and his character was abruptly killed in a car crash. Protest letters abounded, and the situation drew attention from a mainstream press that usually did not write about soaps. For instance, an August 1962 Time article on the death of Jeff Baker points out that the actor, Mark Rydell, had been "held to the show by salary and sentiment ($50,000 and 5,000 fan letters a year)." A letter then appeared two weeks later in Time responding to the article, detailing how what the reader identifies as "our group" had "a reception on Penny and Jeff's wedding day," and group members were subsequently "suitably attired in black to watch As the World Turns on the day Jeff died" (note 3).

[4.3] The audience's backlash to Jeff's death has become part of soap—and television—lore. Even considering the hyperbole from the soap industry, this example demonstrates both how As the World Turns fans were invested in the fictional Oakdale community: they organized fannish rituals that correlated with community reactions to a wedding or death (ceremonial attendance and attire), and they sought to reach producers to try and affect the creative direction of the show (note 4). Similarly, As the World Turns actress Eileen Fulton provides anecdotes in her 1995 memoir about the regular mail she and the show would receive in the beginning of what has been to date almost 50 years playing the character of Lisa Miller; and Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds note that CBS got "at least 35,000 letters" protesting the cancellation of some of its least popular daytime shows (1973:195).

[4.4] Above all else, the stories told about soap opera fan mail emphasize the potential power that communication with producers can give viewers. For instance, Fulton writes, "Most soap viewers don't realize how much power they have. Enough letters, telegrams, and phone calls can kill characters and story lines or turn a temporary part (like Lisa) into a long-term love affair" (1995:67). Peter Buckman notes that soap viewers have "a political sense of their own power, and its limitations. They know that it is on their loyalty that the programme makers rely—and yet…the older viewers at least are aware that they are not a strong enough market force to have a great influence on the producers" (1985:189).

[4.5] The idea that fandom can yield significant power when organized or directed toward a common goal is an important component of soap history. In fact, soap opera producers have often helped foster the notion that the soap opera primarily belongs to its fans through their marketing schemes, even as they resist or ignore many widespread viewer criticisms. However, because these floods of letters were generally not collective action, with little infrastructure in place for soap fans to organize themselves outside of their small network of fellow viewers, producers also often dismissed individual letters. In more recent times, evidence shows that fan mail is often only understood institutionally in broad, quantitative terms. In the late 1990s, for ABC's General Hospital (1963–present), fan mail was considered positive whenever the viewer did not directly threaten to quit watching. Elana Levine writes, "While the system in place to handle audience response is thorough and efficient, it does not really account for most viewers' perspectives…the actual words of audience members are only rarely seen by anyone higher in the chain of command than a writer's assistant" (2007:146). So although fan letters provided a way for fans to try and connect directly with the show, it fell short of fans' needs, primarily because it was easier for producers to continue evoking a community of fans while having systems in place to ignore that implied fan ownership when dismissing the specific sentiments of individual fan letters.

5. Soap opera fan clubs

[5.1] With few ways to band together and a geographically dispersed community of fellow soap opera viewers, dedicated viewers of shows formed fan clubs, some with the intent of official affiliation with a soap. These fan clubs were the first attempt at moving beyond small, loosely affiliated fan networks that often were driven primarily by other relationships (family, friends, coworkers, classmates) and facilitated the development of a larger social network of fans explicitly centered around their common interest in these shows.

[5.2] Little information about the history of soap fan clubs is readily available, but soap historian William J. Reynolds has said the official The Edge of Night (1956–84) fan club started in 1971 (William J. Reynolds, personal correspondence, May 12, 2007). My correspondence with the current president of both the As the World Turns and the Guiding Light (radio 1937–1956; TV 1952–present) official fan clubs emphasized that little institutional history has been passed down, as my contact did not know much about the organization before she took it over in 1999 (Mindi Schulman, personal correspondence, December 19, 2006). However, no matter how long this "official" fan club has been in operation, evidence indicates that these fan clubs and their gatherings have attracted both collaboration from the soaps and significant membership.

[5.3] The current official As the World Turns fan club ( hosts an annual luncheon with various current and former cast members and provides members with pen pal lists and various documents about the current creative team behind the show, as well as the names and birthdays of current actors. The fan club also provides two resources to fans that echo the earliest powers that fans used: a list of people to contact in the press in reaction to soaps (, and a list of contact information, including that of the executive producer, head writer, and contacts for both TeleNext and the senior vice president of CBS Daytime (, so interested fans can send praise or (more likely) complaints.

[5.4] That potential for organizing fans to more successfully influence the direction of the show has been an important drive for soap opera fan clubs, especially because individuals or small groups sending letters independently has proven inefficient in providing the kind of interaction fans have wanted with shows. For instance, in a March 2006 letter that As the World Turns actor Ellen Dolan directed toward fans through the official fan club, Dolan pointed to the previous success of the soap's fans and the fan club in affecting decisions made by the show's leadership. In particular, Dolan mentioned that Trent Dawson, who for years played recurring character Henry Coleman, a fan favorite, was put on contract after the show's producers were impressed by his being cheered at a fan club annual event. Dolan explained her contentions with the way her character, Margo Hughes, had been written and called on fans to use their power to make a change. She writes:

[5.5] The character is being dismantled. These characters are your characters and I think valuable to the show. I need your support. I need you to help save Margo Hughes! I need you to write and ask for Margo back. I have attached a list of names and addresses for you to write to. Tell them how you feel about this character. Please guys, 'cus I love Margo and I want to keep giving her to you. Not to mention that my kid is only six, I've got many years to go. (March 2006,

[5.6] Dolan's rhetoric—telling the fans that "these characters are your characters"—emphasizes fan ownership. The conversation illuminated the fact that although The Powers That Be (the producers, known to fans as TPTB) may control the fate of the show, the actors believe that fans have some authority to demand changes in the text, especially if that fan effort can be collective.

[5.7] In short, fan clubs provided the organizing mechanism that allowed fans to act on a previous desire to create a larger social network, but these networks still required a central point—the fan club organizers—that had to facilitate, organize, and control the ways that fans related to one another and, to a degree, to the show the club was built around.

6. The soap opera press

[6.1] The soap opera press is another venue that has played an important role in soap fans' platform to voice opinions to both fellow viewers and show producers. Although these specialty magazines did not completely satisfy fan interest in providing a soapbox, so to speak, they provided the first forum for fans to write to fellow fans in a position with some degree of visibility and authority, branching beyond the informal letter writing of fan clubs into the legitimacy of the newsstand. Soaps were covered to some degree by TV Guide and similar publications, and particularly big events might warrant mention in magazines that covered culture more broadly, such as Time, but few venues existed where fans could publish their opinions about soaps in a forum that other fans—and industry powers—might read. Daytime TV, despite its visibility and popularity, was left out of most publications that focused on entertainment, even as prime-time television programming was granted an increasing amount of attention from serious critics.

[6.2] This niche was filled by specialty magazines that focused on soaps, and these publications are now a staple of checkout lines in grocery stores. Whereas previous forms of fan communication involved private exchanges (local discussions, fan mail, and fan clubs) and most publications did not regularly report or include reader letters about soap operas, soap opera magazines provided a new forum that permitted the reception of soap operas to become texts themselves through official industry news, behind-the-scenes information, official columnists, fan letters, and polls.

[6.3] A variety of these specialized magazines started appearing at least by the late 1960s. They were published monthly and featured profiles of actors and polls. Their titles included Afternoon TV, Daytime TV, and TV Dawn to Dusk (note 5). By the early 1970s, more than 10 daytime television or soap opera magazine titles were being published, most through either Sterling Publications or Ideal Publications (Harrington and Bielby 1995:67). Soap Opera Digest (SOD) was launched in November 1975 as a monthly magazine; the publication became biweekly in 1979 and then weekly in 1997. In addition to publishing both official critiques from staff writers and fan perspectives on the various daytime serial dramas, SOD created an annual set of awards, similar to the daytime Emmy awards, for daytime serial dramas in 1977. In 2006, SOD and Soap Opera Weekly (SOW) were the 10th and 11th most popular weekly magazines on the newsstand, behind the various tabloids, Woman's World, and TV Guide (note 6).

[6.4] Today, only one major competitor to SOD and SOW remains in business: Soaps in Depth (SID), a weekly magazine published by Bauer Publishing. SID focuses on ABC soap operas one week and CBS soaps the next. The two versions (ABC and CBS) of SID are listed as the 53rd and 57th most popular magazines—overall, not weekly—on the newsstand (note 7). There have also been several other soap opera magazines, now defunct, in the past few decades. These magazines have a much higher readership than their subscriptions and newsstand sales indicate because many people flip through the issues while in the store without ever purchasing it, trying to find the few relevant pages about their particular soap.

[6.5] The soap opera press provides enough critical information for fans to consider it relevant, so these magazines still play a part in the modern interactions between audience members and the shows. Even though these weekly publications often lack critical engagement, the magazines have became forums for discussion precisely because there were so few places for soap fans to read about and communicate their views. Most importantly, these magazines fostered a sense of awareness of a larger community of soap opera fans, rather than considering fans as isolated clusters of viewers. The communal critiquing of soaps was easier to discount by the industry when those activities primarily occurred on a local level, but the soap opera press started the process of legitimizing and validating this interaction by archiving it in print. By their polls and published letters, and by their appeal to a niche market, these publications played an important role in forming awareness of the need for and potentials of the formation of larger soap fan communities (note 8).

[6.6] Fan clubs did not completely satisfy fan needs because of their centralized nature, and the fan press was similarly incomplete in providing a platform for fan discussion. What fans gained in visibility, they lost in ceding even more control to institutionalized powers (in this case, the editorial control of the magazine) and in a lack of interactivity (the difficulty of sustaining true dialogue through a magazine that primarily only published one-time fan letters and reactions).

7. Soap opera discussion forums

[7.1] Online fan discussions share close ties with the history of interaction among fans and between fans and producers that I have just described. Online discussion groups have not replaced the lively debate fans have always had when watching a show or when discussing the show after the fact in telephone, workplace, or dinner conversations. Nor has the rise of online forums brought about the demise of fan clubs, letters written to a show's producers, or the soap opera press. Fans still participate in a number of these activities, resulting in the varied media mix that facilitates what Mizuki Ito calls a hypersocial environment, which she describes in relation to Yu-Gi-Oh! fan communities as "peer-to-peer ecologies of cultural production and exchange" among geographically local communities, online communities, and national meetings for fan communities (2007:91). Soap fandom, and the varied activities that comprise the soap opera fan experience, must be understood in this "hypersocial" environment rather than as a disconnected media viewing experience that removes fans from social interaction (note 9).

[7.2] Instead of replacing these older modes of conversation, online fan communities make more explicit and public the type of activities that fans have long engaged in while in small groups. The Internet created a space where the one-on-one interpersonal model of fan discussion that empowered soap opera viewing could take place on a wider scale. With a public forum for concentrated discussion, the Internet empowered fans by providing new ways to organize themselves to get the attention of TPTB. Further, the Internet's concentrated niche spaces that are nevertheless public gave fans unprecedented ability to create their own texts that are based on their reception of the show through public commentaries and discussions. Jennifer Hayward has called online discussion groups "a more collaborative forum for soaps discussion" than was possible by previous modes of communication (2003:520).

[7.3] Fans also see these forums as providing extensions to the limits of previous modes of engagement: a more collective organization in disputing their dislike of particular story lines that may garner more attention than a letter-writing campaign; a more diverse conversation with other fans of the show, not limited to the more intimate social circles of previous generations; and a more critical engagement with the show than that permitted by the passive character of fan clubs. These forums provide a space for fans to create for themselves the critical responses to the show that they see the soap opera press as failing to provide.

[7.4] Soap operas operate as overcoded narratives, to use Robert C. Allen's (1985:84) term, in which the characters and their various relationships are given more possibilities than are necessary to tell the plot in order to drive deeper viewer interest. In online discussion forums, the power granted to the soap audience becomes evident in understanding and interpreting the spaces of the fictional town, the facial expressions of various characters, and the overwhelming amount of weekly dialogue. This function of the soap opera text is especially important in an Internet age, where members of fan communities spend their time between each day's text collectively unpacking the meaning of reams of information by discussing, criticizing, and theorizing (see Baym 2000). Through these activities, fans help bolster each others' support of the show, so that even if the show does not meet their expectations, fan discussion—even griping about and parodying the show—can actually help keep people with the program through a creative drought. Although small group interaction also had this component of daily social critique, the Internet provided the first mass forum where such discussions could take place in conjunction with the daily flow of the soap opera text. If the soap opera texts are overcoded, so too are fan responses, where every item is carefully and exhaustively analyzed for meaning.

[7.5] Another aspect of creative generation on the part of the fan community focuses on constructing a cohesive narrative space for the show. On As the World Turns, Oakdale is simultaneously considered a small town and the home of several major corporations. Paul Ryan's penthouse used to show a skyline view of a few very tall buildings in the middle of Oakdale, even while other residents complained about living in a town so small that they kept running into their enemies wherever they went. How can the town be both? By never definitively showing us the setting, the creative team requires viewers to conflate these various character comments and visual settings into a comprehensive Oakdale. Matt Hills defines these spaces implied but never shown as hyperdiegesis, "the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text," but which still tries to have some sort of internal logic (2002:137). Although small budgets are one of the major reasons for the town being represented by a few living rooms and restaurants, these narrative gaps empower much of the fan energy surrounding immersive story worlds. Each episode must raise at least as many questions as it answers, and fans bring up issues of continuity and flesh out the space where these shows take place. Internet fan networks provide fans with the opportunity to decide these meetings in sync with the rhythm of the show's daily airing.

[7.6] This open-ended process of understanding and analyzing the text of the show fuels much discussion in the fan community, even as other elements of fan communication take place. For example, Nancy Baym found that only 16 percent of the postings in the fan community she studied in the 1990s were noninterpretive, and each of those threads often contained some interpretive responses, with 53 percent of the responses she studied focusing specifically on character motivation (2000:71–72). As part of this pervasive fact of interpreting, audience members will openly bring up their own histories to help explain characters' actions. If a character is raped or is the victim of domestic abuse, members of the fan community who have likewise been victims or who have known victims may have the courage to share their own stories, then use that information to evaluate why characters may act in certain, initially puzzling ways. This action further dissolves the boundaries between the viewer's world and the fictive world of the soap opera, even as it opens up the text, expanding it beyond its televisual scope.

[7.7] The text plays into this interpretive interest not just through overcoding but also through the ambiguity I discussed at the beginning of the essay. Because the soap opera does not provide answers but only visuals, fans are left to debate the meaning. These debates are particularly heated when they are about a love triangle, where a community may be divided on which couple is right for each other, or whether either couple is preferable at all. Producers and writers can help facilitate these types of discussions by providing scenarios in shades of gray, where situations do not clearly privilege one character's perspective or leave a particular character in the clear moral right. This strategy—providing information without a clear interpretive frame—permits fans more free play with the text. In particular, this gives large online fan communities substantial material to discuss, debate, and argue on a daily basis.

[7.8] Although certainly much fan interaction occurs on the Web, as a caveat, it is important to realize that many soap opera fans are probably not online today. Soap operas air on broadcast television, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 98.2 percent of households had at least one television set in 2001. In 2003, 61.8 percent of American households were estimated to have a computer in the home, and 54.7 percent had Internet access in the home. Having a computer and Internet in the home was least prevalent for Americans 65 and older, with 34.7 percent having a computer and 29.4 percent having Internet access (note 10). It's likely that these numbers have increased in the years since the data were gathered, but it's nevertheless clear that a great many people have access to both TVs and the Internet, and the latter provides an important platform for extending the social networks built around soaps. Many new soap viewers are joining discussion boards or spending time on soap opera Web sites each year, as the consistent introductions of first-time posters in fan forums emphasize.

[7.9] However, the ways in which soap opera fandom grew online—with daily discussion prioritized over long-form writing, a constant desire for dialogue with the show's creators, and constant collective organization for fan campaigns—can only be understood holistically when taking into account the pre-Internet modes of fan interaction that created the social practices for which the Internet provided "feasibility spaces," to return to Benkler's (2006) term. Likewise, soap fandom's arrival online cannot be seen as the culmination of but rather the next step in an ongoing evolution of the community to find the tools that best facilitate the ways fans want to interact with one another and with producers.

8. Conclusion: The continued evolution of soap fandom networks

[8.1] The Internet has changed greatly from the discussion groups of the 1990s to the variety of forums available today. During the period of Baym's (2000) study, for instance, online discussion groups were still in their infancy; a far wider diversity of soap fan communities can be found today. Now, discussion forums exist alongside a variety of soap news sites, blogs, podcasts, and video sharing sites, as well as other emerging sites of social networking for fan communities that reflect changing Internet technologies and cultural practices. Further, a much greater portion of the viewership has signed on in the past decade, even as a number of soap viewers have tuned out, as declining viewership numbers reveal.

[8.2] In a forthcoming research project, I identified seven primary ways that fans interact with the texts of shows, both online and offline: fan discussion, fan criticism, fan theory, fan performance, fan community building, fan proselytizing, and fan archiving. The Internet provides tools for each of these functions, serving these social practices accordingly—and in most cases on a larger scale than pre-Internet technologies afforded. However, the Internet did not rise to meet all the needs of the fan community simultaneously, but only as it became technically possible to port these social practices online from offline fan network behavior.

[8.3] From the Internet's earliest days, soap opera discussion forums provided the primary format for fans to move their daily discussions online on a mass scale, as described earlier. This facilitation of daily conversation has been the focus of most previous scholarship about soap opera fandom online, and fan discussion forums have likewise become sites for community building, fan criticism, fan performance (through creative interpretations and cultivation of particular roles within the community), and fan proselytizing, especially when it comes to bringing new community members in.

[8.4] More recently, however, we have seen more explicit development of soap fan theorizing online, especially as popular, easy-to-use blogging technologies have been created that have permitted soap opera fans to write longer-form content in conjunction with fellow fans, scholars, and critics who are interested in engaging in discussions about larger issues facing the soap opera industry, outside of the daily rhythm of soap opera viewing. As the technology has become more prevalent in social practice, longtime fans, soap opera journalists, academics, and industry professionals have all launched platforms for this conversation, and an informal network has developed among these various sites, which reference one another, link to one another, and collaborate on projects. In addition, podcasts featuring in-depth discussion, criticism, and theory about the current state and future of soaps have become more popular, even as discussion forums continue to thrive and multiply.

[8.5] Likewise, in the past couple of years, soap opera fan archivists have been increasingly active in converting and uploading their VHS collections to YouTube and other video-sharing sites, a platform that takes the process of tape compiling and trading to a far broader audience. Soap opera production companies have not yet shut down fan use of their archival properties. Longtime fans are thus able to not only reminisce about the past, but to provide historical content that helps explain events happening on the contemporary show. When a prior character or event is mentioned, soap opera archivists will begin to post all the material they saved from that era, hoping that newer fans will seek it out and become more interested in these shows' pasts. As these practices intertwine with discussion groups and the soap opera blogosphere, these clips are often linked to and embedded in ongoing discussions, integrating these new online behaviors into existing and prevailing modes of online soap opera social networks.

[8.6] In addition to the rise of the soap opera blogosphere and online archiving has come a proliferation of online sites that provide coverage of soap operas, such as Soapdom (, Soap Opera Network (, and Soap Central (, which provide news and clips as well as social networking services such as polls and blog hosting. These sites have also become engrained in the daily routines of soap opera discussion. Fans on message boards scour these various sites and put the details together to provide a more cohesive, balanced, and comprehensive account of what is happening as it is relevant to their community. As a result of these additional outlets for online information, today's soap fan communities have increasingly complex conversations about fans' autonomy and political influence on the shows they watch. Fans are looking at the show not only from their own perspective, but also from that of marketers, producers, networks, or actors. The fans also often take into account various economic and cultural factors that may explain why creative decisions were made for a show, such as a character leaving or a story line changing course. In dealing with a daily text, fans consider new production news, rumors, and spoilers—plus another day's text to fuel the conversation.

[8.7] Today's Internet permits a far different level of engagement than early soap fan communities did, and the activities of the fandom have shifted as these new technologies facilitate an increasing number of online fan practices that have their roots in pre-Internet fan practices. Contemporary soap fan culture reflects the daily discussion and speculative nature of soap viewing that has been a part of the fan experience since the beginning, when small, local networks of people talked about these shows at work, at home, or on the phone. The desire to communicate with producers that led to the genre of the fan letter exists more broadly today, with fans running soap fandom campaigns related to particular shows, couples, characters, or story lines. The broader fan organization that began with fan clubs has extended to the development of online soap discussion forums that use a variety of software tools, such as bulletin boards, forums, and blogs, to permit interactivity. The role of the soap opera press has expanded, with traditional soap magazines developing a more robust Web presence alongside online news sites and blog-driven criticism and theory that has blurred the lines between professional and fan and that has created more dialogue among soap creators, critics, academics, and viewers.

[8.8] For studies of soap opera fan networks in particular, a new wave of research is necessary to fully address the continuing evolution of fandom into an interactive Web 2.0 environment and to address not just how the contemporary network differs from those of the early Internet era, but also how the social practices described in previous scholarship manifest themselves today in light of these changes. More broadly, this study indicates the importance of addressing how contemporary fan networks are influenced by pre-Internet fan practices and early Internet behavior: the same behavior is being expressed differently, and on a different scale. An historical analysis need not be limited to genres with relatively lengthy histories, like soap operas. The shape of any current fandom reflects that genre's history and the previous modes of communication the fan community used.

9. Notes

1. New soap operas have been an increasingly unlikely venture as a result of dwindling ratings for U.S. daytime dramas. A show like NBC's Passions (1999–2008) never developed a sense of permanence despite having been on the air for almost a decade. Although this would have been a healthy run for a prime-time show, soap fans viewed Passions as "new" and "ephemeral" compared with the long-standing narratives of the other eight soaps currently on the air. Passions' run ended in the summer of 2008 after spending its last season on DirecTV.

2. The notion of the power of the reader is not new; see Barthes (1967). Although Roland Barthes focuses on the solitary reader's ability to "author" the text, the social connectivity of today's media landscape enables much more widespread meaning making from the audience.

3. Allison J. Waldman, "'World' Turns 50: 'Digital Comfort Food,'" Television Week, March 27, 2006, "Murder Necessitated," Time, August 24, 1962,,9171,896534,00.html; Rydell went on to be an actor and director on other television shows and in films. Jean Hayes (from Oklahoma City), "Watchful waking," Time, September 7, 1962,,9171,870081-2,00.html.

4. The year before, in February 1961, character Sarah Karr was killed on The Edge of Night. Reportedly as a result of intense viewer response to the death, the actress, Teal Ames, made a statement on the show to explain to fans that it was her decision to leave (William J. Reynolds, personal communication, May 12, 2007).

5. Thanks to soap historian William J. Reynolds (personal communication, May 12, 2007) for providing the names of some of these titles from the late 1960s from his collection.

6. This information was part of a media kit from USA Today highlighting the performance of Sports Weekly and listed ABC Fas-Fax from June 30, 2006, as its source. "Weekly Magazines," USA Today, News Corp. bought the publication in 1989 and then launched a sister publication, Soap Opera Weekly. SOD and SOW were both sold to K-III in 1991, which then changed its name to Primedia. Source Interlink purchased both magazines in 2007. In 2006, SOD was listed with a total circulation of 527,925 readers, making it the 58th most popular newsstand magazine; SOW was listed as the 82nd most popular magazine, with a circulation of 239,704, according to "Top 100 ABC Magazines by Average Single Copy Sales," Magazine Publishers of America, These numbers are from the first half of 2006. SOD was listed as having 345,640 subscribers and 182,285 newsstand single-copy sales, and SOW had 101,386 subscribers and 138,318 newsstand single-copy sales. According to the Millard Group, SOD's subscribers ( are 83 percent female and 17 percent male with a median age of 50 and a median household income of $38,000, and the Millard Group lists SOW's subscribers ( as 84 percent female and 16 percent male with an average age of 50.

7. This information is also part of the USA Today media kit (note 6). An April 2006 press release noted 71,405 subscribers for CBS Soaps in Depth and 79,665 subscribers for ABC Soaps in Depth. In the first half of 2006, the ABC version was listed as having 272,672 verified weekly readers, with 60,760 verified subscribers and 211,912 newsstand sales, while the CBS version had 249,514 verified weekly readers, with 56,220 verified subscribers and 193,294 newsstand sales.

8. For more on the role of the soap opera press, see Harrington and Bielby (1995:72).

9. For a particularly good study of how three of these modes exist alongside one another during the early age of the Internet, and specifically the ways in which the soap press, fan clubs, and discussion boards differ in the way they construct communication across soap fan networks, see Bielby et al. (1999).

10. Special Edition: 50th Anniversary of "Wonderful World of Color" TV, U.S. Government Census Bureau, March 11, 2004, statistics from 2001 available at "Households with a computer and Internet access by selected characteristics: 2003," table A, Computer and Internet use in the United States: 2003, U.S. Government Census Bureau, October 2005,

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