Structural affects of soap opera fan correspondence, 1970s–80s

Leah Steuer

University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Paper correspondence between fans and creators/producers is a sort of historiographic challenge to the imagined shift from so-called analog to digital fandom. It opens the possibility of applying digital methodologies to archival objects as researchers continue to historicize fan practices, identities, and cultures. Using the archival papers of soap opera showrunners Frank and Doris Hursley, and Bridget and Jerome Dobson as a case study for this structural-affective analysis, I draw data and metadata from approximately three hundred fan letters and responses. Trends of emotion across the letters figure prominently in an analysis of the affective strategies used by both fans and creators to create an intimately collaborative televisual experience. The letters contain layers of valuable metadata, including filing conventions, typography, and collage; these permit identification of negotiations of power over the televisual narrative, and they provide valuable insights into the affective textures of the soap fan's everyday life. Digital fan studies foregrounds the integration of fandom into one's online life, as well as the importance of social media in closing the gulf between fan and creator. This praxis expands on the value of analog tools—pen, paper, scissors, and typewriter—to the predigital television fan's virtual life. Material communication played and continues to play an important role in fomenting fannish identity, exercising industrial literacy, performing affective engagement, and navigating an enduring, affectionate tension between author and audience.

[0.2] Keywords—Broadcast history; Fandom history; Media archives; Media industries; 1970s television; 1980s television

Steuer, Leah. 2019. "Structural Affects of Soap Opera Fan Correspondence, 1970s–80s." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The fan letter is an enduring symbol of dedication, immersion, and affective engagement. Its emotional content may veer between extremes of adoration and anger; praise and criticism are given equal time, often in the same letter. Though a number of scholars have approached fan correspondence as a unique form of participatory engagement with the text and the creator (Travis 1998; Levine, forthcoming; Bates 2011), the fan letter has been positioned as a historically specific object of study, siloed in a moment before the rise of digital fandom and internet-based communication between fans and author-producers. However, a methodological and historiographic mission must be undertaken to reframe our thinking of affective fandom as a continuum across time, space, and medium. Analysis of a predigital archive of soap opera fan letters (1970s to 1990s) sheds light on postdigital fan practices of collaborative world building, social networking, and transmedia consumption. Further, a data/metadata approach may usefully be deployed to identify and evaluate fan affects through written communication.

[1.2] The physical fan letter can and should be mined by fan and audience scholars not only for its own sake, but also for its value to digital fan studies. The case study here illustrates the fact that fandom was and is constantly constructing itself before fandom as we now know it was recognized as an audience category. Pre-"fandom" TV fandom grappled with its role in the conditions of media production in ways that feel urgent, alive, and relevant to the current state of fandom. They are a tactile, analog version of the digital circulatory systems and expressions we study now: typed or written by hand, tucked in an envelope, stamped, and sent directly to a media creator, producer, or writer in an effort to produce that elusive and ethereal space of fannish engagement with an object or author.

[1.3] My archival case study is drawn from collections held by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research (WCFTR): the collections of Frank and Doris Hursley, and Bridget and Jerome Dobson, who respectively created, produced, and wrote for the soap operas Bright Promise (1969–72) and Santa Barbara (1984–93). Hundreds of fan letters are filed in these collections, about three quarters of them written by Santa Barbara fans in the 1980s and the rest by Bright Promise fans in the early 1970s; about half received recorded responses. Though as Bates notes, "no single-author [or single-creator] study can illustrate every available trend or mode within the genre of fan letters," a texturally rich and well-organized galaxy of correspondence around two specific television texts can certainly accomplish the goal to "illuminate the wider period and…context" (2011 ¶ 1.4). The WCFTR collections certainly cry out for an illumination of context: these programs and their fans emerge from the critically misunderstood genre of the soap opera, a period before television discourse foregrounded narrative "quality," and a historical moment neglected by (television) fan studies. In his work on soap opera fan discussion 1980s to the present (which lays some groundwork for the project I undertake here), Ford writes that "lack of documentation about the power of social connectedness in soaps in…earlier days is unsurprising precisely because discussions were casual and oral" (2008, ¶ 3.4). Though Ford posits that "the idea that fandom can yield significant power when organized or directed toward a common goal is an important component of soap history" (¶ 4.5), he also points out that the varieties of intent and content within fan mail have classically been flattened by media institutions.

[1.4] I diverge from Ford's position, however, that soap opera fan mail contained little "collective action" or gestures to an organizational "infrastructure" (¶ 4.5) of fandom, and that producers remained dismissive of individual letters. Levine writes of General Hospital (1963–) correspondence circa the 1990s and 2000s: "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). Ford concurs with this picture of institutional authority within soaps, concluding that "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" (2008, ¶ 4.5). Here I endeavor to provide a counterpoint to these trends and perceptions, both within this specific genre and within fandom at large, by using these collections to expose what is surprising about the dynamics of power in fan-letter writing.

[1.5] As Hayward notes, soap opera viewers in particular have long demonstrated a criticality in their consumption: "The conventional 'suspension of disbelief' that audiences supposedly bring to televisual texts is continually challenged by soap viewers as they factor producers', writers', and actors' decisions and motivations into their understanding of the fictional text" (2010, 146). The letters in the WCFTR collections, as well as the attached responses, where applicable, function as solid documentation of a social network with an infrastructure as well as a bold give-and-take between audience and institution. Conceiving the letters' wording as data and aspects such as letter structure, envelopes, and filing systems as metadata, I interpret this correspondence both textually and structurally as follows: negotiations of power over the televisual narrative; flexes in industry knowledge and self-reflexivity; affective fan engagement; and artifacts of a participatory culture.

[1.6] First are negotiations of power over the televisual narrative. Many letters contain speculative content that blurs the line between fan fiction, critique, and writerly employment queries. Methods of filing indicate a tension between author and audience, and paratextual documents such as NBC's fandom reports and communiques between the writer-producers and other network departments illustrate a fascinating preoccupation with the role of the fan in the soap's future.

[1.7] Second are flexes in industry knowledge and self-reflexivity. Fans know who the competition programs are, how television programming works nationally and locally, and how important it is that their viewing practices are captured, logged, and analyzed. Inclusion in their letters of materials such as newspaper clippings or soap opera magazine pages indicates that the fan is claiming multiplatform media citizenship.

[1.8] Third is affective fan engagement, as woven through the texture of everyday life. Not only do we find various colors of emotion in the fan's written word, but also metadata, including typography, handwriting, or stationery, provides insight into the engagement of diverse demographics and, most importantly, where and when the fan chooses to engage. The idly written musing, mailed on the way to school, has a digital immediacy to it that is important to unpack.

[1.9] Fourth and last are artifacts of a participatory culture: these letters are posts to a social network. Though each letter and response embody a highly personal (occasionally even diary-like) relationship, they also contain the performativity of fandom and the hailing of the invisible audience. They also occasionally function as traces of real-life gatherings around the text, as Ford (2008) describes.

[1.10] Internet fan studies foregrounds the immersion of activities such as shipping and community building into a spaceless and timeless virtual life, as well as the importance of social media in closing the gulf between fan and creator. My work here aims to uncover the tools circa the 1970s and 1980s that enable television fans—via pen, paper, scissors, glue, or typewriter—to live their engagement and pull creators within arm's reach. Combining textual and structural analysis of the contents of the Hursley and Dobson papers makes a compelling case for further integrating historically specific fan communication into a coherent, enduring continuum of fannish affect. Harrington and Bielby (1995) and Bacon-Smith (1992) note that soap opera fans strategically use material communication (notably letter-writing campaigns) to bridge the gap between self and screen and to aid in identity formation, industrial literacy, affective engagement, and the enduring struggle/collaboration between author and audience for command over the text. A close reframing of these communications as complex texts unto themselves yields a vivid and productive historical record of television fandom: not only what it looked like but also what it felt like, and how these stories left marks on the viewers.

2. Contextualizing the case study

[2.1] The contents of the Bridget and Jerome Dobson papers, acquired by the WCFTR in 2012, are fairly evenly split between material pertaining to the Dobsons and the materials of Frank and Doris Hursley (who were the parents of Bridget Dobson). Both couples commanded soap opera empires (Holdship 2013) and were responsible for shepherding hits of the genre both modest and large: the Hursleys created General Hospital (1963–) and Bright Promise, (1969–1972) and the Dobsons stewarded Santa Barbara. Among production files, scripts, headshots, memos, and the like are three folders of fan letters totaling about 250 to 300, pertaining only to Bright Promise and Santa Barbara. About half of the letters are paired with replies from the producer-creators, and in some cases with further correspondence or additional communication on the topic with the network or other colleagues. This particular archive of fan letters offers a unique opportunity to witness the peaks, valleys, and textures of fandom between audiences and industrial forces in real time. Their organization reveals the character of responses to fans after particular narrative events and the traces of baked-in affect, as demonstrated by such things as writing style or use of collage.

[2.2] Also of interest are the notes the showrunners made to one another other about the letters, and how they were filed by administrative staff, particularly with an eye toward communicating these affects to the networks and to the writers' room. It is occasionally unclear which of the Hursleys or Dobsons was responsible for handwritten replies, as well as which of them dictated typed responses through their assistants. Though many reply letters are clearly the work of a single writer, I often refer to them simply as "the Hursleys" or "the Dobsons" because I am unable to identify the respective handwriting of Frank, Doris, Jerome, or Bridget.

3. Critical reception and power over the narrative

[3.1] "One of my favorite things in the world is television drama…and so I watch it with a loving and critical eye," a college-age fan writes to the Hursleys in 1971 (Carolyn Lee, Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, 1971). Her letter runs four pages and contains a plethora of constructive notes on story and characterization. Both the content and the organization (such as the common use of a bullet-point structure) indicate a sophisticated knowledge of performance versus dramaturgy versus production choices. As the audience dismantles aspects of the text and reassembles or revamps them, an empowerment comes into play, even the structure of the fan letter indicates a presumption that notes and collaboration are needed. Such an evaluating affect can be made a less slippery business for fan and audience scholars by taking a structural view of communication; the visual contours of a text can be revealing of the fan's state of mind. The fans who give notes engage in excited, frustrated, and invested collaboration, inserting themselves with engaging specificity by way of bullets (figures 1 and 2).

Pregnant again up to sixty days into her pregnancy! What does this mean? (bullet point) More fun than anyone's had in a long time with paternity tests (bullet point) A second chance for C.C. (dash) to screw up the second generation as badly as the first, with his favoritism and unwanted interference (bullet point) Multiple deceptions and custody fights (bullet point) Thwarted organ transplants, because one father might be accidentally killed by the other. (new paragraph) And what about Mary's annulment? You have grossly misled your viewers into thinking the only grounds for annulment is non-consummation of a marriage. NOT TRUE!! The Catholic Church holds that marriage is a contract between two adults with 3 goods of marriage which must be present: (bullet point) Permanency (bullet point) Fidelity (bullet point) Openness to children

Figure 1. A highly detailed, organized, and enumerated critique. Elizabeth Gauthier to Bridget and Jerome Dobson, Box 44, Folder 3, July 22, 1986, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Bill's shocking breach of etiquette. When are the writers going to turn Martha loose? Do you realize (oh, of course you do) that since January that poor woman has been given essentially three lines? A. 'I just don't know how much more of this I can stand.' B. 'Bill, please don't make me talk about the past.' and C. 'No Anne, there is no hope for a reconciliation.' I mean, there has (underlined) got to be more in her head than that. Martha could be such an interesting, complex personality, and instead the writers are (in this humble viewer's opinion) turning her into a moralistic prune.

Figure 2. A highly detailed, organized, and bullet-pointed critique. Carolyn Lee to Susan Brown (Bright Promise), Box 13, Folder 46, August 26, 1971, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison

[3.2] These letters speak to the fan's enduring mission to wrest power away from the author and claim creatorship and/or stewardship over a text (Barthes 1978). While soap fans occasionally rewrite story lines in their letters, their presumption to reimagine the television program as wish fulfillment goes much further than that. "Serialized storytelling," Ford explains, "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…Television as a commercial medium has accelerated the pace of serialization" as advertising becomes of paramount importance (2008, ¶ 2.1). Multiple airings every week, overloaded with possible interpretations, ensure that fan communities will gather, question, and re-form the source material with zest.

[3.3] Reading the original letter alongside the reply fascinatingly illustrates the tension of authority throughout the content of both the Dobsons' and Hursleys' correspondence. One man wrote in about a currently airing story line about a character's rape, suggesting that a more "respectful" and true emotional development for the victim involving psychological counseling ought to be created. Though this particular letter was not filed with its reply, a photocopy was created, and the suggestion underlined and highlighted by the Dobsons for future review (Carter 1985). Many fans wrote in with story suggestions and changes, followed up by inquiries about openings on the writing staff or opportunities for consultation: "I get some ideas for show storylines now and again. My feverish writer's brain is always working overtime…thinking up things I would like to see happen on the show," confides one writer. "'What if' are my two favorite words," she says, before detailing an elaborate idea about a character escaping prison and asking if the Dobsons might be interested in purchasing it for a future episode (Jennifer Coke, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1986). Some fans were more brazen in their assertions of provenance over the program's future narratives; one fan cheekily ends a note with, "I'm sorry my letter didn't reach you before Friday's episode aired" (Arthur Close, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1985). The Dobsons' notes in the margins and on the envelopes hint at a bemused confusion with their fans' presumption to not only workshop the show but also ask about employment; one exasperated Post-it note reads: "Bridget—why are we sent this stuff, I wonder?" (Joe Masi, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1986). This complex material interplay illustrates the tension Harrington and Bielby point out between legal ownership, creation, and moral authorship that undergirds the soap fan's relationship with writers, networks, and each other. This "fix-it" letter structure provides catharsis and momentum to the fan's "private moral convictions that daytime stories are theirs to tell" (1995, 163), and it provides a visual representation of the ways fans rechoreograph texts for affective pleasure.

4. Further up the chain: Industrial-textual negotiations

[4.1] However, even beyond the pointed critiques, suggestions, and queries found in the letters themselves, a negotiation of authority between fan and creator is engendered in the archival process itself—which we might presume was requested by the writer-producers and completed by their assistants. The Hursley Collection's single folder of fan mail contains correspondence in which the writers' reply is uniformly clipped on top of the original letter, typed on official NBC letterhead. The same goes for the Dobson papers, in which all fan correspondence is organized into two large folders. The first contains hundreds of letters and replies, all arranged in the following order: writer-producer response, with occasional handwritten memos by the Dobsons to their assistant attached; the letter; any enclosed materials, such as newspaper clippings or collages; and finally the envelope.

[4.2] This particular folder is a wonderful illustration of how even the act of archiving fan correspondence foregrounds the authority of the writer-creator in these interactions—both for them and for us, the future readers. The reply on top gives an indication of the final word on the matter at hand, be it criticism of story, praise, questions about scheduling, and so on (figure 3). The fact that envelopes were saved shows a level of concern and care for having a paper trail back to the most engaged viewership. The other folder is labeled "answered," with the same amount of correspondence, yet does not contain the Dobsons' replies clipped on top of the letters. However, this folder features notes written on the envelopes that summarize the contents of the letter, indicate the tenor of the critique, and occasionally provide a call to action for further review.

Two addressed envelopes, both with small Post-it notes attached to front.

Figure 3. Handwritten notes comment, "Well written, intelligent; nice but critical," and "Particularly interesting re: rape." This folder shows a foregrounding of their own authority by the Dobsons but also gestures to some kind of filing system for feedback (Levine 2007 documents this thoroughly). Judy Davis to Bridget and Jerome Dobson, August 3, 1985, Box 44, Folder 3, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Steve Carter to Jerome Dobson, July 26 1985, Box 44, Folder 3, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

[4.2] One of the most fascinating and telling aspects of authorial concern with fan engagement are what I term the NBC fandom reports, which were released quarterly for a large part of the 1980s and 1990s, and which were designed to measure responses to every single story line and character. Hayward details: "Producers and writers study a monthly report detailing the number of letters each actor received, the number of letters the show received, an abstract of particular suggestions…and a synopsis of attitudes towards the show" (2010, 165). Feedback on various aspects of the show like relationships were not culled from fan correspondence but solicited via focus groups (and given ranges of high, middle, and low to indicate success and future viability). They still provide a compelling bit of support for the complex push and pull between the two parties, as well as the network. NBC CEO Grant Tinker in 1984 expressed a need to boost the success of Santa Barbara by pleasing its fans: "He hope[s] to see a rise in ratings for NBC's daytime programming, particularly for the new soap opera Santa Barbara in which the network has made a $30 million investment. 'Even if we kept our evening ratings the same,' he said, 'if we made daytime work, we would be earning a tremendous profit'" (Kaplan 1984). As figure 4 shows, fans were asked to respond to plot twists, possible and continuing relationship pairings, the appearance of new characters, emotional developments, actor performance, and more. The subsequent reports were circulated to the writing staff of Santa Barbara and to NBC executives. Tellingly, the report reveals that the survey was sent again to female fans who had already weighed in previously; the loyalty of continuing fans was hugely valuable to show creators and often made the difference between profits and losses—particularly in the highly competitive 1980s soap landscape.

SERIAL MONITOR REPORT; ENTERTAINMENT/DAYTIME. August 7, 1986. (underlined) Santa Barbara. Following are the results of a national survey conducted July 21 through July 24 in which women identified as SANTA BARBARA viewers in a previous study were recontacted and asked about their interest in selected current storylines. Below is a ranking of their reactions: (underlined) UPPER RANGE. (dash) Pearl's efforts to expose Dr. Rawling's dealings in the mental hospital (dash) The relationship between Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo (dash) Mason Capwell's reaction to Mary McCormack's death. (underlined) MIDDLE RANGE (well below the above grouping) (dash) The relationship between Ted Capwell and Hayley. (underlined) LOWER RANGE (dash) Gina DeMott's desire for revenge against the Capwell family (dash) Ted Capwell's involvement with Roxanne, the woman calling the radio station. Viewers were also asked how they felt about some of the newer characters on SANTA BARBARA. None of the recent additions to the cast – including Allison, Keith Timmons, Paul Whitney, and Jane Wilson – have as yet made a positive impact on viewers. In addition, responders were asked about their interest in some potential storylines on SANTA BARBARA. Of these storylines, one – a story in which Cruz and Eden get back together – scored very strongly. The rest were at substantially lower levels. (underlined) UPPER RANGE (dash) A story in which Cruz and Eden get back together. (underlined) MIDDLE RANGE (dash) A story in which Courtney is revealed as Madeline Capwell's murderer (dash) A story in which Gina Capwell's long-lost teenaged daughter, who is very much like her mother, arrives in Santa Barbara (18-34).

Figure 4. An NBC audience report on Santa Barbara, 1986.

5. Fan flexes in transmedia knowledge

[5.1] The fact that fandom anger and pleasure could make or break the text also becomes apparent in industry-centric discourse through correspondence. Many letters in the Dobson collection include a variety of paratextual and corollary material such as press clippings, cartoons, and even newspaper articles concerning larger social issues covered on Santa Barbara. This bricolaging of industrial knowledge inside and outside the media text turns these letters into something more than simple missives full of opinions. Many mediums converge in the soap watcher's active fandom, such as soap magazines and television itself, and these collage letters announce the fan's multiplatform mastery. One writer attaches local newspaper coverage on Santa Barbara and handwrites her responses into the margins, indicating a desire to help out with the then fledgling show's ratings. Having underlined that Santa Barbara "has survived and is slowly gaining in the ratings," the fan adds, "the ratings would rise faster if [C.C. and Sophia] were on more and do more 'HOT' scenes. Give the NBC censors something to censor!" She also underlines, "It is difficult to steal [the audience] away from the competition. Once a soap is established, an audience is very loyal." Next to this analysis of viewership practices, she simply exclaims, "ME!" (M. Camacho, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1984). Countless other letters mention other soaps, particularly General Hospital, which faced off against Santa Barbara in the same time slot. Soap operas have historically competed in identical time slots (primarily NBC versus CBS), and fans are well aware of these face-offs. The fact that fans were "captured" to the opposing side is not lost on them; they understand the industrial stakes.

[5.2] A framework of transmedia storytelling may be applied here, indicating that the soap fan sees the soap not just as a narrative but—by virtue of its daily airing and treatment of topical issues—a form of social storytelling. This is illustrated beautifully by a young fan's multimedia package of a letter, containing a list of "ship" names, a cartoon representing her passion for the show, and annotated photos and articles taken from a soap opera magazine, indicating her likes and dislikes for the cast (figure 5).

Clips of newspaper articles, photographs of soap opera characters, and a one-panel comic are collaged together along with handwritten notations.

Figure 5. A preteen fan collages various print media materials alongside her opinions and suggestions. Kristen Bogers to Jerome Dobson, November 5, 1986, Box 44, Folder 2, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

[5.3] It is also important to note here that other media makes frequent appearances in the letters of both collections, indicating a high level of general media immersion among fans. A history buff and Bright Promise viewer writes in 1970 that the Hursleys might consider producing an American soap version of The Forsyte Saga, a popular historical BBC miniseries broadcast in 1967 (George Allanson, Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, 1970). We also hear from many fans about the advent of VCR technology in the 1980s and the ways it enables them to fold themselves into the Santa Barbara narrative. Fans distinguish themselves as early adopters of technology and networking, which allows for a more convenient and colorful participatory life. This correspondence provides a rich snapshot of just how impactful home recording was for a serial-watching audience, particularly for a text that aired nearly every day of the week.

6. Everyday engagement: The affects of daily fandom

[6.1] Digital fan correspondence deploys username, account design, emojis, GIFs, and more to express the subtleties (and exaggerations) of their affect. Among the Hursley and Dobson fan letters, such information can be conceived as paper or stationery, handwriting, typewriter front, method of address, even the choice of stamp. Far from incidental, these aspects of letter writing indicate the emotional textures of the fan's lived existence—how fans fold their stories into their lives, where and when the engagement occurs, and sometimes even how much it cost to engage ("AIR MAIL!!!"). Tone and affect thrive on paper. Fonts change, writing becomes messy, punctuation gets extreme; doodles and angry, slashing signatures come together to paint a rare picture of the moment of textual impact (figure 6).

A letter from a fan containing a variety of font styles and sizes, concluding with a handwritten signature.

Figure 6. A fan's mixture of typography and handwriting creates deeper colors of affect. Mrs. Rooker is left frustrated and wanting by the dangling narrative between her favorite characters, Cruz and Eden, and makes this clear by both wording and formatting. However, she's not so impolite (or unaffectionate) as to neglect a personalized "Happy Holidays!," and she includes a proper return label. Dottie Rooker to Bridget and Jerome Dobson, October 16, 1986, Box 44, Folder 2, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

[6.2] The discursive qualities of these fan letters are also bounded by a kind of performative vulnerability and stream-of-consciousness, almost as if writers are addressing their thoughts to a diary rather than a showrunner. The emotiveness that emerges from treating the writer-creator as a confidante helps narrow the distance of time and space implied by sending a letter through the post: "I was trying to say something, and I was hoping you'd listen. It would please me enormously if I knew I had achieved that much" (Lee, 1971). Hayward describes the ways in which "soaps intensify the intermingling of fictional character with audience lives" (2010, 144), to the point that catching one's stories becomes a normal routine of the day. One mother describes her thoughts on the latest week of the program as it unfolded over the course of her busy schedule, joking with the Dobsons that she doesn't want to be interrupted in her viewership unless the house is on fire. Others jot down their feedback quickly—"Well, I've got to run to school now!" (Bogers, 1986)—which not only allows a window into the circumstances under which the correspondence was begun but also indicates just how deeply television fandom was enmeshed into fans' daily lives.

7. Intimacy and social networking

[7.1] Across most of the Dobsons' and Hursleys' correspondence, the letter writers (whether criticizing or supporting the show) address the creator as the program's architect, rather than speaking generally to "the show" or "the text" itself. This acute awareness of the hand that writes is a powerful defining factor of fandom as it has been defined more recently, targeting writers, producers, and directors as the agents of aesthetic and narrative. Long before cult audiences developed around showrunners and their oeuvres (á la Joss Whedon, Shonda Rhimes, and Ryan Murphy), soap fans were creating a specific star culture around television creators. Though these collections do not include fan mail to the actors, their presence in these letters is interesting. On the one hand, they might be discursively defined as distant untouchable forces; one fan urges the Dobsons to cast her favorite actress and capture "the phoenix in her gilded cage" (Masi 1986). On the other, they are equally treated as pawns to be manipulated by the real artistes: the writer-producers, positioned as powerful, gifted, but altogether accessible creative conduits for fan desires. Fans also see the writers as fallible, susceptible to societal pressures. One man wrote to the Hursleys, responding to a Bright Promises plotline about marijuana use at college: "Please do not televise what you think the 2:30 PM housewives want to hear, but rather the truth. People do not get 'hung up' on pot any more than they get hung-up on the lies they hear on some television programs…I challenge you to give me an 'educated' reply" (Alice Greenly, Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, 1970). In response, the Hursleys enclosed a copy of a scene from a past episode concerning drug use and wrote defensively back: "Our feeling is that marijuana should not be illegal but discouraged since it results in youth copping out instead of participating…intelligently in the problems of our world" (Frank and Doris Hursley, Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, 1970). A reply from the Dobsons to a fan who took the time to break down almost every line and scene from a recent episode also reveals just how much stock the creators put in these one-to-one exchanges: "Our pain about the failures is probably even more acute than yours…. I hear myself sounding defensive and apologetic. Because we're aware of our deficiencies, we are a little defensive and apologetic" (Bridget and Jerome Dobson, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection,1984).

[7.2] A key aspect of fandom has always been its ability to diffuse across imaginary communities. Many letters to the Hursleys and Dobsons gesture to some kind of self-recognizance as a fan, but as a fan who is part of fandom. "I join the ranks of all those I've poked fun at over the years," writes one woman in resignation (Jane Pellier, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1986). In surrendering to the charms of Santa Barbara, she not only hails a community that centers virtually around the text, but she also recognizes the popular discourse around soap operas and their fandom. At a time when the view of television still cleaved to Fiske's (1989) hypodermic needle model, soap audiences recognized that viewing tastes change according to social context, tastes, and proximity. One of the most surprising moments of fan and creator teaming up to defend fandom itself comes up in a letter from a working woman who complained about sexist promotional ads for Santa Barbara: "These ads make me feel like a stupid idiot for watching your show—what about ads about a female executive, etc?" Bridget Dobson attached a note to the letter and forwarded to NBC's advertising operations: "I happen to agree with this lady. Can you pull the ads?" (Paula Grove, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Collection, 1985). Though her reply to the writer is not included in the file, it is notable that feedback from a fan would lead to action being taken by the network in this way.

[7.3] The Dobson letters in particular offer traces of the real-life social networking that occurred at small fan gatherings and parties, as well as the community building enabled by a national network of soap opera magazines. Fans held viewing parties, invited neighbors over in the afternoon to watch and discuss, and got their friends into their favorite soaps—all of which they proudly document in their letters to the Dobsons. Interestingly, many fans also feel the Dobsons themselves are part of fandom, and fans continually highlight the personal connection they feel with the couple. I found many congratulatory cards for the Dobsons' anniversaries, inquiries about their birthdays so they could be sent gifts, and so on. The photographs in figure 7 were taken at a Santa Barbara party organized by the show's brand-new fan club, which the Dobsons attended in 1984. The fan sent a long letter giving the Dobsons feedback about several recent story lines and included two photographs containing the Dobsons. These snapshots remain the only trace of an ephemeral moment in which audience and creator crossed paths and celebrated their love for the text together.

Two black-and-white photographs of a group of people gathered around tables at a party.

Figure 7. Photographs from the 1984 Santa Barbara fan party.

[7.4] These expressions of loyalty to the text as a group indicate that both the Dobsons and their fans are embarking on a secret project, more complex than the critical or popular discourse would allow at the time. In fact, it almost appears that the television audience's dismissive attitude toward soap watchers somehow insulates the fandom and encourages a kind of secrecy, insularity, and environment of open critique and collaboration among friends.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] I have delved into the fan letters and replies of the Hursley and Dobson collections in order to create an evidentiary challenge to a scholarly divide of fandom before and after online engagement. These moments of collaboration, confrontation, self-actualization, and celebration through the soap opera texts of Bright Promise and Santa Barbara characterize the texture of televisual fandom before it was labeled as something distinct from reception. These letters—particularly those written by fans of a critically undervalued genre to producers of what at the time was a critically undervalued medium—present as analog but have what we might recognize as digital functions and structural aspects. These articles of fan correspondence gesture toward a landscape of predigital social media networking; they also contain layers of valuable metadata. I exhort more scholars conducting archival work in the fields of reception and fandom to foreground the organization of the archive in their inquiries; a tool as simple as a paper clip or a Post-it may speak more eloquently about the power dynamics of production and reception than the actual content of a memo. These soap fans critique with vigor; they wrestle with their role within a heavily serialized narrative that caters to them and yet is just out of their writerly grasp. They straddle interlocking media platforms and leverage their emotion into virtual community building and connection with the text's world builders. Not only that, but the replies reveal a fascinating case study in engagement from the other side—that of the media makers, whose peers (and parent networks) are usually thought to either ignore disorganized fan input or treat it as a monolith. The replies from the Hursleys and Dobsons, as well as other documents such as network audience studies, help construct a more nuanced vision of participatory television fandom in the 1970s and 1980s as a creator-audience give-and-take.

[8.2] The implicit and explicit meanings of these letters, as well as the materials they contain, can be generative for the four areas of interest in fan and audience studies I have identified (and possibly more). First, we see active negotiations between fans and creators for power over the televisual narrative, with the cowriting process expressed in the formatting of the letters. Second, we can identify evidence of fannish self-insertion and self-reflexivity—that is, knowledge of the fan's place in the soap's social universe, as demonstrated through the inclusion of articles, personal artifacts, and trade press with their own annotations. Third, there is structural evidence of contexts of consumption: the time spent watching and writing, the scope of personal collections, and the socioeconomic realities of fans' lives. Finally, these letters suggest the existence of a social network; the writers gesture to the unseen presence of other fans writing letters, joining fan clubs, and more. Yet the isolated letter writer is also in a fandom and knows it.

[8.3] Within even the most minute aspects of these letters, we see evidence of fan activities that we traditionally assign to fans of much more recent media, particularly those in online fandoms. I hope to start extending fandom trends far further into media history by taking a closer look at these artifacts. By these means, I intend to encourage a treatment of historical fan objects as layered traces of lived experience, and I hope this data/metadata approach proves useful to those conducting archival research on audiences in the future.

9. Acknowledgments

[9.1] Thanks to Mary Huelsbeck, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, for her excellent guidance in navigating this archive of correspondence and sorting relevant material, as well as to the staff for their day-to-day assistance. Thanks also to Dr. Eric Hoyt for his thoughtful feedback on an early draft, as well as Dr. Elana Levine for generously sharing her thoughts and strategies for studying soap fans historically as well as her own upcoming scholarship.

10. References

Allanson, George, to Frank and Doris Hursley. 1970. Box 13, Folder 46, November 11, 1970. Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1978. "The Death of the Author." In Image, Music, Text, 142–48. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill & Wang.

Bates, Courtney A. 2011. "The Fan Letter Correspondence of Willa Cather: Challenging the Divide between Professional and Common Reader." In "Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," edited by Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

Camacho, M., to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1984. Box 44, Folder 2, February 17, 1984. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Carter, Steve, to Jerome Dobson. 1985. Box 44, Folder 3, July 26, 1985. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Close, Arthur, to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1985. Box 44, Folder 3, August 17, 1985. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Coke, Jennifer, to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1986. Box 44, Folder 3, May 2, 1986. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dobson, Bridget and Jerome, to Kay Prince. 1984. Box 44, Folder 2, August 13, 1984. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Fiske, John. 1989. Understanding Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

Ford, Sam. 2008. "Soap Operas and the History of Fan Discussion." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

Greenly, Alice, to Frank and Doris Hursley. 1970. Box 13, Folder 46, May 9, 1970. Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Grove, Paula, to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1985. Box 44, Folder 3, September 4, 1985. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Harrington, C. Lee, and Denise D. Bielby. 1995. Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Hayward, Jennifer. 2010. Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Holdship, Deborah. 2013. "The Real-Life Soap Opera of General Hospital Creator Frank Hursley." Michigan Today, July 29, 2013.

Hursley, Frank and Doris, to Alice Greenly. 1970. Box 13, Folder 46, May 27, 1970. Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Kaplan, Peter. 1984. "NBC's Head Says TV Viewers Spurn Quality Shows." New York Times, September 30, 1984.

Lee, Carolyn, to Susan Brown. 1971. Box 13, Folder 46, August 26, 1971. Frank and Doris Hursley Collection, Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Levine, Elana. 2007. "Toward a Paradigm for Media Production Research: Behind the Scenes at General Hospital." In Television: The Critical View, 7th ed., edited by Horace Newcomb, 133–49. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levine, Elana. Forthcoming. Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Masi, Joe, to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1986. Box 44, Folder 3, April 24, 1986. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Pellier, Jane, to Bridget and Jerome Dobson. 1986. Box 44, Folder 3, April 5, 1986. Bridget and Jerome Dobson Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Travis, Molly Abel. 1998. Reading Cultures: The Construction of Readers in the Twentieth Century. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.