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Capturing a Soap Fan's Attention: What Needs to Be Done?

What does daytime have to do in order to capture the attention of this viewer? Here’s a hint — it doesn’t involve convoluted murder mysteries.

This is the first time I’m putting my thoughts out there for all to see. Some will agree with me, some will butcher, some will ignore. I’m ok with any of the above, just keep it classy.  I’ll tell you upfront that I’m pretty reasonable when discussing daytime, but I am completely biased concerning As the World Turns’ Carly and Jack…..and they’re happily married with a new baby, so I win all arguments there. I don’t live in a bubble, so some of what I have to say may be similar to thoughts already out in the blogosphere. If I agree with the other bloggers it’s because it’s my opinion, not because they (or anyone else) told me to write it that way. For better or worse, this is my opinion.  One last thing, direct all spelling/grammar mistakes to my editor, he knows neither are my forte.

The future of daytime is bleak. Sorry to burst your bubble if you didn’t know that, although the hundreds of articles out there should have clued you in to the precarious future of daytime. The five remaining soaps on network television, soon to be four when OLTL moves online, are feeling the pressure to remain profitable for their networks and still find a way entertain their fans, the latter of which is hit or miss these days.  As others might have said, daytime has fallen into the trap of big flashy plot points without any real connection to their characters and fans have noticed. Contrary to what some network executives or head writers think, it doesn’t take explosions, natural disasters, or even never-ending murder mysteries to capture my attention.

The Young and the Restless’ current whodunit storyline – the murder of Diane Jenkins, has been a severe turnoff. I don’t particularly see the need to bash a woman’s head in and leave her to drown in a new river set in Genoa City. I will never get past this or the “it’s ok to throw a woman out of an ambulance onto the street” mindset. It’s like how a lot of you felt with General Hospital’s Lisa trying to infect Patrick with HIV using a syringe of Robin’s blood: over the top, not necessary, and in poor taste. I could go on a rant about head writers and violence but that’s an article for a different time, as is a column focusing on the glaring plot holes and lack of continuity with Y&R.

Remember Frankie’s controversial death on Another World? I eventually came to love Cass and Lila, but that murder messed me up for a while, as it did Cass. Also, having recently gone back and watched Cassie’s death on Y&R, I now understand the ripple effects that are still felt today in Genoa City.  I had a similar experience with As the World Turns’ Jake dying in Oakdale; it had lasting repercussions for Molly that became part of her character and her choices. Those were deaths whose impact resonated during and more importantly, well after said characters were gone. Side note – I have to point out that Frankie’s death had everyone up in arms over the graphicness when it happened…..amazing “progress” we’ve made since then, right?

So exactly what does grab my attention when watching daytime? It can vary. Sometimes it’s an actor’s or actors’ portrayal of a scene, see ATWT’s Jack and Carly’s break up in 2006, Y&R’s Melody Thomas Scott’s Emmy-worthy AA scenes from this past summer or All My Children’s Debbi Morgan/Darnell Williams when Jesse revealed the truth about Lucy to Angie a few months ago. More times than not, it’s the writing that hits home – I will always remember Susan Dansby’s words of “One kiss, no hands” during the July 26, 2010 episode of As the World Turns. I’ll also never forget the entire conversation between Jack and Carly by the lake in the January 21, 2010 episode (Michael Park won his second Emmy for it. Sometimes it’s a really shallow reason like to see what someone has on, I’m a girl who likes shoes, sue me.  Michelle Stafford is usually the one I think of when picturing crazy gorgeous outfits on-screen.

I pointed out positives for each of these, but let’s be real – where there’s spectacular, there is also “did they hit their head?” moments. Like when Y&R’s Daisy dressed like an extra from Big Love. Daisy period is enough said. This points to what I won’t lower my expectations for what needs to grab my attention: good writing and delivery of material. You need both to sell it; having an actor with the ability to spin dreg into something almost Shakespearean is nice but obvious.  Conversely, having an actor butcher beautiful words should be a crime against all artists, but it happens more times than I’d like to see.

As a fan of some of the hardest working people in entertainment, and I mean everyone from actors to script writers, it’s frustrating to see the internal implosion. I’m snarky about storylines in Genoa City; making jokes about whomever it was who thought casting Diana DeGarmo was a good idea, and critiquing fashion choices of people in Salem because I don’t feel the people leading the industry should get a free pass to do whatever they want since “it’s all going to end anyway.”

I still miss the Hubbard squash in Oakdale, I loved when Bianca and Marissa bought a house in Pine Valley (even though it was rushed), and I definitely miss the facial expressions of Guiding Light’s Reva Shayne. These were all moments on shows that caught my attention and made me stop what I was doing to watch. The few moments like these that exist currently in daytime are few and far in-between, with one having to watch very closely to spot it. There’s the slow build-up of GH’s Matt and Liz (ok, this is wishful thinking, but go with it), OLTL’s Tea and her frenemy Blair or any scene with Sam, Jane Elliott doing anything in Port Charles.

It’s when those in charge try to be “original” and come up with Mafia-esque fake-deaths, long-lost twins, return of a crazy mothers and other overdone, stale storylines, that we as fans need to have a conversation with a higher power and ask that sanity returns to our remaining shows. It’s not re-inventing the wheel; it’s following a simple guideline set forth by the late, great Douglas Marland. I leave you with Marland’s rules for “How Not to Wreck a Show“:

1. Watch the show.

2. Learn the history of the show. You would be surprised at the ideas that you can get from the back story of your characters.

3. Read the fan mail. The very characters that are not thrilling to you may be the audience’s favorites.

4. Be objective. When I came in to As the World Turns, the first thing I said was, “what is pleasing the audience?” You have to put your own personal likes and dislikes aside and develop the characters that the audience wants to see.

5. Talk to everyone; writers and actors especially. There may be something in a character’s history that will work beautifully for you, and who would know better than the actor who has been playing the role?

6. Don’t change a core character. You can certainly give them edges they didn’t have before, or give them a logical reason to change their behavior. But when the audience says, “He would never do that,” then you have failed.

7. Build new characters slowly. Everyone knows that it takes six months to a year for an audience to care about a new character. Tie them in to existing characters. Don’t shove them down the viewers’ throats.

8. If you feel staff changes are in order, look within the organization first. P&G [Procter & Gamble] does a lot of promoting from within. Almost all of our producers worked their way up from staff positions, and that means they know the show.

9. Don’t fire anyone for six months. I feel very deeply that you should look at the show’s canvas before you do anything.

10. Good soap opera is good storytelling. It’s very simple.

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