The Trouble with Context in Archiving Soaps' Pivotal Moments

Curator's Note

As a number of long-running U.S. soap operas are canceled, many people are trying to figure out not only new ways for soaps storytelling to evolve but also to properly archive the iconic shows, characters, actors, and performances of daytime serial drama. In her piece in The Survival of Soap Opera, Mary Jeanne Wilson documents why archiving these shows can be such a challenge, though. Daytime dramas are designed so that individual episodes are less important than in primetime series. Instead, the show's meaning and richness can only be fully understood through long-term accretion. That makes archiving material from these shows which really demonstrates the power of soap opera storytelling especially tricky.

Take's efforts to capture key moments in the history of As the World Turns. Their 4-disc boxed set included 20 episodes of the soap. For fans who watched the original run and could fill in the gaps, the episodes were shorthand reminders of a wide range of powerful and well-written storylines. To those watching the set who weren't fans or who weren't watching in the era of a particular episode, though, the scenes raise a variety of questions and leave many others unresolved.

For instance, look at the short segment above, featured in the ATWT set. Not only are multiple storylines featured, but one moment--Iva Snyder blurting out "She's your baby" as she sees Rod and Lily struggling in the barn--is a single sentence that culminates many months' worth of storytelling and launches many more. That one moment simultaneously revealed to Lily that she was adopted; that the adopted sister of her boyfriend--and someone who had become a trusted friend--was actualy her birth mother; that a local farm hand she'd come to know was her father; and that her mother had known she was adopted. Rod learned who his daughter was. And, later in the episode, adopted mother Lucinda (who appears in the first scene) learns Iva's pregnancy had been the result of Rod raping Iva. And, for Iva, she discovered that her reason for revealing everything--a fear that Rod was intending to rape Lily--was a misunderstanding.

While the episode was compelling and a pivotal moment in the show's history, little of its overall power can be conveyed through this single episode, a significant challenge for those looking to preserve soaps' history in a way that is intelligble to new generations of viewers.


 Excellent points here, Sam, and the archiving challenge seems similar to the teaching challenge. While I think it is important to teach soaps as part of classes on broader TV Studies topics, it is nearly impossible to have the students "get" soaps through only one course screening or with clips. Of course, the single-episode limitation poses a problem for teaching any TV series, but it is deeply exacerbated with soaps. When I teach soap opera form in my TV narrative class, I usually go with a relatively stand-alone episode of OLTL (Jess gives her baby up to Starr). This at least allows us to discuss some of the key narrative aspects of soap storytelling (very little actually happens in the episode; it focuses on the reactions of everyone affected), but gets nowhere near the true emotional impact for the longtime soap viewer (the students don't care about why everyone is crying), which is what fans appreciate about the form. That's an educational problem, but it's also, as you indicate in your final sentence, a fandom problem. While many of my students leave that class declaring they're going to watch the rest of the other shows I introduce them to, like Breaking Bad or even The Vampire Diaries, none of them ever say they'll be likely to tune in to a soap in the future.

Agreed, Christine. I've been fortunate to have two opportunities to teach semester-long courses on the soap opera, and my approach was to have the students follow a soap in real-time over the course of a semester. There's a benefit, in that they can get invovled in soaps in real-time; follow what the soap opera press is writing; follow message boards; and so on. The first time, I did it with ATWT...The second time, I partnered with the writers/producers of The Bold and the Beautiful, and students even got the chance to write questions into B&B; interview people at B&B; and so on. Both times, I had students publish on a blog about soap opera issues as the course went along as well...

That approach gets harder and harder as soaps get cancelled, and I'd love to pick a time period for a semester-long class when a soap opera was as close to its potential as it could have been...some "glory period" of writing and acting. But, as of yet, that isn't commercially available. In some cases with the P&G soaps I'm most familiar with, I'm not even sure the full archive exists...although fans are increasingly working to fill in the gaps by posting full episodes on YouTube. I'd love to see someone come along and package everything now that exists publicly in a chronilogical timeline, to help fans see what is missing, etc. Seems a great collaborative project, but I haven't seen anything quite like that exist...

I find this problematic with teaching too. When I do an exercise on live soap opera for my practical course I deal with it by having the students watch a week's worth of episodes, which goes some way towards dealing with it. And its also useful to see deep/casual viewing in practice with fans explaining meaning of an event to non fans.

I've particularly experienced this trying to teach Telenovela, where the only DVDs available for various iterations of Ugly Betty were chopped up DVDs that constructed a long stream of stories. It's very hard to sell students on the form when they think it's inept!


I never found a better method than having students watch in real time.  At least I could help fill in the voluminous backstories.  It's a lot easier to do that once students have a week or two of new episodes under their belt.  The most important element, to me, is that students all shared a "text" so that they could talk about what was happening on a relatively even footing.

I've been enjoying reading all these entries -- thanks.

 Thanks, Dave. I agree that there's nothing like watching in real-time. But it's more frustrating currently, both because the soap I knew best went off the air and because, due to a variety of issues, many of the shows are not necessarily currently representative of the ideal of the soap opera genre...But I went with real-time both times I've taught a semester-long soaps class, for exactly the reasons you list here.

Sorry not to get to this until so late, but I'm very glad to see it nonetheless! As someone working on a history of U.S. TV soap, I struggle with these archival issues all the time. In some respects, there is a lot available, so much that it is a massive task to see it all. But, as Sam makes clear, it isn't so simple, in that the episodes one can watch are such partial pictures of the shows as a whole. And when you CAN watch them all, as in the full run of Dark Shadows on DVD, it's a massive undertaking. Definitely unique historiographical challenges!



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