Soaps Online: The Revolution That Wasn't?

Curator's Note

“This is the future,” Sheri Anderson-Thomas once said of “cybersoaps.” 

Soap opera is arguably America's most durable audiovisual genre, delivering consistent and engaged audiences for advertisers for decades. No wonder the earliest web programs were “cybersoaps,” expensively produced to replace television and institutionalize online entertainment. The Spot, a text-based show with photos and some video, set the standard in 1995, and many independent and corporate producers followed. Writers experimented with form – interactivity, multimedia presentation – seeing the web as a place of possibility away from daytime TV, which faced increased competition from cable and other entertainment mediums. “If the soaps are allegedly losing their luster on broadcast, they're glowing – albeit erratically – on the Net,” wrote one journalist in the Orange County Register.

Not to be left out, broadcast and cable networks got in the game after The Spot and its high-profile network, American Cybercast, fell under and the first boom fizzled. Channels like Lifetime and NBC created online experiences, mostly supportive of on-air series. ABC, owner of All My Children and One Life to Life, planned to upgrade by creating areas where fans could discuss the dramas and floated the idea of a cybersoap awards show, which have since materialized through the Daytime Emmys and small organizations.

From revolution to evolution and back again, soaps online have sparked renewed fervor. With broadband adoption up and video distribution easier, “indie soaps” have become the cybersoaps for the post-YouTube Internet. Next week We Love Soaps hosts its third annual “Indie Soap Awards,” honoring web series -- like DeVanity, above -- for niche audiences facing decreased daytime options. Fifteen years later, a diverse array of soaps are proliferating online, as independent creators and TV refugees search for new markets in the wake of the on-air cancellation spree.  

Yet television remains television, as evidenced by Prospect Park’s inability to translate old media economics to the web with the deceased All My Children and One Life to Live. They aren’t the only ones having trouble. TV’s changing but relatively integrated revenue system makes fusing the web and TV difficult. And even if pure convergence happens, who will win? The soap will never die, but will it remake TV in the web's scrappy image -- if such a thing exists -- or vice versa?


And a great way to end this week of pondering on soaps. Soaps revolutionized radio and television becuase of their ability to work on cheap budget, etc. I actually think the industry became a little hamstrung becuase of elaborate budgets from the late 1970s and certainly the 1980s that made people up the ante in terms of what they thought soaps should do for location shooting, elaborate sets, numbers of extras, etc. Yet, soaps were at their most popular when their sets resembled the stage and shows were aired live. I think Prospect Park's budget struggle came in part because of an expectation of trying to keep up the hour-long soap with certain budgetary expectations that actually haven't always been part of the genre...I'm interested to see how web soaps might help push the genre in the other way. After all, I doubt that people who care deeply about production value were attracted to soaps in the first place...

You're absolutely right. In fact, some of the most popular web soaps have production values that would scare any USC film student. The focus on story and character in soaps has historically meant production values need not reach to the top of our aesthetic hierarchies (i.e. cinema, traditionally). The video landscape has made this complicated, though. When Netflix spends $50+ million on a one-hour series for web distribution, the web starts to look a lot like TV. The proliferation of scripted content on cable has in some ways raised the bar, and while Prospect Park knew it couldn't compete on that level, I'm sure they anticipated greater similarities between TV and web production standards than perhaps was warranted. They blamed the unions -- not sure to what degree that argument has legitimacy (some of the guilds have new media contracts, after all).

 One soap form that hasn't come up yet this week is the telenovela, and the ones on Univision are doing great these days, even leading to versions with English subtitles to broaden their appeal. I've never watched one, I've only seen clips, so I can't say too much about them, but I understand that their production values are much more low-budget than the typical US soap. So clearly it's the storytelling form audiences are responding to, not the external sheen of production value.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.