Web Exclusive Essay
The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom
Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over.
—52-year-old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; quoted in Harrington and Bielby 2010
I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps airing in 2011 was 40 years), the daily installments of “primary” text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see the epigraph). No other form of media fiction offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.
Soaps’ longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with staying true to shows’ long narrative histories and developing characters in “real time” while aligning those narratives with contemporary tastes of both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom. The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby 1995) captured the beginning of fandom’s migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of “public” fandom (attending industry-sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called “moral” ownership over them—fans’ sense that soap opera communities and characters are “theirs,” rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.
This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, “soaps’ very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world [. . .] creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken” (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999, 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps’ revolving writing and production teams. Many long-term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than the people creating them (as, often, have several of the actors playing the characters, leading to interesting ownership struggles within the industry [Harrington and Brothers 2010]), and they often do know their show’s history better. (The same point can be made of long-term sports fans or movie-franchise fans, contexts in which transgenerational fandoms outlast coaches, players, actors, directors, etc.) Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference.
Soap fans’ claims to moral ownership date back to at least 1941. (See Cantor and Pingree’s  discussion of the complaints of radio serial listeners.) By the late 1950s, soap fans routinely contacted TV networks to express their concerns. Fan ownership claims were rendered more visible in the 1970s and 1980s in fan club newsletters, in ever more fan-friendly soap opera magazines, at industry-organized fan events, and on newly emergent forms of electronic communication (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999). My coauthor and I were surprised to find that fans’ moral ownership claims (sense of entitlement over the narrative) resulted in a more harmonious fan-industry relationship than in other media fandoms (particularly science fiction fandom). Long-term viewers were recognized and appreciated as a key element of the genre’s economic survival by many individuals in the industry, given their crucial role of mentoring young(er) viewers into daily viewing habits, even as “aging out” of the core demographic was troubling to advertising sponsors (Harrington and Bielby 1995). As we described in the book, soap fan events in the 1990s had a “family reunion” feel that was rather distinct in that era of celebrity culture, and fans’ critical comments and contributions were legitimated (at least symbolically, if not narratively) by the daytime industry.
Soap viewers were among the first groups to migrate to the Net recreationally (Baym 2000). However, they were slower than other fandoms to create the type of user-generated content currently associated with media fandom, in part because the frequency and longevity of the “primary” text created less need for viewers to fill narrative gaps with such material (Harrington and Bielby 1995). Soap fans are increasingly engaged in vlogs, video sharing, fan fiction, podcasts, and mash-ups (Ng 2008), while much fan energy remains devoted to the ongoing daily criticism, discussion, and fan activism which takes place in online forums and the blogosphere (Scardaville 2005). Moral ownership struggles long predate the Internet in the world of soap fandom, but fans’ online presence today amplifies those struggles in new ways. In chapter 1 of the print version of this book, the authors write, “In many cases, the moral economy holds in check the aggressive pursuit of short-term self-interest in favor of decisions that preserve long-term social relations among participants.” The daytime soap opera industry and fan community exemplify the challenges—and potential rewards—of balancing these short-term and long-term interests.
Baym, Nancy K. 2000. Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Bielby, Denise D., C. Lee Harrington, and William T. Bielby. 1999. “Whose Stories Are They? Fans’ Engagement with Soap Opera Narratives in Three Sites of Fan Activity.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 43:35–51.
Cantor, Muriel G., and Suzanne Pingree. 1983. The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Harrington, C. Lee, and Denise D. Bielby. 1995. Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
———. 2010. “Autobiographical Reasoning in Long-Term Fandom.” Transformative Works and Cultures 5. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/209/176.
Harrington, C. Lee, and Denise Brothers. 2010. “A Life Course Built for Two: Acting, Aging, and Soap Operas.” Journal of Aging Studies 24 (1) (January): 20–29.
Ng, Eve. 2008. “Reading the Romance of Fan Cultural Production: Music Videos of a Television Lesbian Couple.” Popular Communication 6 (2) (April): 103–121.
Scardaville, Melissa. 2005. “Accidental Activists: Fan Activism in the Soap Opera Community.” American Behavioral Scientist 48 (7): 881–901.