Soap Operas Essay

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What forms of pleasure can be found in viewing the continuous serial on TV?The continuous serial is more commonly known as the soap opera, and is peculiar in that each episode cannot be watched and understood on its own; the viewer must watch the episodes before and after to understand what is happening. According to Brown the soap opera has 8 typical characteristics (see appendix 1). Television is becoming an increasingly important part of society.
We have more televisions in our homes, and on those televisions there are more soap operas for the viewing public e. g. EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Neighbours, Home and Away, Brookside, London Bridge, and HollyOaks. Individuals undoubtedly get a lot of pleasure from them, and although the soap opera is viewed as entertainment, there should be a cautious approach to this view, because television is an influential part of our society. In this essay I will look at the pleasures and the consequences.
Escapism is one form of pleasure. The soap provides an outlet for an individual to escape the responsibilities of their own life. As soon as the familiar theme music begins the viewer is transported to another world, although Mike Clark poses the question (page 19) ?What sort of escape is it that constantly refers to the very issues that may be troubling the viewer?’. Another pleasure of soap operas ?is the continuity of the characters and settings’ (Clark, page 19). The familiar settings give a sense of a stability and order to the viewer. Most people know the Rovers Return in Coronation Street or the Old Vic in EastEnders.
The individual feels at home with a soap and its characters, of which there can be up to 40; all are old friends to the regular viewer. For the most part they do not set out to shock. Because the characters are ordinary and believable, Mike Clark states that the actors must be the same in their lives outside television. He tells us that:?When Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough, was charged with sexually molesting a child and subsequently ?killed off’ from the program, his crime was not that, precisely (he was acquitted), but rather one of deviating from the unexceptional norms of Coronation Street and of the viewers at home.
Seeing someone who had been publicly associated with such an offence, and thinking ?I wonder what really happened’, would be disruptive of the kind of low-key realism attempted by the program, therefore out he had to go. ‘I’m not sure that this argument would hold true today. His book was published in 1987 and since then I think the public has become more tolerant, and apart from that, Coronation Street has become more controversial in its storyline; these days generally any publicity is good for a soap. This leads to another pleasure derived from the soap opera. The private lives of the actors, reported in the press and on the television, provide an infinite source of pleasure for the viewing public.
In the Evening Standard (Tuesday 3rd March 1998) there were three separate articles about three different actors from EastEnders: Barbara Windsor, Paul Bradley, and Patsy Palmer. However, such public interest can create a problem for the actors, in the form of admirers and stalkers and the public still perceiving them as their on screen character. Empathy with the characters can reduce the viewers’ own problems as they realise that other people also suffer; another good reason to watch a soap. Bianca’s abortion storyline, in EastEnders, may have helped people in similar situations think about the relevant issues before making their own decision. Regular soap opera viewers who have followed a particular soap for years, according to Clark ?acquire an expertise and a fund of archival knowledge, which enable them to experience the programs more fully, and more enjoyably’.
So, they understand the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the characters in the soap, and will often know exactly how a particular character would act in a particular situation. For them, this makes soaps more pleasurable. The romantic interest in the soap holds many viewers. Who will fall in love? Who will have an affair? Who will get married? At the time of writing, in Coronation Street the viewing public are wondering what will become of Fiona and Steve’s relationship. Marriages in soaps bring record viewing figures.
I’ve already mentioned the controversial storylines in soaps; these are another pleasure. EastEnders in particular is overtly controversial which is why their ratings are so high. Such storylines allow the viewer to have fun arguing his/her side of the case, or accepting the side presented by the writer. Brookside has covered incest, euthanasia, drugs, surrogacy, and a body under the patio.
According to Phil Redman (creator of Brookside) ?the more challenging the storyline the more the audience appreciate it?. These storylines are beneficial to society because they increase social awareness of issues such as aids (Mark Fowler in EastEnders), and alcoholism (Phil Mitchell in EastEnders). They can also help people who are exposed to, or tackling, these issues in their own lives, because they see how the characters in the soaps deal with the situations. The high quality of the acting is another of the pleasures derived from viewing soaps. Both EastEnders and Coronation Street are renowned for their good acting.
In February 1998, Patsy Palmer who plays Bianca Butcher was nominated, along with Miranda Richardson and Sinead Cusack, for the best actress award by the Royal Television Society. These awards are not based on ratings, or viewers’ opinions, and this is the first time the society has proposed a soap star for the coveted trophy. She was nominated for her performance as a devastated young mother who discovered her unborn baby was suffering from spina bifida and brain damage. Interestingly, this storyline won EastEnders some of its highest ratings. Soaps can be enjoyed as a ?primary cultural activity’ (according to Fiske). The viewer sits down and watches without interruption.
After a long hard day at work, there is nothing better than sitting with a cup of tea or coffee, switching off from the problems of the day, relaxing and watching a soap. But they can also be enjoyed as a ?secondary cultural activity’ whereby the viewer watches or listens whilst doing something else. This too makes soaps pleasurable because they can be incorporated in to daily life, but not dominate it or control it. Ironing, homework, paperwork, and cleaning can all be done whilst watching a soap, because they are not too demanding to watch.
People derive pleasure from talking about soap operas. It’s a double pleasure; having had the pleasure of watching them, they then enjoy talking about them with their friends and work mates, discussing the issues and what they think will happen next. Katz and Liebes state that in discussing soaps, people are discussing and evaluating the issues in their own lives. Certainly if we discuss Emmerdale or Home and Away with friends we have a sense of belonging or social identity. Storylines are not only discussed by the viewers, but also reported in the press. The newspapers’ obsession with soap operas was apparent in 1983 when Deirdre Barlow (wife of Ken) had an affair with Mike Baldwin.
When this storyline broke, the press printed endless stories ?should Deirdre go to bed with Mike, or should she leave Ken to set up home with Mike?’ The Daily Star, Daily Mail, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, Sun, even the Times, Daily Telegraph, and Guardian covered the storyline. Ann Kirkbride who plays Deirdre Barlow said ?I thought the story would spark off a few fan letters, but I never imagined anything like the press and public reaction we got. I never dreamed it would grip the nation like it did. It was scary. ?The interweaving storylines are another reason why soaps are enjoyed by viewers. There are at least 10 different storylines in each episode, so that if one storyline does not interest a viewer, one of the others will.
In an episode each scene is generally no longer than a minute and a half, thus keeping the interest of the audience. The assumption here is that the average viewer has a short attention span. Because there are so many storylines, new characters can be introduced to the soap alongside old ones; this all adds to the viewer’s enjoyment. The most popular TV programme of Christmas 1987 was the Christmas Day episode of Coronation Street, so they must be a pleasure to watch. According to the book BBC People and Programming, most families seem to organise their evening TV viewing around a few core programmes, which everyone enjoys, such as Coronation Street or EastEnders. These are called bonding programmes.
?At 7pm 80% of TV viewing is group viewing’ says Clarke. So another pleasure derived from watching soaps is that they can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Viewers know that there will be no embarrassing sex scenes, no foul language, and no nudity. So in the case of Coronation Street, grandparents and grandchildren can sit down and watch together and neither will be offended.
However, this statement does not hold true for EastEnders, where the ?gay’ storyline, for example, could upset the older generation. Women are avid soap watchers and it is possible that their enjoyment is in watching scenarios that could occur in their own families, and so prepare them to deal with such situations. They are also enjoyable for women because soaps are about the only television programmes which show that older women, who are larger and not so beautiful, do have a romantic or sexual existence. This is not shown on the screen, just talked about. According to Fiske :?There is a real pleasure to be found in soap operas that assert the legitimacy of feminine meanings and identities within and against patriarchy.
Pleasure results from the production of meanings from the world, and of self that are felt to serve the interests of the reader rather than those of the dominant. ‘They also appeal to women because, there is a pleasure in seeing women take active and controlling role; an example being Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders. Soaps are enjoyable because they echo what is going on in the world. Television and soap operas are not the originators of social change, but are merely part of that change.
As aids became an illness affecting people in society, so soaps such as EastEnders included it in their storylines. However, despite all the pleasures of soaps that I have written about, things are not that straightforward. Because soaps are shown at peak family viewing times, care must be taken with the content of the storylines. Aggressive behaviour should be kept to a minimum because ?there is a positive relationship between the amount of exposure children have to television violence and the extent to which they act aggressively’ according to Atkinson. Although the pleasure of soaps is that they can be incorporated into the viewers daily lives, and according to Palmer ?viewers are rarely dominated or controlled by them?, I would argue that the opposite is true. Many viewers have to be home by a certain time for a particular soap, or cannot go out until their favourite soap has finished.
Soaps are certainly addictive and, although they are pleasurable, they are also a problem because they are a habit that cannot easily be stopped. The cliff-hanger at the end of each episode keeps the audience interested, yet addicted. With the increase in soap operas, individuals spend more time watching them and this affects their view of the world, even if it is subconsciously. Because they are frequently watched, it is possible that they distort our view of the world. Other activities such as reading and exercising are prevented by soap watching.
Critics of soaps argue that watching them makes individuals more passive, so it cannot be a real pleasure because we’re not actively involved. With all of the above in mind, I would argue that soap opera watching is a definite pleasure. Viewers can be selective in their watching, and those that choose to watch soaps are aware that they are fiction. I will leave the last word to the late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman:?Manchester produces what to me is ?The Pickwick Papers’ that is to say Coronation Street. Mondays and Wednesdays I live for them. Thank god half past seven tonight, and I shall be in paradise.
?BibliographyATKINSON, Introduction to Psychology, Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1996BROWN, M. E. , ?The Politics of Soaps’, Australian journal of cultural studies, 4, 1987, 1-25CLARKE, Mike, Teaching Popular Television, London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1987FISKE, John, Television Culture, London: Methuen ; Co. Ltd, 1987KATZ, E. and LIEBES, T. , On the Critical Ability of Television Viewers, 1987KAY, Graeme, Coronation Street Celebrating 30 Years, London: Boxtree Ltd, 1990THOMSON, Mark, BBC People and Programmes, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1995Appendix1.
Serial form which resists narrative closure. 2. Multiple character and plots3. Use of time which parallels actual time, and implies that the action continues to take place whether we watch it or not. 4.
Abrupt segmentation between parts. 5. Emphasis on dialogue, problem solving, and intimate conversation. 6. Male characters who are ?sensitive men’.
7. Female characters who are often professional and powerful outside the home. 8. The home or some other place, which functions as a home, as a setting for the show.

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