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This article explores the artistic legitimation process of U.S. daytime soap operas through analysis of commentary published in The New York Times from 1930 to 2010. While soap operas gained economic legitimacy over time (due to profit-earning potential) and were popular with audiences, they were never widely classified as an “art” form. Through examination of 3 aspects of The New York Times articles—tone of critical commentary, viewership of critical commentary, and themes of critical commentary—we explore the role of evaluative press coverage in the validation, or lack thereof, of the soap opera form. Implications for the decline of the genre are also discussed.
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Communication, Culture & Critique ISSN 1753-9129
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Soap Operas and Artistic Legitimation:
The Role of Critical Commentary
C. Lee Harrington1, Melissa Scardaville2, Stephen Lippmann1,&
Denise D. Bielby3
1 Department of Sociology & Gerontology, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056, USA
2 ICF International, Atlanta, GA 30329, USA
3 Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA
is article explores the artistic legitimation process of U.S. daytime soap operas through
analysis of commentary published in e New York Times from 1930 to 2010. While
soap operas gained economic legitimacy over time (due to prot-earning potential) and
were popular with audiences, they were never widely classied as an “art” form. rough
examination of 3 aspects of e New York Times articles— tone of critical commentary,
viewership of critical commentary, and themes of critical commentary—we explore the
role of evaluative press coverage in the validation, or lack thereof, of the soap opera form.
Implications for the decline of the genre are also discussed.
Keywords: Critics, Reviews, Soap Opera, Television, Artistic Legitimation.
doi:10.1111/cccr.12102
Serialized narratives anchored radio and television daytime broadcasting in the
United States through most of the 20th century, but the genre has declined from a
high of 18 network soaps airing in 1969 to four as of this writing. Analysts point to
a range of exogenous factors to explain soaps’ waning, including their core female
audience entering paid labor in the 1970s and 1980s, expanding entertainment
options, consumer lifestyle changes that disadvantage daily viewing habits, prime-
time’s successful adaptation of serialized storytelling, and the cumulative eects of
the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike (which lead to shabby storytelling), the
mid-1990s O. J. Simpson trial (which dominated daytime airwaves for months), and
the 2000s trend in reality and lifestyle programming (Ford, De Kosnik, & Harrington,
2011). An alternate scholarly approach focuses on endogenous factors, suggesting
that market saturation was the culprit; the genre’s very success prevented evolution
Corresponding author: C. Lee Harrington; e-mail: harrincl@miamioh.edu
Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association 613
Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
of the storytelling form (Lippmann, Scardaville, & Harrington, n.d.). Despite soaps’
decline the genre is not dead—new platforms and business models are emerging
(e.g., the success of the subscription-based web-only series Venice :e Series), the
four remaining broadcast soaps are faring well in the ratings (Consoli, 2014), and
soap fandom remains vibrant, particularly online. e story of soap opera thus
continues to unfold.
An analysis of the genre’s trajectory since its emergence on radio in 19301
(Scardaville, 2009, 2011a) points to the partial success of the soap opera form,
namely its achievement of economic legitimacy by being a highly protable com-
mercial product but its ultimate failure to achieve artistic legitimacy in that soaps
were never widely accepted as works of art. In other words, soaps were successful
in an economic context (prot-making potential), successful in an entertainment
context (popular with audiences), but unsuccessful in an artistic context (not
classied as art).2Ononehandthisappearsobviouseveryoneknows”that
soap opera is not “art”—but since organizational theories hold that organiza-
tional survival and success ultimately depend on legitimacy (Johnson, Dowd, &
Ridgeway, 2006, p. 54), it matters to the fate of the daytime soap opera that only
partial legitimacy was achieved. e study presented here explores one aspect of
theartisticlegitimationprocessforsoapoperastheroleplayedbyevaluative
commentary —through analysis of articles published in e New York Times between
1930 and 2010.
Critical commentary and the legitimation process
Cultural sociologists emphasize that artistic legitimation is a social process, not
a singular event (Becker, 1984; DiMaggio, 1987). Legitimation occurs through “a
collective construction of social reality in which the elements of a social order are
seen as consonant with norms, values, and beliefs that individuals presume are widely
shared, whether or not they personally share them” (Johnson et al., 2006, p. 55). Any
cultural product—a song, book, lm, or television show has the potential to be
named, accepted, and maintained as art. We are more familiar with the success sto-
ries (e.g., Shakespeare, jazz, and lm) than with the relative failures (e.g., vaudeville,
Prancercise, and omas Kinkade), although the latter oer valuable insight into
the lifespan or biographies of cultural forms. Scholars propose a four-stage model
by which an object gains legitimacy— innovation, local validation, diusion, and
general validation— and agree that what succeeds at a local level might not more
generally (Baumann, 2007; Johnson et al., 2006). is is indeed what happened with
soap opera; the genre received local artistic legitimacy among select groups (such as
soap fans and producers) but not widespread validation among the general public
(Scardaville, 2011a).
Multiple factors can help confer artistic worth on an object, including dedicated
awards ceremonies, suggestion of social or political relevance, serious treatment
within academia, or the status of its patronage. High-status patrons have a direct
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C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
eect on increasing a cultural products legitimacy (Baumann, 2001; DiMaggio,
1982), and the association between soap opera and femininity/females (in narrative
structure, target audience, and actual audience; Allen, 1985) marked it from the
beginning as a suspect cultural form. Indeed, early press coverage of radio serials
focused on their “cheap” and “detrimental” eects on children and housewives
who were believed incapable of understanding soap stories as ctional (“Radio is
attacked,” 1937). is presumption of the soap audience as deviant consumers per-
sisted until the women’s movement of the late 1970s, at which time feminist scholars
began to reexamine soaps as an integral part of women’s culture, arguing for the
sociocultural value of melodramatic ction focusing on romance and domesticity,
debating the counterhegemonic potential of oppositional readings, and examining
the range of pleasures that women derive from soap viewing (Hobson, 1982; Lopate,
1976; Modleski, 1982). However, this potentially legitimizing feminist discourse,
while an important marker in the evolution of the genre, was ultimately unable
to counter the longstanding association of soap viewership with female deviance
(Scardaville, 2011a).
Our particular interest in the artistic legitimation process is the role played by
critical commentary and reviews published in e New York Times.3In general,
reviews can take many dierent forms and include multiple elements such as descrip-
tion, analysis, entertainment, instruction, and evaluation (Shrum, 1991, p. 352), but
most importantly they oer summary and evaluative information to audiences and
potential corporate sponsors.4As Blank (2007) puts it, reviews answer very basic
questions about a cultural object: “What is it?” and “Is it any good?” (p. 7). ere
are two types of formal reviews, whether of restaurants, computers, or Broadway
musicals: connoisseurial reviews (which are typically authored and draw on the
unique talent of the reviewer) and procedural reviews (which rely on rankings
of groups of products and are comparatively impersonal). ese two types follow
dierent logics, focus on dierent texts, are created by dierent organizations, and
are read dierently by audiences (Blank, 2007, p. 28). In elite art worlds such as the
theater, opera, or ballet, critical reviews are typically connoisseurial and are crucial
for legitimizing which objects are worthy of esthetic praise and public attention.5In
nonelite art worlds such as television, reviews are both connoissuerial and procedural
and serve a legitimation purpose as well, though this function is problematized due
to “commercial considerations, audience expertise, and the need to nd a balance
between art and entertainment” (Bielby, 2011a, p. 525).6Most importantly for our
purposes,criticalcommentaryofbothtypescanhelpobjectsbridgethegapfrom
nonelite to elite status. In the context of lm, for example, Baumann (2001) reveals
how events happening in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly an intellectualizing
discoursemobilizedbylmcritics,helpedshilmfrom“entertainment”to“art.
Similarly, Corse and Grin (1997) demonstrate how changes in the context of
book reviewing, along with changes in the contexts of publishing and academia,
facilitated a novel’s initial lukewarm reception into membership in the literary
canon.
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Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
Critical commentary, television, and soap opera
Newspapers have been the main avenue for learning about TV programs since the
mid-1950s, with most early reviewers holding experience in theater criticism. Institu-
tionalized in 1978 with the founding of the Television Critics Association, TV critics’
main role today is to evaluate programs for audiences (echoing the core mediating
role in elite art worlds) and advocate for audiences in their search for entertainment,
although industry members also nd them useful for predicting success. Over time
TV critics’ role has expanded to include industry events more broadly and they now
hold a dual role of reporter and critic, addressing hard industry news as well as the
so news of gossip/celebrity. An analysis of 540 reviews from 15 dierent critics at
six dierent newspapers nds that critics draw on a core set of criteria in their work:
“appraisal of formal aesthetic elements, signaling increased attention to television as
an art form, while retaining a consideration of factors such as entertainment value
that are of interest to audiences and business constituencies alike” (Bielby, Moloney,
& Ngo, 2005, p. 2). Other work explores the role of critical commentary in the global
TV syndication market, nding that there too “product appraisals consist of ratio-
nal, concrete criteria that signal protability alongside aesthetic criteria that reect
dimensions of entertainment” (Bielby, 2011a, p. 525). Given the relative absence of
global counterparts to U.S. domestic television critics, the role of domestic reviewers
is crucial to transnationalized culture industries.
Although soap operas were one of television’s earliest forms of programming, “far
less is known about the origin, role and status of daytime television critics” compared
with critics of primetime television, lm, music, and theater (Bielby, 2011b, p. 251).
Even the TV industry itself has given only perfunctory attention to soap opera as an
art form, due to:
[. . .] longstanding beliefs that its audience was not sophisticated enough to
appreciate critical assessment; that the genre was not authentically complex
enough to be subjected to critical appraisal; that there was no need for critics or
their criticism since the audience was already rmly attached to the medium and
wouldwatchregardlessofestheticevaluation[...]andthattheaudienceitself
was so dedicated and knowledgeable because of avid viewing that it managed to
serve ably as its own critic. (p. 253)
Despite industry inattention, formal criticism dates back to soaps’ emergence on
radio in the 1930s and expanded rapidly in the 1960s. A major shi occurred in 1968
when TV Guide started publishing features on the genre (LaGuardia, 1974), and again
in 1970 with the launch of the rst dedicated soap magazine, Daytime TV.Atthe
height of soaps’ popularity from the 1970s to the 1990s, at least a dozen soap maga-
zines were in production at any one time—no other media sphere supported so many
specialized publications (Harrington & Bielby, 1995). Magazines such as Soap Opera
Digest serve similar functions as other mass circulation publications— oering con-
noisseurial reviews, covering gossip/celebrity news, and exploring industry/economic
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C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
issues—but they also serve an advocacy function for the daytime industry, downplay-
ing salacious gossip, and operating under a “reciprocal tendency to not oend anyone”
(p. 78).
Compared with critics of other cultural objects, soap critics face a unique chal-
lenge: how to “evaluate a narrative that ha[s] no readily apparent beginning, mid-
dle, and end, or a format that specialize[s] in multiple and interwoven stories and
emphasize[s] characterization over plot” (Bielby, 2011b, p. 252). Soap critics them-
selves understand their work as more specialized than that in other entertainment
realms,requiringanunderstandingofsoaphistory,knowledgethatsoapsmustbe
interpreted dierently than other cultural objects, and attunement to the emotional
authenticity of storytelling to fans’ engagement with the genre. As soaps began their
downward slide in the 1990s, critics and fans employed dierent logics to interpret
the decline. Soap critics prioritized economic logic (e.g., changing audience demo-
graphics and increased competition from other entertainment sources), whereas fans
prioritized esthetic logic (e.g., changes in writing quality and production values; Scar-
daville, 2011b). While each group acknowledged the importance of both logics, pro-
fessionalsbelievedeconomicchangesresultedinestheticchangeswhereasfansupheld
the reverse causal trajectory. Both groups agreed that both quality and ratings of TV
soaps suered in the 1990s and 2000s.
Rather than focus on evaluative commentary in the dedicated soap press, we
explore commentary as published in e New York Times.eTimes is an advan-
tageous data source: (a) it was founded in 1851, thus spanning the entire 80+year
history of radio and television soap opera; (b) New York was the center of early radio
distribution and expansion, and along with Los Angeles became one of the primary
centers of TV soap production; (c) by 1940 the Times was the dominant newspaper
in New York City (Jacobs, 2000); (d) the Times has evolved into an elite newspaper
with a national and international reach and impact (2000); and (e) readers assume
that “reviewers for major publications are qualied professionals” who are accurate
in their assessments (Blank, 2007). Given these factors, commentary as published in
the Times has had perhaps unique potential to inuence the soap opera legitimation
process over time.
Coverage of radio and televised serials in e New York Times (hereaer NYT)
dates back to 1934 and includes formal evaluative reviews as well as economic and
industry (hard) news, gossip/celebrity (so) news, proles of industry members,
obituaries of soap insiders, and coverage of ancillary events such as celebrity soball
tournaments. A key dierence between the NYT and the dedicated soap press is that
the former does not function as an advocate for the soap genre. Early NYT reportage
is delightful to revisit in its usage of colorful, now-dated language. For example, radio
serials were described as “hoary,” “dolorous,” and “turgid,” the listening experience
as “lachrymose,” and the narrative focus on domestic life as “apdoodle.” Later
reportage is notable for its invocation of the term “soap opera” to refer to any variety
of events, revealing the extent to which the (presumed over-the-top melodramatic)
meaning of soaps has entered the national imagination. In 1993 alone the following
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Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
weredescribedassoap-opera-ishintheNYT :theBritishroyalfamily,Arizonas
policy on Martin Luther King Day, the Weather Channel, Israeli-Arab relations,
San Francisco politics, the Nigerian government, a prominent New York family, the
Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan ice skating scandal, and Cuba under Castro. What
have we come to learn about soap opera through the NYT?Moreprecisely,how
might evaluative coverage of soaps in the NYT have impacted the genre’s artistic
legitimation process? And nally, while this is not a study of audiences, what role
might NYT commentary has played in the decline of the genre?
Data and methods
Ourdataareasubsetofthatcollectedforalargerproject,whichexploredbotheco-
nomic and artistic legitimacies in the U.S. daytime soap opera form and was guided
by two questions: “What factors promoted the economic legitimacy of the soap opera
in the United States?” and “What factors enabled and constrained the diusion of a
legitimating ideology for U.S. daytime soap operas?” (Scardaville, 2011a, p. 6). Multi-
ple methodologies were used to examine these questions. To address the rst question,
the author constructed a data set of all radio and television daytime soaps airing in
the United States from 1930 to 2010 and employed regression analysis to test a series
of hypotheses regarding soap opera foundings (the launch of new programs), organi-
zational density (the number of soap operas on the air), and economic viability. e
analysis revealed basic patterns and relationships of these variables across time. To
address the second question, the author used textual analysis to examine a subsample
ofarticlesaboutsoapoperasthatappearedintheNYT from 1930 2010, comparing
and contrasting themes to develop a thesis about the creation and maintenance of a
legitimating ideology for daytime soap operas.
Our current project, a new and separate analysis, expands upon this prior work
by: (a) exploring tone (rather than theme)inNYT press coverage over time, (b) uti-
lizing a dierent subsample for purposes of analysis (i.e., those articles with explicit
evaluative commentary on the genre), and (c) using a dierent method: content anal-
ysis. Content analysis is useful for documenting trends over long time periods such
as the 80-year period under consideration here. Its limitation as a descriptive method
is overcome in this project by illustrative engagement with NYT commentary and by
drawing upon the (previously unpublished) thematic ndings from the larger project
described above. While textual analysis has its own limitations in the context of tele-
vision studies (Creeber, 2006), content and textual analyses in combination provide
reliable and nuanced understandings of the role of critical commentary in the esthetic
legitimation process of soap opera.
e sample for the larger project was assembled through a search for the terms
daytime serial,” “radio serial,”7and “soap opera” in e New York Times Historical
Database (1930–2003) and e New York Times Database (2004 2010), which
yielded 12, 248 articles. From this collection of articles (i.e., for the project presented
here), a team of research assistants selected those articles that had some review or
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C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
critical (evaluative) content pertaining to daytime soap operas in the United States
(n=762 articles). e majority of articles yielded in the initial search came from later
years of the coverage period and used “soap opera” as a descriptor of other cultural
forms, sporting or political events, or other topics tangential to our study. Other
examples that were discarded included TV schedules for a particular week or obit-
uaries of soap actors that contained no critical content. A smaller number of articles
were simply about soap or operas. ose that remained were either about individual
soap operas, the soap genre, audience, or industry, or more general discussions of
television or other media with some portion of the article devoted to an evaluation of
soap opera.
Aer our dataset was nalized, research assistants coded each article on three
dimensions relevant to the artistic legitimation process of soaps: (a) the tone of the
article (hereaer “tone”), (b) whether the article was explicitly authored (“authored”),
and (c) whether the author watched the soap opera (“viewed”). Tone is important
given the potential role of journalists as tastemakers and the associated potential of
evaluative commentary to inuence readers’ consumption decisions (Shrum, 1991,
p. 353). Authored and viewed are important in that connoisseurial evaluations rest
on the singular experience and talent of the author and are understood to be per-
sonal responses to a cultural object. As such, they speak to author credibility (Blank,
2007). For the tone variable, the research assistants used a 5-point scale adapted from
Shrum (1991) to code the articles, which ranged from very negative to very positive.
For the authored variable, they identied whether or not the article had a byline. For
the viewed variable, they determined whether or not the author of the article actually
listened to/watched the program(s) under consideration. e remaining values and
coding criteria are found in Table 1.
To determine interrater reliability, the research assistants were divided into two
teams that each coded an initial subset of 10 articles and a follow-up set of 10 articles.
We used these articles to calculate Krippendorfs Alpha, a commonly used measure
of reliability that has the added advantage of allowing for multiple coders, multiple
variables, and multiple values for each variable (Krippendor, 2004). Krippendors
Alpha is a sophisticated coecient and a recognized standard in content analysis
research due to its methodological rigor. It adjusts for small sample bias, missing data,
and chance agreement, which increases the probability that the coecient is a mea-
sure of true agreement, not articially inated. Discussing and clarifying the codes
and their application yielded nal interrater reliability scores of .814 and .895, which
are above the standard of .8 for this test. Research assistants then coded the remainder
of the articles in the dataset, with weekly meetings to discuss troublesome articles and
other coding issues.
Results
Table2showsthesummarystatisticsforthedataset.Atotalof684(90%)ofthearticles
were explicitly authored and 78 (10%) were not.8Of the 762 articles included in our
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Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
Tabl e 1 Coding Scheme for e New York Times Soap Opera Articles
Tone o f rev i ew?Ve r y ne g at i v e
aVirtually all negative phrases/statements
bReviewer clearly dislikes show/genre/actor/acting/storyline
cPositive aspects unmentioned or minor
dReviewer advises against watching (without qualication)
Somewhat negative
aNegative statements dominate positive ones either by emphasis,
placement (rst or last), or quantity (more negative statements
than positive ones
bMainly descriptive but some negative phrases
Neutral
aDescriptive (no evaluation or statements) OR
bEqual emphasis on positive or negative aspects
cCannot tell whether reviewer endorses show/genre/actor/
acting/storyline
Somewhat positive
aPositive statements dominate negative ones either by emphasis,
placement (rst or last), or quantity (more positive statements
than negative ones)
bMainly descriptive but some positive phrases
Ve r y p os i t iv e
aVirtually all positive phrases/statements
bReviewer clearly dislikes show/genre/actor/acting/ storyline
cNegative aspects unmentioned or minor
dReviewer advises watching without qualication
Reviewer a viewer?Explicit reference
e reviewer made explicit references to watching soap opera
(“When I sat down to watch ”).
Evidence for viewership
ere is convincing evidence that the reviewer watched the soap
opera (e.g., specic references to scenes, plot, or dialogue).
No evidence
ere is no explicit reference or evidence that the reviewer
watched the soap opera.
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C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
Tabl e 2 Descriptive Statistics for Soap Opera Article Dataset
Authorship N
Review explicitly authored 684
No author mentioned 78
Reviewer viewership
Explicit reference to viewing 35
Evidence of viewing 191
No evidence of or reference to viewing 536
(N=762 articles)
Tone of re vie w
Mean: 3.049
Standard deviation: 0.406
analysis, 35 (5%) contained explicit reference by the reviewer to actually watching the
soap being discussed, 191 (25%) contained sucient evidence that the author watched
the soap, and the remaining 536 (70%) contained no evidence (explicit or implicit)
that the author watched the soap opera(s) under consideration. For the tone variable,
the mean rating for the 762 articles in our dataset was 3.049, with a standard deviation
of .406. Overall, the articles were relatively balanced between positive and negative
over the period under investigation.
Our discussion below proceeds in two stages, with the rst stage focusing on the
tone of the articles and the second stage focused on authorship/viewership of articles.
Article tone
In Figure 1, we plot the average tone of the articles from 1930– 2010. We use 3-year
moving averages to allow for easier observation of longer-term trends. At the same
time, this time-frame keeps important shorter-term trends more evident than would
alonger-termmovingaverage.
As noted above, commentary over the time period in question was balanced over-
all, indicating a neutral or slightly positive treatment of soap opera by NYT journalists.
Articles were more positive in later decades, with a mean rating of 2.79 for 1930– 1969
and 3.08 for 1970 –2010 (signicant at <.001 level). In terms of the artistic legitima-
tion process and in the context of the NYT s longtime status as a reputable national
news outlet, these articles seemingly functioned to aid (or at least not harm) soaps’ bid
for artistic legitimation. Initially, this counters our expectations; however, some of the
data spikes reveal a more nuanced story than the overall trend suggests. For example,
we note a negative spike in the late 1940s/early 1950s when soap opera transitioned
to television,9followed by an upward spike in the mid-1950s when the economic
viability of that transition became apparent to journalists.10 e tone of articles is
positive around 1970 when the most soaps ever were broadcast (n=18 in 1969) and
the rst dedicated soap magazine debuted (Daytime TV in 1970), but lower a decade
later when broadcast minutes peaked for soaps (n=168,000 minutes in 1981) and the
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Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
0
0.5
1
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
1940
1942
1944
1946
1948
1950
1952
1954
1956
1958
1960
1962
1964
1966
1968
1970
1972
1974
1976
1978
1980
1982
1984
1986
1988
1990
1992
1994
1996
1998
2000
2002
2004
2006
2008
2010
review tone score
Figure 1 Average Tone of the Articles From 1930–2010.
genrehaditshighest-ratedepisodeever(General Hospital in 1981). e sharp dip
in the mid-1990s corresponds to the months-long preemption of soap opera for the
O. J. Simpson trial, but the upward trend in the mid-2000s (one of the most positive
overall) is counterintuitive in predating a wave of soap cancelations.11 What might
we make of these contradictions vis-à-vis other corresponding industry events—and
vis-à-vis the artistic legitimation process?
Earlier research (Scardaville, 2011a) helps shed light on these ndings in its focus
on thematic coverage of serials in the NYT rather than positive or negative tone of
coverage. is research found that very early reporting on radio serials was mainly
informative, alerting readers to the development of new programs or changes to the
broadcast schedule. e rst evaluative (and positive) commentary appeared in 1934
and discussed elements of successful serials:
Study of the “long run” broadcasts reveals twelve ingredients, at least one of
which is found in the [successful radio serial] naturalness, voice personality,
friendliness, timeliness, diversity, suspense, drama, education, melody,
individuality, quality and humor. (Dunlap, 1934)
Commentary turned increasingly evaluative by the late 1930s as reviewers delib-
eratedtheplaceandfunctionofradioserialsalongsideotherartformssuchastheater
and literature. One article quotes soap creator Frank Hummert explaining radio seri-
als’ distinctiveness:
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C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
[Radio] characters, according to Mr. Hummert, must be human and lovable,
their actions must be logical, consistent and believable, and painted against the
canvasofsimple,everydayAmericanlife[...]“etheatreandthetheatreof
the air [as radio serials were frequently termed] are as far apart as two poles,” Mr.
Hummert explained. “When people go to the theatre, they are willing to accept
things as they are, but in radio the characters become so close to the audience
and so much a part of their daily life that they come to believe it is the real thing
and not make-believe at all.” (“Radio serials,” 1938)
While a few radio serials received high praise for their artistic merits (most notably
Against the Storm, which won the Peabody Award in Excellence in Radio in 1942),12
Hummert’s comments presaged a notable shi in evaluative coverage between 1943
and the 1970s, when articles about daytime programming were less about serial con-
tent and more about the audience.Duringthis30-yearperiod,mostarticlescon-
tained negative commentary about its female viewership—as addicts, as delusional,
as losers—regardless of the piece’s main point (Scardaville, 2011a). In other words,
thiswasevaluativecommentarybutnotdirectlyofsoapstorytellingorelementsof
thegenre;instead,itexposedNYT readers to soap opera indirectly through critics
(mostly poor) perception of its audience. For example, in an article published in the
mid-1950s the author ponders the emergent audience for TV soaps through what has
“already been established” about the audience for radio serials:
e soap opera audience is overwhelmingly a middle-class-and-lower audience;
it admires and envies the upper-middle-class characters in the serials [ . . . ] ey
cling to a severe moral code (on which their position as wife and mother is
based),buttheyareanxiousaboutthatposition[...]Fromtheserialstheyget
reassurance. e good wife and mother is important; the threatened home is
saved;righttriumphsoverwrong[...]Womensaytheylearnfromtheserials
how to manage their own lives. One observes the serials and wonders. (Seldes,
1954)
isdisparagementoftheaudience,rootedinstereotypesaboutgender,class,and
cultural competence, is also seen in coverage of behind-the-scenes personnel who
are depicted as “getting” the absurdity of soap opera in ways the listeners/viewers do
not. For example, in an article titled “Ordeal by Soap,” journalist Murray Schumach
describes production of an early televised soap:
Actors in these rehearsals are almost eager to oer cuts in their own speeches.
ey laugh at the lines intended to draw audience snies and groan at sections
that are supposed to draw laughs. Perhaps never before has so much sweat been
poured into so little script; so much ne crasmanship into so little art.
(1950, p. 51)
Content-based commentary returned briey in the 1970s as journalists debated
soaps’ appeal to new audiences (such as university students), their resonance with
the tenets of feminism (as noted earlier),13 and their dramatization of social issues
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Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
including “the ‘generation gap,’ abortion, obscenity, narcotics and political protest”
(Bordewich, 1974). By the 1980s, however, NYT coverage again shied away from
content toward the economic troubles facing the industry (e.g., soaps’ target female
demographic entering the paid labor market). By the mid-1990s, one of the only
ways for a opera to receive mention in the NYT was if a program or an actor was
involved in a charity event (Scardaville, 2011a), and even rare coverage of the treat-
ment of soap opera within academia— itself a potential factor in the process of artistic
legitimation— is undercut by article title (“As the Dissertations Churn: Academe Has
the Hots for TV Soaps”) and opening lines: “And you thought the only thing you could
learn from soap operas was who was doing it to whom. Silly you” (Kuntz, 1994, p. E4).
In the 2000s, programming content received virtually no coverage at all— even
majoreventssuchasalesbiancoming-outstorylineonAll My Children (ABC) in
2000 or the 75th anniversary of Guiding Light (CBS) in 2003 were overlooked by the
paper. Instead, NYT soap coverage in the 2000s, such that it existed, focused almost
exclusively on local real-world community connections. For example, four Daytime
Emmy nominees were proled in 2001 around the dubious premise that all lived in
the same Connecticut town, and a 2003 feature on Guiding Light (CBS) focused on a
local youth baseball team who served as on-set extras. Perhaps most tellingly of the
newspaper’s gradual coverage of soap operas as a “moribund” rather than “viable”
genre, fully 29% of the soaps mentioned by name in the 2000s had been canceled the
previous decade (Scardaville, 2011a).
Taken together, then, our ndings on article tone over time that expanded upon
priorresearchonarticletheme over time (Scardaville, 2011a) tell a more ambiguous
storyabouttheroleoftheNYT in the artistic legitimation process than the cautiously
optimistic note sounded above. Again, tone is important given journalists’ potential
role as tastemakers and the concomitant potential of evaluative commentary to inu-
encereaders’consumptiondecisions:toreadabook,attendaplay,orwatchaTVshow
(Shrum, 1991, p. 353). To remind, published evaluations answer two basic questions
about a cultural object: “What is it? Is it any good?” (Blank, p. 7). But while the overall
tone of commentary in the NYT isneutralorslightlypositive,whichwesuggested
earlier might aid or at least not harm soaps’ bid for artistic legitimation, the fact that
the articles focus less and less over time on soap operas themselves and more on the
soap audience or the broader entertainment landscape tempers this suggestion. We
elaborate this point below.
Article authorship/viewership
In the second stage of our analysis, we calculated correlations between article tone and
othervariablesofinterest.eassociationbetweenexplicitauthorshipandarticletone
was not statistically signicant, so there is no relationship between these variables.
e correlation between viewership (explicit or implicit evidence of viewership) and
the tone of the article, however, is negative and signicant (.087, p<.01, one-tailed
test), indicating that the less likely it was (to the reader) that the author watched the
program,themorelikelytheyweretogiveitanegativeevaluation.Inotherwords,
624 Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association
C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
when it appears the journalist personally listened to or watched the soap opera(s)
she/he reviewed, the better the evaluation. Overall, this speaks to the issue of author
credibility in the artistic legitimation process. In general, procedural reviews have eth-
ical protections built in (such as detailed descriptions of testing procedures) but the
connoisseurial review process “is a black box. Readers cannot easily see how evalu-
ations were reached” (Blank, 2007, p. 133). Since connoisseurial evaluations “rest on
the unique skills, sensitivity, training, and experience of a single reviewer” (2007, p. 7),
evidence of nonconsumption by journalists might limit their connoissuerial function
and compromise the credibility of the commentary.
As noted above, in 70% of the articles coded the author did not indicate or provide
evidence of consuming soap opera. Why might a professional journalist assigned to
cover a cultural object not actually consume the object in question? We do not mean to
malign our colleagues at the NYT indeed, in most evaluative contexts (e.g., reviews
of a novel or a movie or a basketball game) it would be dicult to imagine published
commentary in a reputable news outlet not basedontheactofpersonalconsump-
tion. Perhaps the author did consume soap opera as part of the evaluative process but
due to writing conventions (either personal or institutional), she/he elected against
indicating so in the published piece. Or perhaps the gradual movement away from
reviewing soap opera content to reviewing other elements of the soap landscape (e.g.,
celebrity gossip) means journalists no longer “had” to consume soaps in order to
legitimately write about them (though this raises an interesting question of whether
they stopped reviewing content because they were no longer personally consuming
soap opera or whether they no longer consumed soap opera because they were no
longer assigned to cover programming content. Our data are unable to shed light
on this.)
To complicate the issue further, perhaps the format of serial storytelling became
a gradual hindrance to the evaluation process. In the early days of radio it appears
clear that critics were listening to the soaps they wrote about. For example, one
critic summarizes the troubles-based theme of the genre through his observation
that the “prevailing sound eect is the barely repressed sob” (Hutchens, 1943a),
andinasubsequentarticlepraisesthewriterofe Open Door for dialogue that
is “admirable—alive and sensitive [and with] a compelling ow and rhythm”
(Hutchens, 1943b). But television, even in the network era, appeared to present a
challenge to journalists. Consider the comments of Harriet Van Horne, midcentury
critic of both radio and TV:
I did a television column for 20 years, ve columns a week, and I was always in a
little screening room in the aernoon and at the television set at night [. . .] Had I
stayed in television, it would have killed me. Imagine reviewing “I Love Lucy” 20
times. Imagine reviewing “Gunsmoke” 20 times. It would rot anybody’s brain.
(Severo, 1998)
In the contemporary era, primetime critics describe their job as “overwhelming”
dueto“thesheervolumeoftelevisionprogrammingthatneedstobereviewed”(Bielby
Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association 625
Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
et al., 2005, p. 9). In short, choices must be made. Most evaluations of primetime TV
are of new (not returning) series, and while “reviewers tend to be more systematic in
theircoverageofnewshows(reviewingthemajority,ifnotall,ofthenewseries),
their commentary on returning shows “tend to be highly selective (reviewing just a
few shows)” (2005, p. 13). What choices do critics face with daytime soaps? Con-
sider that until recently, soap episodes aired only once with the day’s content never
repeated.Consider,too,thepotentiallongevityofU.S.soaptextsthe15,000+total
broadcast episodes of e Guiding Light (CBS), or the 10,000+episodes of All My
Children (ABC), or even the 2,000+episodes of Santa Barbara (NBC). What reason-
ably gets evaluated in these contexts if a reviewer is not already familiar with a show
and/or does not work for a publication dedicated to soap coverage? A weeks worth of
episodes? A particular storyline? e denouement of a long-running narrative? In this
context, the launch of a new soap opera is uniquely newsworthy as “appointment tele-
vision.” Writes NYT critic John O’Connor on the debut of e Bold and the Beautiful
(CBS) in 1987:
In its own endearingly dopey way, the beginning of a new soap opera is an event
worth watching. e sheer mechanics of getting ve dierent plotlines moving
simultaneously are staggering, and the shorthand methods of characterization
are positively dizzying. (p. C18)
O’Connor’s review introduces readers to the core characters, describes the plot of
the premiere episode, and quotes multiple lines of dialogue along with actors’ meth-
ods of delivering their lines—clear indications of O’Connor’s viewership. While the
overall tone of the article is not exactly positive— he devotes word count to the obser-
vationthattheactors“allseemtohavewonderfulteeth”—itiscleartoanyNYT reader
that he watched the program. Our point is the unusual nature of this type of commen-
tary in later decades of the newspaper. To return to our discussion above, perhaps the
gradual shi away from content-based articles in the NYT is due to a gradual dis-
engagement of journalists from the act of soap opera consumption, given the genre’s
unique format constraints.
Ultimately, and to return to the observation that TV critics today occupy a dual
role of reporter and critic, it appears the former has eclipsed the latter at the NYT —at
leastinthecontextofsoapoperaandatleastinreferencetocoverageofsoapcon-
tent. In short, critical commentary of soaps in the NYT gradually became neither
procedural nor connoisseurial by declining to engage directly the core issue of product
(program) quality— in part due perhaps to the gradual “unreadability” of the format
within the world of professional critics. Much as scholars develop a common language
and set of tools to interpret textual data, so do professional critics share the same eval-
uative criteria and adopt their own set of tools. Several decades ago scholars such as
Robert Allen (1985) began to develop ways to interpret this unique narrative form but
perhaps critics developed no comparable, systematic way to talk about soap quality.
Implications for the artistic legitimation of the daytime soap opera form are discussed
in the following section.
626 Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association
C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
Conclusion
A prior project (Scardaville, 2011a) explored two sets of thematic frames across
80 years of NYT coverage of soap opera, contrasting two frames that helped legit-
imize the genre (emotional authenticity of soap operas; social relevance of soap
storytelling) with two delegitimizing frames (soaps as antiart; viewers as deviant)
that were ultimately insightful in constructing the meaning of soap opera that exists
today. Soaps’ economic success was never matched by a widespread acceptance of
the genre’s artistry, despite soaps’ enduring popular appeal and a dedicated soap
press that emerged to mediate between the genre, its audience, and the larger cultural
landscape.
e ndings presented here help support these conclusions and provide additional
understanding into soaps’ failure to achieve general validation in the legitimation pro-
cess. e neutral/slightly positive overall tone of published commentary documented
here—which would appear to aid the legitimation process— was ultimately coun-
tered by thematic changes in coverage that served to delegitimize the genre. Moreover,
the potential connoisseurial function of NYT articles, which depends on the singular
talent of reviewers and in elite contexts is crucial in determining which objects
are worthy of esthetic praise and public attention (Blank, 2007), was limited here
by an apparent disconnect between journalists’ own consumption habits and the
object under question. NYT critics’ ability to serve as opinion leaders (Eliashberg &
Shugan, 1997) in the context of soap opera was thus problematized in an unexpected
way—while both connoisseurial and procedural reviews can help shi cultural
objects from nonelite to elite status, commentary about soaps in the NYT evolved
into neither. By the time soaps had entered their rapid decline in the late 1990s/2000s,
the questions answered by reviews—“What is it? Is it any good?” (Blank, 2007, p.
7)—were no longer being engaged, the former because “everyone already knows”
what soap operas are and the latter because “everyone (but soap fans) knows” the
answeris“no.”Indeed,thegeneraldiusionoftheconceptof“soapopera”into
the popular imagination as facilitated by the NYT to refer to sporting events,
political debacles, family squabbles, and chick-lit—was utilized by 20th-century
cultural entrepreneurs to mobilize other cultural objects (namely movies in the
1960s/1970s and primetime TV in the 1980s/1990s) toward esthetic mobility. Rather
than soap opera itself achieving artistic legitimation, it became the standard-bearer
for low-quality objects despite its enduring popularity among viewers (Scardaville,
2011a).
What role might critical commentary in the NYT have played in the actual rat-
ingsdeclineofthegenre?Wedonothaveaudiencedatasoourremarkshereare
merely suggestive, but it appears that the shi away from evaluating program content
mayhavefueledthedeclinebydissuadingnonwatchersfromthegenre.Morethan
50 years ago, Kurt Lang (1958) observed that TV reviews in mass readership outlets
were mostly framed as “Will the viewer like the program?” whereas the approach of
elite publications (such as the NYT)weremore“Should theviewerliketheprogram?
Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association 627
Soap Opera Legitimation C. L. Harrington et al.
(1958, p. 15; emphasis added). In the NYT the answer quickly became “no”—not on
the basis of the content of any given program but on the poor reputational qualities
associated with soaps’ female viewership and eventually with the soap landscape in its
entirety. A mid-1990s ethnography of the soap fan community (Harrington & Bielby,
1995) documented the broad demographics of soap viewership— women (and men)
of all socioeconomic classes, esthetic tastes, and educational backgrounds—but who
shared a keen awareness of the low-cultural status of the form. At the time of that
study even committed soap fans were embarrassed to buy magazines such as Soap
Opera Digest at the local drugstore. e likelihood that a nonsoap watcher would be
introduced to soaps via such a purchase seems nil— so in an era when the industry was
desperately trying to cultivate new viewers and was experimenting with the genre in
unprecedented ways, the ability of more generalized outlets such as the NYT to bridge
the producer– consumer gap was essentially abdicated by the review process.
Finally, we note that the functions of newspapers themselves have changed
dramatically in the past 20 years, due to new economic challenges, changing business
models, and emerging competition for eyeballs, among other factors. As mentioned
earlier, newspapers have been the main place to learn about TV shows since the
mid-1950s—but entertainment fandom in general has migrated to the web with
soapviewersoneoftherstgroupstocreateonlinespacestoshareinformation,
opinions, and their own evaluations of the genre. e near noncoverage of soaps by
the NYT in the past 15years—whether program, audience, or industry news—is
thus perhaps indicative of a shi away from newspapers as legitimation agents, at
least in the context of certain cultural forms.
Acknowledgments
We thank our research assistants: Jennifer Benge, Spencier Ciaralli, Dolores Dodson,
Rebecca Haney, Justin Liggett, Matthew Luedtke, Christina Palmer, Amberlee Porter,
Jenna Tenenbaum, Brandon Wilkins, and Anna Wood.
Notes
1 Irna Phillips’s Painted Dreams, launched in 1930, is considered the rst radio soap opera.
2 ere is no necessary relationship between the economic and artistic legitimacy of a
cultural object; while the two legitimating ideologies interact with one another, they
have independent trajectories as well. Historically, these forms of legitimacy tended to
be inversely related—in order to be accepted as “art” an object’s commercial status was
disavowed (DiMaggio, 1982). As such, perhaps the rising economic legitimacy of soaps
in the 1950s helped temper the genre’s initial bid for artistic legitimacy, especially
because U.S. soaps were tied since inception to the commercial/advertising sphere and
to a devalued target audience: women. However, it remains an empirical question how
the economic and artistic legitimacy for soap operas interacted over time.
3 See van Venrooij (2009) for a discussion of why reviews constitute a particularly good
data source for studies of esthetic classication systems.
628 Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2015) 613– 631 © 2015 International Communication Association
C. L. Harrington et al. Soap Opera Legitimation
4 ere has been extensive empirical research on the relationship between reviews and
sales, which nds that reviews can be (but are not always) inuential (see Blank,
2007, p. 6).
5 Procedural reviews do not work well in an arts context because arts experts “have never
been able to develop objective, standardized procedures and criteria to judge the quality
of artworks” (Janssen, 2009, p. 941).
6 While the role of critics in elite art worlds has long been institutionalized— critics are
formally trained and their interpretation and judgment are widely accepted as
superseding that of the audience— their role in popular culture has been more broadly
debated, with Shrum (1991, 1996) nding them unnecessary but more recent
scholarship demonstrating their function and relevance.
7 “Daytime serial” and “radio serial” were included for the years 1930– 1942 because the
term “soap opera” was not used until the late 1930s.
8 Not surprisingly, the majority of reviewers (as indicated through byline) were male
though the number of females increased over time. While the analysis presented here
does not focus on gender, future studies might consider the relationship between
reviewer demographics, workplace context, and esthetic valuation of cultural objects,
especially because in the context of soap opera the journalists working for the dedicated
soap press (e.g., Soap Opera Digest)aretypicallyfemale.
9ersttelevisionsoap,TodaysChildren, broadcast in 1949.
10 For example, a 1954 article remarked on the “spectacular success of [the soap] genre
which everyone was sure would never go in television” (Seldes, 1954).
11 Passions (NBC) was canceled in 2007, Guiding Light (CBS) in 2009, As the World Turns
(CBS) in 2010, All My Children (ABC) in 2011, and One Life to Live (ABC) in 2012.
12 Critic John K. Hutchens, who appears to be no great fan of the genre in most articles,
lamented this serial’s exit from the airwaves aer its brief run, praising “this ve-a-week
program which, for more than three years, has had something important to say, and has
said it with great narrative skill, dignity, intelligence and a cast of living and literate
characters” (Hutchens, 1942).
13 As one journalist observed, “soap operas are the only programs on television that do not
adopt a patronizing attitude toward women. ere are more women doctors, lawyers,
writers, judges, nurses, District Attorneys and corporation executives on daytime
television than we ever dreamed of on primetime” (Gutcheon, 1973).
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... For our analysis, we decided to focus on two groups of agents in the field of television production: creators and critics. We chose these two groups because, according to Bourdieu (1993) and others (Scardaville, 2009;Harrington et al., 2015), both are major players in any cultural field and take significant part in consecrating cultural artifacts into a canon of 'quality' works of artistic value. ...
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