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Her Stories

Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History


Elana Levine


Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power Series

Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press, 2020

Paperback. ix+386 p. ISBN 978-1478008019. $29.95/£24.99


Reviewed by Charlotte Brunsdon

University of Warwick



The significance of soap opera


While ‘soap opera’ remains a pejorative term, carrying connotations of a tawdry banality, the worlds of the detergent-sponsored daytime serials which were such a feature of US broadcast economies have not survived into the twenty-first century. Elana Levine reminds her readers, at the end of this compelling history of the rise and fall of US daytime serials, that in 2020, four daytime soaps continue to air daily on broadcast networks and that there is a growing industry of independent web soaps creating a soapy space in digital television. However, 1984, the year of the daytime serials’ peak audiences, is a long time ago, and both television and its audiences have changed substantially. It is now difficult to imagine the strength of a business model in which viewers are enticed – as housewives – to take a little time out of their daytime chores to watch segmented drama in which stories of romantic, family and community life are interspersed with advertising which offers to solve the problems of germs, dirt and dust in the home. Despite Levine’s insistence that soaps may yet have a life to live, it is the sense of an ending which makes it possible to tell this story now, and to tell it in a way which demonstrates the centrality of daytime serial drama to twentieth-century US broadcasting.

This book has been well reviewed, and it was partly this that made me curious to read it, even though I stopped researching soap opera some years ago. For the last sentence needs no qualification – it has not been ‘well reviewed for a book about soap opera’, it has been well reviewed, and recognised, as a significant contribution to the history, and historiography, of U.S. television. The reception of most soap opera studies has been tainted with the attitudes to the genre and its audiences which have comprised one part of the field of study, and Levine herself has contributed, in an earlier work, to mapping the contours of the illegitimacy of television as an object of study. This history of US daytime serials will become the definitive account of the genre, but its argument and achievement reach beyond the genre, proposing that ‘its variations over time can help us to understand how media participate in shaping our engagements with one another across private and public spheres’, as well as narrating the story of US television itself [298]. Although the book, with a nod to the challenges of 1970s feminist history, is called Her Stories, its subtitle makes its broader claim apparent: ‘Daytime soap opera and US television history’.

The book tracks the daytime serial from its late radio days (1940s) through the transfer to television in the 1950s, to the network phase (1970s-80s), to the long decline of post-network. Her exploration of the transition from radio to television is particularly significant for understandings of the development of codified practices of storytelling in the new medium. Although the pioneering audience research of the 1940s by figures such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Herta Herzog was conducted on radio listeners, there was a gap in attention to the genre until the late 1970s / early 1980s, when the work of Tania Modleski, Ellen Seiter and Robert C. Allen transformed the field. Levine’s approach is founded in this later moment, but she grounds it in archivally-based account of the transition from radio which illuminates the development of serialised visual story-telling and the changing balance of voice and image as television producers experiment and stabilise the codes of the medium.

Levine does three main things with this book, each of which entails an interaction with accepted histories of television as well as with the historiography of the medium.

She provides a thoroughly documented account of the historical interplay of commercial and aesthetic impulses in the production and development of daytime serial drama, demonstrating the centrality of daytime serial production to the evolution of televisionstorytelling and the economies of the television networks. She historicises Newcomb and Hirsch’s notion of television as a cultural forum, and shows the way in which daytime serials host the different kinds of debates and addresses to femininity in the genre in the period of network dominance. And finally, she draws on the pioneering feminist research on soaps and attitudes towards them, to outline a history of the genre through its assumptions about its audiences and its articulation of plausible and desirable gendered, raced and familial identities and narratives. The critical difference from the earlier scholarship which demanded that soaps be taken seriously, women’s fictions as they were, is that Levine feels no need to polemicise. Instead of an argument about ‘women’s genres’ within the canon in general, Levine can write a specific, historical account of the development of daytime serials in the US in the network era, into which she weaves an account of the changing position of women, and the shifts in the representational repertoires of the drama. This enables her to use her research to demonstrate the ways in which, for example, the portrayal (or even possibility) of mixed-race couples, or the decision to have an abortion, are inflected differently at different moments in the representational world of the soaps.

Levine’s method combines extensive and multi-modal archival research with textual analysis. In the archive work, she shows that the strength of the NBC archive has skewed the history of daytime serial because NBC, with its social uplift mission was slow to engage with the serials. In Britain, the dominance of the BBC’s archives has produced similar distortions, as is also the case for other countries with histories of strong public service broadcasting. For the analysis of how the serials represented the social world they depicted, she explicitly and usefully addresses the difficulties for the textual scholar of these unending narrative television dramas, drawing on surviving episodes held in a range of official and unofficial sites, and her own memories as a long-term soap viewer. While ‘complex narratives’ have, in the twenty-first century, been much touted as the invention of US quality television, Levine shows how long and complex the history of soap opera is.

This is a feminist history in its most achieved sense, in that the book demonstrates that attention to the history of daytime serials transforms broader histories, and makes previous orthodoxies simply untenable. I always knew that there was sleight of hand in David Simon’s invocation of Dickens – and elision of television history - as a progenitor of The Wire, but Levine shows how indebted all television drama is to the formal innovation conducted by the soaps. Particularly fascinating is her account of the ways in which the transfer to television demanded that serial producers must entice their audience to look at the tv screen. However, Levine also intervenes in a series of other debates. Her history demonstrates the ineffectiveness of much US television regulation, while also, following the work of Eileen Meehan, revealing how very limited the so-called science of audience measurement is. The failure of the accepted ratings systems to count time-shifted video viewing in the 1980s is particularly significant for a genre which depends on a committed audience. The determining significance of audience image is also addressed. Soaps have never been prestigious, but Levine shows that the late twentieth-century characterisation of the soap audience as poor, elderly, and often not white, was a key legitimation for the cancellation of soaps in the period when young white mobile women – think Friends - became a key demographic for the tv networks fighting off the challenges of cable and streaming.

Reading this book, from outside the USA, about half way through, I began to recall feelings I used to get when, in the 1980s, US tv scholars talked about General Hospital or All My Children. I could tell that they were passionately invested in what they were discussing – and Levine shows how significant the expansion of the daytime audience, to include college students, was in the 1980s – but I did not really have any reference points. Who were Luke and Laura? Most television was national (with strong regional inflections), and the people who got to see it were the people who lived in that country. While US television was widely exported, it was the cowboys, the detectives and the medics, rather than the soap operas, which travelled. When trying to think about why British soap opera was so sneered at, I had never seen US daytime serials and did not know what they were like. I met Ellen Seiter at a 1980 SCMS conference in New York City through a shared interest in how to think about soap opera and attitudes to soap opera audiences. It took us quite a while to figure out how very different the television we were talking about was, as we had never watched each other’s non-exported national television. Only with Dallas and Dynasty did family-based, but now prime-time, serial drama travel, and that spawned a significant international scholarly literature. Levine shows well the historical specificity of network television’s role as a cultural forum in the US in the 1960s-1980s. The cultural forum period of television, as we can now identify it, was also nationally specific, with countries with strong state involvement in broadcasting developing rather different fora with different representational repertoires – and much less advertising. For example, in France, a series such as Les saintes chéries (1965-1970), which could be seen to have an address to women, was broadcast to a family audience in the evening, while it is not until the privatisation of TF1 in 1986 and the creation of the commercial channel La Cinq that commercial television becomes available. It is to Levine’s credit that she makes her case through sustained textual and archival analysis and research, and it is precisely for this specificity that television scholars must strive. However, for the non-US reader who is not a scholar of US television, some of the detail may blur. This is a necessary consequence of properly situated research into a medium which was dominantly national in its period of ascendancy – otherwise work is all theory, or just about widely exported, usually US-originated programmes. Levine’s central arguments are significant for any scholar of television, particularly given the global dominance of US television. Her explication of her method and research design in the early chapters is clear and useful and could serve as a model – even for readers who still have no idea who Luke and Laura were.



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