In general, then, the determining context for cultural production is always that of their market. In seeking to maximize this market, products must draw on the most widely legitimated central core values while rejecting the dissenting voice or the incomparable objection to a ruling myth. The need for easily understood, popular, formulated, undisturbing, assimilable fictional material is at once a commercial imperative and an aesthetic recipe. (Murdock and Golding 1979:40)
Soap time is for and of pleasure, the time of consumption, of a collectivized and commercially induced American Dream. (Porter 1979: 96)
Exploring the relationships between the world in a soap frame and the conditions and processes that generate the symbolic world reveals a complex process linking market situation, organization goals, work practices, and performances. The primary dynamic affecting the process and performances is the competition for large demographically ideal audiences/markets of women 18 to 49. As a symbolic form virtually created to produce an audience, Guiding Light reflects the dominance of marketing and the commercial process that makes it available.
ABC's recent success in attracting larger and younger audiences, creating a brand loyalty to the ABC soaps, and promoting and establishing General Hospital as the most popular soap opera led to changes in the Procter and Gamble soaps, specifically in the case at hand, Guiding Light. ABC's success changed the perceptions of what soaps could be and should be like and intensified the latent conflicts of interest between CBS and Procter and Gamble. Whereas CBS and Procter and Gamble once dominated soap programming, this was no longer the case.
The pressure and changes instituted to make Guiding Light more successful in competition with General Hospital affected virtually every aspect of the production process. They had an impact on the resources made available to the production, the relationship between CBS and Procter and Gamble, the authority structure and organization of the work process, the technology employed, work practices and related storytelling, visual, audio, and musical conventions, the stories deemed tellable and sellable, the perceptions of the audience, and the look of the show. All are interrelated and attest to the complex process linking the commercial goals of the communication/production process and the performances.
As several production personnel noted or admitted, demographic concerns and the competitive process were making Guiding Light more like its primary competitor, General Hospital. CBS was trying to affect Procter and Gamble's productions to make them more like ABC's. Sonny Fox identifies the underlying dynamic.
The demographics, the figures in terms of the population breakdown and the habits and patterns of viewing, are the things that really are what shapes a network, and the reason that all three networks are more like each other than unlike--because the parameters that they deal with are the same. (Fox quoted in Klein 1979:36)
The general pattern is for the least successful network to be the most innovative and if successful, be imitated or matched in a year. Soap operas belong on Hirsch's list:
In terms of program innovations, the tendency has been for the network with the lowest rating (formerly ABC) to differentiate its products from the others by introducing new concepts (Monday night football, higher levels of violence, tough documentaries); successful innovations, like price increases, have then been "matched" or imitated within a year by the remaining networks. (1980:86)
While soaps have not attracted much popular or academic attention until recently, they are commercially quite important. They are important to program manufacturers, distributors, and advertisers. They attract ideal female audiences/ markets for home and family care products; they ideally create loyal audiences/consumers for programs, commercials,
products, and networks; they facilitate advertising campaign planning; and they are extremely profitable given their low production costs in relation to the revenues they bring in. That Procter and Gamble owned six soaps (now five) including Guiding Light, whereas the dominant commercial television pattern is for advertisers to buy "spots" from networks testifies to their attractiveness. For a manufacturer of home and family care products, soaps are an effective and highly economical way to deliver product messages to women in the home, where their products are largely used. The domestic romance of a soap is an ideal domain built around commercials that romanticize domesticity. Procter and Gamble's primary interest is what it costs to reach potential markets. The bottom line is the "cost per thousand viewers"--the lower the cost the better.
CBS as a distributor of programming has interests different from Procter and Gamble 'a. They are primarily concerned with selling markets to advertisers. Selling these markets is very much affected by the ratings of programs, which function as domains for commercials. The higher the ratings, and the greater the success in reaching a targeted audience/market, the more they are able to charge for advertising time. In addition, if they owned their own soap programming, they would profit even more and be able to control program content directly. When the Procter and Gamble soaps on CBS were the most popular, the arrangements worked out between CBS and Procter and Gamble were more satisfactory to CBS. ABC's profits from soap programs they directly owned had changed CBS's approach to the relationship.
The performances generated by the work process were changed in a number of ways. A useful shorthand term, which emphasizes the commercial interest in "product differentiation," is the term "look" of the show. On the one hand, Guiding Light was to be changed to remove negative characteristics of traditional soaps but, on the other hand, remain distinctive and appealing as it adopted many of the qualities perceived as responsible for the success of the ABC soaps.
The show's look was changed by: (1) increasing the percentage of younger characters, (2) telling "youthful stories" appropriate to the age group, (3) having fewer storylines, (4) increasing pace in delivery, cutting, and story movement, (5) adding elements of overt fantasy to the "realism" of everyday life, (6) shooting on location, (7) increasing "production values" such as more expensive sets and costumes and (8) giving an overall lighter, more upbeat air to programming. At the same time, many traditional practices remained, including the primacy of romance and a domesticated world. The mix of traditional and newer elements, and the
overall nature of the symbolic world, is best understood by examining the nature of the work process mediating or linking market conditions and performances.
Procter and Gamble relies upon an advertising agency for administrative control and, to a lesser extent, creative control. The distinction between managerial and creative control can be misleading given the commercial nature of the process. Compton Advertising hires the creative staff and production staff, while the technical staff is hired by CBS. Important changes were made in the authority structure overseeing the production process. Procter and Gamble recently assigned one supervising producer to Guiding Light to oversee the programming more directly and also increased the authority of the executive producer. These changes partially reflect the complexity of more elaborate hour-length programming, but also are a response to the increased pressure from CBS. Direct network involvement and the possibility of headwriters and network executives taking the programming in a direction that was unacceptable to Procter and Gamble were countered by investing more authority in the role of executive producer.
Procter and Gamble had previously dominated soap programming through their successes and the extent of their involvement in soap production. One area that has always been problematic is the role of the headwriter. There has been a surplus of creative/technical/managerial personnel, but it has not been matched by a surplus of capable and willing writers. As a result, Procter and Gamble has purchased shows from writers, established programs to develop writers, led writers to believe they could tell the stories they wanted to tell and then not supported them (LeMay 1981), and, in general, "put them on a pedestal." One consequence of the new authority structure was that the headwaiter left Guiding Light in September 1982, when his contract was up, after a dispute with the executive producer.
Performances are directly controlled by the involvement of the supervising and executive producer in all phases of the production process from story creation and selection to final performances. The executive producer is more directly involved in the daily decision-making process, while the line producer monitors every episode and attempts to avert potential problems given his or her close scrutiny of the individual episodes and their realization. Control also derives from a general tendency to hire from within the production process and reward loyal employees by moving them from program to program, even if a particular individual is not associated with successful programming.
The stories that are chosen to be told and how they are told are strongly influenced by commercial organizational
goals. The need to reduce uncertainty and produce a great quantity of material leads to a reliance on formulas, performers and personnel with proven track records, and a general perception of what has been or is currently successful as a model to be copied to some degree. Ultimately designed to create involvement, what works is employed to that end so that stories and popular performers are used for as long as possible. Stories are retold and performers/characters are literally resurrected. A basic justification articulated by production personnel is that there are only a limited number of stories and the basic challenge is telling the same story in new and interesting ways. A limitation on the reuse and the length of a time a story could be told or retold was potential viewer boredom and the danger of violating the moral expectations of viewers. The knowledge that viewers have of past programming also limits how quickly and radically story and character behavior can be changed. The degree to which character behavior was consistent was a matter of some pride and an indication of integrity for people working in daytime television.
The general tendency to tell realistic stories leads to the use of both common sense and news accounts (constructions) of social life. Stories are to be about characters people care about, understandable, believable, and contemporary, resonate with nonfiction accounts of the real world, but also be balanced and avoid controversial issues that would split the audience. Risk is minimized by avoiding offensive stories, scenes, and language, which limits the stories told and how they are told. The requirements of a serial format, the generation of a continuous stream of potential experience, and the pursuit of ratings, combined with reducing uncertainty and minimizing risk severely restrict storytelling on soaps.
The complexity of the process and the general pressure to complete the job within a schedule leads to a concern with preventing potential problems. Given the pressure to meet organizational requirements, particularly deadlines, workers from prop people to performers were oriented to getting the job done and making the process flow smoothly. Actors, for example, might object to a storyline for their character, but they took their complaints to a producer before an episode was taped. Similarly, directors and actors would invest in their work by discussing the realization of an episode before its taping. Potential conflicts with Program Practices are ideally identified before a story is told or an episode taped. When Guiding Light taped episodes on location in St. Croix, the director received a list of suggestions on how not to shoot scenes before he left for St. Croix. In this way
the material taped on location would more likely be acceptable to Program Practices. Professional ideologies develop that emphasize meeting organizational imperatives, which are, in turn, dictated by the economic goals of the process. In this way, work is fitted to the structure and relationships undergirding the communication process.
The pressure to get the job done reinforces the tendency toward a concern with form over content, which is also reflected in the emphasis on the look of the show. This is not to say that people did not invest in their work or that they were unaware of the commercial imperatives affecting the production process. Virtually everyone resented the pace at which the episodes were taped and the routine nature of the work. The limited creative participation of directors and actors was particularly frustrating to them. Because story is a relatively secret strategic resource that can be changed at any time, and that is beyond the control of the directors and performers, there are limits to their ability to invest in and shape their work. The breakneck production pace and the constant monitoring of their work were also sources of constant pressure and frustration.
The hour-length format and the more elaborate storytelling has increased many pressures of work and also made it more fragmented. Increased budgets are tied to making more competitive and profitable products. The lengthening of the programs, the increase in their pace--more scene changes, faster presentation of lines, quicker cuts--and their more spectacular and glamorous production (increased production values) all contributed to the increased pace of the work process. The technological developments of videotape and computerized editing were largely used to realize those values and reflected the economic interests making the programming available.
Soap production is particularly interesting as a type of commercial television fare because of the opportunity to use feedback from the audience. Audience research, letters, and ratings are combined with past experience and the immediate reactions of personnel involved in the production. But even here, the demographic and ratings concerns are primary determinants in the decision-making process. Producers, directors, performers--all paid attention to the reactions in the studio and to the reactions of family and friends--but these sources could be contradicted by what the ratings indicated. While the Carrie Story" was viewed as creatively successful, it did not pull the ratings as expected and was played out.
A great deal of uncertainty surrounds the communication process; and perceptions, decisions, and legitimations reflect this characteristic. The uncertainty was part of the
drama and a source of excitement for some who were involved in the process. Past experience, professional judgment, and a reading of competitive patterns and trends all contributed to what they thought would work. Generally, letters confirm what is already believed, and those that are surprising, register trends, or call attention to errors and areas of potential risk are weighted more heavily. Letters seemed to be of greater importance in assessing the success of performers in appealing to the audience. Not much attention was paid to audience research other than ratings and summary statements of audience demographics. Two producers, in fact, asked me to explain the Nielsen summaries I had acquired. Audience research seems most important to higher level decision makers, and may shape perceptions (and justifications) at the production level only later. Both CBS and Procter and Gamble carry out extensive research, but how it is used remains problematic. Again, the important factor is how the research shapes decision makers' perceptions. The primary goal of gaining younger and larger audiences with faster, upbeat stories and the perception that the current soap audiences were more easily bored and somewhat less loyal were important determinants and justifications for current practices and recently introduced changes.
The competition for audiences as markets also reflected the changing tastes of the audience, its experience with other forms of entertainment, and its seemingly increased expectations. Program suppliers' perceptions were shaped by, or reflected a view of the audience as more sophisticated. Cultural competition across a range of media forms appears to increasingly "up" audience expectations or suppliers' views of what they have to do to garner the audience. The pursuit of profit through more appealing/expensive products generates increasing production values/audience expectations.
The production process generates a repetitive, pervasive, limited potential for experience and a limited view of social relationships and process. But there are also attempts to encompass and, in a sense, neutralize potential conflict with differing and different groups in society. The production process takes account of contending or contradictory forces at a number of points. The larger social world is reflected or embodied in the organization or occupational world and the specific practices involved in the story selection, creation, and realization. Some groups or interests have a larger say than others, but there may be, and are, contending or differing groups and practices affecting the process of production and in the process of production. This helps call our attention to the processes of change and variation in soaps and
to the complexity of the relationships of a symbolic form to social forces and practices The Guiding Light production process generated a symbolic world emphasizing romance. Commercials and programming combine to create complementary symbolic worlds. "Domestic romance" and "romanticized domesticity" reinforce each other or certainly do not call each other into question. Love/sex
and money/power are basic ideals if they are pursued or used appropriately. Social dominance and social inequality are accepted and glamorized but only if they are not used selfishly or vindictively. Domestic experience and psychological motivations/explanations are used to justify behavior in a symbolic world that is largely upper-middle class.
The conflict between individuality and sociality is the fundamental issue explored in Guiding Light. As a form of realistic melodrama, the backdrop to the performances is the centrality of competitive individualism in recent Western society (Palmer 1978). Beginning from a premise that individuality and sociality are inherently in conflict, the program explores the tensions and resolutions of the conflict in the context of domestic units. The larger social order is taken for granted so that the class structure, state, and corporate power are embodied in people who appropriately or inappropriately reflect the ideal resolution to the conflict. That is an Amanda, who makes corporate decisions out of resentment, or a Mark, who aspires to power and wealth vindictively, has failed to appropriately weld the contradiction. Afternoon serials focus primarily on the relationships between husbands and wives, friends and lovers, with parent/ children relationships secondary and only explored when children are virtual adults (Skill 1983). Topics such as child beating, wife beating, incest, and homosexuality are largely taboo because they basically tear too deeply at the ideal resolution of the conflict within domestic units, based as they are on heterosexual romance, sex, and familial relationships. Given that, in soaps, community is based on the relationships between family and friends, such dynamics at the same time tear at the fabric of community itself.
This account provides insight into the simultaneous commercial imperative and aesthetic recipe that is Guiding Light. Importantly, it explores the social process generating the constructed reality and its connections, both social and cultural, to the larger society. As an extension of my approach I think it would be illuminating to study further the interplay between fictional and nonfictional "fiction," their sources and uses.
Just as the distinction between fiction and nonfiction can be a limiting one, so can the distinction between mass
media/popular culture and education. Both are part of the consciousness industry although we tend to want to keep the two realms separate. Both "provide an important part of the ways a public can conceptualize its own activities--they are a vocabulary of collective consciousness" (Chancy 1979:10). Textbooks, for example, are socially constructed and contribute to the way individuals see the world "out there." Teachers typically assign or draw examples from media accounts of society to structure classroom understanding. Media accounts and textbooks are both used to make sense of each other to construct reality in classrooms. It is a matter of studying both processes of production and of using a variety of symbolic forms to discover how they play into each other. The understanding of the relationships between various symbolic forms, social consciousness, and social process would be greatly furthered by studies of their interrelationships.
The concept, or frame, of ideology is open to all manner of uses and abuses in this context. It is very easy to posit "ideological effects" given an emphasis on relations of production and attendant differences in power. Studies revealing the actual social practices and relationships shaping symbolic forms are easily used to explain the character of consciousness of people. Inferences are made about the effects of the performances or symbolic forms. If the bulk of the traditional "effects" research is suspect because of its emphasis on narrowly defined short-term psychological effects, the counter tendency is to posit large-scale, long-term ideological effects as an extension of a more critical approach, whether explicitly Marxist or not. Given that production studies reveal the power relationships and legitimations of the processes involved, it is particularly tempting to assume what needs to be shown.
A fundamental issue is how an ideological effect is demonstrated. Elliott (1982) and Chaney (1979) both cite Geertz's article, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" (1973b) as a persuasive account of the relationships between social form, relationships, and meanings. Importantly, Geertz views symbolism as inherently public or social in its nature. Elliott suggests that one way to demonstrate ideological effects is to focus on meanings and social process over time.
Instead of concentrating on private processes at a particular point in time, one is directed towards the social process over time, the development, application and change of different symbols and their currency in different realms of discourse from the mediated to the interpersonal. (Elliott 1982:614)
As Elliott goes on to state, this suggests the utility of participant observation and ethnographic accounts to capture the relationships between meaning, social relationships, and social process. The research must be approached in a nonreductive way to avoid identifying a simple list of needs that are filled. A fine example of the kind of work that is needed is Gans's description of an Italian-American neighborhood in The Urban Villages (1962). He relates the patterns of television viewing to social contexts and relationships, as well as the general values and beliefs of the people he studied.
While we undoubtedly can profit from careful long-term studies of content, we also need to make use of existing data and ethnographic accounts to explore social history and contemporary social process and experience. The traditional concern with messages and effects should be countered or complemented by an emphasis on symbolic forms and social participation. On the one hand, we need more studies of how and why symbolic forms take the shape they do. On the other, we need to know how and why people use symbolic forms as resources and the kinds of social participation they afford. A fundamental promise is that we can simultaneously develop an understanding of culture as expression and culture as instrumentality.
Once we have grasped the fundamental relation between meanings arrived at by creative interpretation and description, and meanings embodied by conventions and institutions, we are in a position to reconcile the meanings of culture as "creative activity" and "a whole way of life," and this reconciliation is then a real extension of our powers to understand ourselves
and our societies. (Williams 1961: 40)
Ideally, we can explore the relationships of symbol system and social action, of culture and society, and go beyond the general and unsupported assertions about their interrelationships that are often made. If all of reality is a social construction and creation, it is imperative to study the ways in which reality is created or constructed and the ways in which symbolic forms and the experience they make available articulate with the full range of activities and meanings of a particular society. Doing so, we can grasp the interrelationships of the organization of behavior and meaning as a complex changing process. It is also through such an approach that I think we will be able to better
understand society and culture
as both an accomplishment and embodiment, as creation and replication.
Such an understanding provides the basis for altering the symbolic
worlds and "real world" we participate in or are invited
to participate in.