Interview – Scholar/Soap Fan Sam Ford

Our second installment of “The Space Between” is with Sam Ford, longtime soap fan and scholar specializing in digital strategy, transmedia, and fan culture. Sam is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm; an affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program; co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera; and co-author of the new book, Spreadable Media.He’s also a long-time TLF friend and past contributor. With the news of production company Prospect Park reviving beloved soaps All My Children and One Life to Live as web-based productions, we approached Sam for his thoughts on the future of soaps and the potential of online video as a storytelling medium. – KDC

TLF: What do you think the challenges are for Prospect Park (financial, production, storytelling) in bringing soaps to online video – it’s not a new medium, but it’s definitely different than broadcast TV.

SF: There are just so many questions of scale that have to be considered. The first time around, they faced issues of getting investors on board for an online model that produces content which follows such an intense production schedule and which has an audience that already has certain expectations from the program … not to mention the various stereotypes that exist about soap operas and soap opera fans, from it being a “dying” relic of a prior era of television history to a view of soap opera fans as older and not necessarily as online savvy. But there were also all sorts of questions about how to scale arrangements with the various unions, etc. Prospect Park can’t guarantee revenues in the same way a traditional television network can, so there were all sorts of questions about how to create new deals/structures for talent and unions that have worked on these very programs for years.

Ironically, if we think back to soaps when they were at their most popular–when they were live and on television in the 1960s–you are talking about a model with much more meager budgets which could probably have more easily been scalable. But the benefits of editing and larger production budgets in the 1980s have changed some viewers’ expectations about what a soap opera is.

What is clear is that this is format of programming that has acted as a pioneering force for a range of media formats: from the early days of radio, to the early days of television, the various deviations of the soap opera that have driven local production in a variety of international markets. So it’s not surprising to see soap operas playing a role in helping establish the business model of online television.

Of course, keep in mind that there are also a wide variety of indie soaps that have done a lot to lay the groundwork for what original online series can do. Many of these shows have been fueled by talent from the traditional daytime soap opera industry who were displaced by their shows shuttering their doors. Again, this is talent used to producing shows on comparatively low budgets, with quick turnarounds, and with a high volume of content. So they are tailor-made for the sorts of experimentation required for pioneering online television.

TLF: Do you think their challenge is similar to, say, Arrested Development coming to Netflix?

SF: The battle faced by All My Children and One Life to Live is much different in nature than Arrested Development. One is that Netflix has a distribution model behind it that people understand and that has less uncertainty. Prospect Park has a great brand and reputation, but there are more question marks in terms of what the model will look like, whereas people instantly get what Netflix will do now that it’s getting into original programming. Plus, they have a subscription-based model that gives them a built-in audience, and they are charging subscription fees, which again already have a model in place. More than that, though, Arrested Development is a much different type of program. It’s a critical darling, so it doesn’t face some of the same stereotypes of being “last generation’s programming.” And it’s a short-run series, so it’s much less of a commitment.

Soap opera fans, on the other hand, will expect an indefinite run for their shows now that they are back. Also, soap opera fans are very involved in critical discussion about their show and the directions it takes, with a range of different fan factions favoring particular characters, particular couples, etc. With a canvas of hundreds of potential characters to draw from/bring back, the challenges are just much more daunting for a soap opera than a show like Arrested Development. (That’s why I am so excited to see Prospect Park taking it on!)

TLF: Do you think traditional advertisers for soaps will follow AMC and OLTL to this new medium?

SF: I think some of the advertisers will follow them on, but it will likely remain the case that the same viewer is worth less online than they are in traditional television. Hopefully, what Prospect Park is doing is so groundbreaking they might appeal to advertisers interested in supporting/experimenting with a project aiming to create an online video series at a more demanding frequency than may web series.

TLF: What about fans? Do you think online soaps have the potential that TV did to create a cross-generational connection to these stories?

SF: Being online could, if anything, further exemplify soaps’ ability to appeal to multiple generations of fans. Soaps have, in particular, had trouble maintaining interest among younger generations. However, online distribution could map social interest in the shows with one’s social network sites, etc., in ways that could facilitate the sorts of multi-generational family discussion around soaps that once only happened in living rooms and around kitchen tables. There’s also great potential for further experimentation with transmedia storytelling with online distribution. But time will tell what they’ll try. One thing is for sure: it will be worth watching, whether you’re a fan of soaps or not.

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