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Adolescent Soap Opera Viewers

Louise Saffhill

Aims of study

My initial aim in undertaking this study was to investigate adolescents’ viewing of

soap operas in terms of its effects upon their identity. However, I began to question
the validity of this investigation upon determining my own reasons for viewing
soaps. I have watched soap operas since childhood and cannot think of a simple
example of how my engagement with this genre may have affected my identity or
personal development. My prime reason for watching is escapism, coupled with
the desire to be entertained. Herzog’s study of soap opera viewers lists the three
main reasons for engagement in soap as "emotional release, fantasy fulfilment and
desire for information and advice." (Brown, 1994: 68) Although this study was
carried out in 1944, its relevance remains today and was adapted by McQuail, in
1987 (Brown, 1994: 69) who established four categories of reasons people use the
media. They include

• Information- in order to gain knowledge and information of the world.

• Personal identity - the acquisition of a sense of identity through the
comprehension of individual values.
• Integration and social interaction – the reinforcement of a sense of social
belonging through learning about the lives of others.
• Entertainment – an emotional escape, relaxation, to forget problems and

However, when studying soap opera it becomes apparent that whilst 1, 3 and 4 are
connected to Herzog’s findings and are indeed relevant to soaps, the personal
identities category is not applicable. This claim is supported by the findings of
Lemish (1985), who referred to gratification from soap deriving from the
categories of information, entertainment and social functions, whilst the notion of
personal identity is noticeably absent as it is in Rubin’s study of students’ use of
soap. Viewers "do not" identify with characters in the way that other narrative and
critical forms seem to expect." Mary Ellen Brown offers a suggestion as to the
reason for this lack of identification; "The use of multiple characters seems to
refuse a single or fixed subject identification."

However, this is not to say that identification with the characters in some way,
shape or form never occurs, in fact, Geraghty would offer that the wide range of
characters only serves to allow several identification possibilities and "It is this
multiple identification with a number of characters which is a strong element in
soap’s ability to engage us so powerfully." (Geraghty, 1991: 18) Indeed
identification to a certain degree must occur for the soap to appear realistic and
three dimensional to the viewer. But as it appears not to be the most important
prime factor in soap viewing, I decided to expand the realms of this study to
examine what, if not solely for reasons of identification, are the main reasons for
adolescent girls to watch soap opera and to what extent do they engage with the
narrative? I am not pursuing a more definitive research question because I want to
gain an overall impression of the way in which soap is viewed, how it is used, the
pleasures gained from viewing, the beneficial – or otherwise – influence it may
exert and also how identity plays a role in the interpretation of the narrative.

My decision to concentrate on adolescent girls and exclude boys is based on three

factors. Firstly, in my experience of adolescent males and females, I have generally
found that females are more willing to talk about a given issue; they are more open
in discussions, less self-conscious and less worried about how their comments may
affect their reputation. Secondly, it has been statistically proven that among
adolescents the number of female soap viewers is higher than males. According to
the official viewing figures in the UK (published by the Broadcasters Audience
Research Board, printed in Gunter and McAleer 1990), boys strongly favour action
and adventure programmes or sport, whilst girls named soap operas as their
favourite programmes. Equally, Patricia Palmer’s study in 1986 (noted in Brown,
1994) revealed that girls watch more television than boys and are more "devoted
and enthusiastic" (Brown, 1994: 155) in their viewing than boys.

My third reason is due to the fact that historically soap is the woman’s world and I
am interested to discover whether or not girls are attracted to soap for the same
reasons as women, the initial target audience, or whether their enjoyment stems
from other areas.

Therefore in the remainder of this section I am going to detail firstly, the factors
that lead us to perceive soap as being a feminine genre, followed by the
construction of the narrative in terms of the specific organisation and formal
conventions of the genre, to indicate how these strategies work together with the
range of women characters to create the relationship between the soap and the
viewer and thirdly how the degree of interaction by the viewer can affect their
enjoyment of the genre.

The History of Soap as the Woman’s World

Soap opera was born in America in the 1930s and initially it was devised as a radio
programme. It targeted the housewife and aimed to include issues concerning
women’s culture, so as the woman could tune in as she went about domestic
chores. The original ideas for programme content may have come from women’s
magazines, as there are several similarities, also concerning the features such as the
regularity and repetitiousness of each. Magazines contain regular features with
which the reader becomes familiar and expects, and the problem pages which are a
particularly feminine form pertaining to advice–giving and nurturing are
reminiscent of the features that are replicated in soaps.

"Soaps" became so called due to the advertisers who bought air space for their
commercials surrounding the programme, as the featured products tended towards
those of a domestic nature, particularly Proctor and Gamble who, aiming for a
female audience, not only advertised but sponsored to the programmes, lending its
name as a soap powder manufacturer to the entire genre. It became a genre that
grew "in response to the perceived isolation of women in the home" (Brown, 1994:
46) and in the 1950s branched out into television productions. Britain’s first
televised soap was The Groves, which ran from 1954 to 1957 and was followed by
the appearance of Coronation Street in 1960. Other well known British Soaps
Brookside and EastEnders arrived in 1982 and 1986 respectively.

Soap opera functions primarily by creating a relationship with the audience, not by
a fast-paced sequence of dramatic events, rather the narrative progresses and
satisfaction it gained through the appearance and resolution of daily problems,
achieved through means of "gossip, confessions, speculations and exchanges of
confidence" (Glaessner, 1990 printed by Goodwin & Whannel, 1990: 119).

Conventionally this manner of gossiping is perceived as the women’s world;

problem solving and discussions centred on relationships equally pertain
traditionally to a female lifestyle. These features attract a female audience, the
image of which is not complimentary. The female soap opera viewer, who is
typically only interested in the trivial details of daily life, is seen as "inferior to
more prestigious audiences" (Brown, 1994: 48) and her life is assumed to be "so
deprived as to need spurious enrichment." (Glaessner, 1990 printed in Goodwin &
Whannel, 1990: 115) Yet these programmes, despite being regularly ridiculed and
considered as trashy, are still frequently enjoyed by women even though viewing
them is "not a socially valued act" (Brown, 1994: 18). But soap does provide the
topic of many conversations; it is material that can be discussed with, shared with
and dissected by groups of friends, thereby encouraging social activity.

It could be said that soap operas "value, rather than put down, the fabric of
women’s lives." (Brown, 1994: 54) Soaps not only take women’s concerns
seriously, they also present a wide range of female characters in several different
roles, making the genre "more accessible to women’s culture than prime time
television" (Brown, 1994: 49). The women characters occupy several social
positions and are often strong, powerful characters, giving the female audience the
opportunity to engage with a whole range of characters. The fact that this
convention holds appeal for the older female audience is undisputed; I am
interested to know whether the same pleasure is gained by the younger female
audience, whether identity with a range of strong female characters is achieved or
not and if not how it affects their enjoyment of the genre.
The Roles and Conventions of the Genre

The pleasure available through watching the soap is dependant upon the viewers’
knowledge of its specific conventions.

The soap opera can be defined in terms of the series and the serial. The series has
the same hero(ine) and circle of characters but each episode has an individual
story, which is concluded by the end of the programme. The serial, however, has a
continuous narrative, which is solved by the final episode. The episodes must be
watched in the designated order because the sequence creates a notion of the
continuity of time. A soap opera is an indefinite serial – no end is perceived for it,
it’s multiple narratives continue, some for a short period of time, others for longer,
interlocking and taking over from where the previous one ended. The final
resolution is continually postponed and the audience is led to believe, through the
everyday quality of time and events and the inextricability of plots from each
other, that a future is never conceived of. An event offering a suitable narrative
ending only serves as a starting point for future stories.

The narrative functions through tension and how the tension will be resolved to
provide us with a satisfactory ending. The audience is encouraged to seek the
temporary resolution, which only arrives after "delays, confusions and red–
herrings" (Geraghty, printed in Dyer). Ultimate narrative closure never occurs,
therefore the audience involvement must be maintained. This is achieved through
encouraging the audience to engage with both the future and the past of the serial.
The cliff hanger is a device used to create suspense between episodes, cutting off
the action at a critical point, leaving the audience to ponder over unanswered
questions, to which there may be several answers. The direction of the narrative is
unknown at this point, hence prompting speculation amongst the viewers. This
device is used to involve the audience with the narrative and operates in two main
ways depending on the type of knowledge that the audience is given. Either the
audience is kept in the dark and is encouraged to try and solve the mystery or the
audience is given specific knowledge and thus becomes involved with a certain
character and his own personal battle or trauma. This device is not used at the end
of every episode. Sometimes a lighter, more comical moment or a thought–
provoking image is needed as a balance to the grittier drama.

The serial operates primarily in the present moment, not referring too frequently to
past events so as not to put off the casual viewer who is less committed to viewing.
However a flexible approach is utilised and writers go to great lengths to ensure
that references to the past are accurate, for the benefit of the long–term viewer.

The workings of characterisation and plot are essential to a successful soap opera.
They must interlock, providing familiarity but with regular surprises. The same
plots and the same characters are used time and time again, but each time taking a
different angle, providing a different outcome, using different responses, so as to
prevent staleness creeping in. The soap has a base of many characters so that
variation is feasible. It is based upon a community with a wide range of ages,
relationships and attitudes. This gives scope for writers to create diverse storylines.
The central core characters provide familiarity for the viewer, whilst fresh faces
will appear for only a few episodes to inject variety. The characters must be
comprehensible even to the casual viewer so we are immediately given an
impression of who he/she is, what they are like and the role they will play, through
their clothes, their voice; characterisation is sharp and swift.

Characters are usually classified according to three groups, which provides the
base for their use within the narrative. The groups are as follows (Geraghty, printed
in Dyer). The "individuated character" has traits which are uniquely their own and
which are often used for comic effect, for example, the loud repetitive, northern–
accented style of speaking which belongs exclusively to Coronation Street’s Fred
Elliot. Longstanding characters may have a number of traits, which serves to
emphasise the richness of the character. The "serial type" is a character within a
serial who maintains a number of traits and furthermore other characters become
based upon and defined by the serial type, for example, the "Elsie Tanner" type (of
Coronation Street), emulated in later years by Bet and Rita. Holders of a "status
position" are so defined according to their sex, age, marital position, class and
work. The position is frequently emphasised when necessary in a certain storyline.
Mike Baldwin is the classic holder of a status position, as his position as factory
owner and local entrepreneur raises him above the average working-class, manual-
labouring Coronation Street inhabitant.

These categories are neither set in stone nor exclusive, but the use of and
interaction between the three allows the characters to be used in different ways. It
is this use of a wide range of characters which allows identification to occur in a
decentred manner; viewers may identify with one character’s specific turmoil, but
may find the character dislikeable. The viewer may be torn between two
characters, identifying with aspects of each.

The specific organisation of narrative, character and the passage of time work
together to form a continuous serial. The soap occupies a regular slot in the
television schedule and maintains the same position every week of the year. The
way in which the passing of time is organised can make the soap too repetitious, so
to combat this the setting of the soap is arranged so that its familiarity is
comforting; we feel as though we are entering a specific geographical space,
whether it is Albert Square, Coronation Street or Brookside Close. This is
indicated by the use of aerial shots in the credits. Brookside in particular draws the
audience into its specific location by opening with shots of the broader territory,
being that of Liverpool, then shows shots of the suburbs, narrowing it down to the
local shops and bar, finishing with shots of Brookside Close and its houses. This
gives us a sense of the positioning of the houses in relation to each other, crucial
for the establishment of the fictional world in which the narrative unfolds.
Through the use of time, this fictional world appears to exist even when the viewer
is not observing it. Time in soap passes in a parallel manner to actual time.
Viewers tune into EastEnders on a Monday night to see what happened in Albert
Square on the same day. Significant days and events are referred to in soap as they
actually happen in the real world, such as Christmas Day. It is as though the same
period of time passes as the audience is experiencing and the characters are
pursuing an unrecorded existence, although the problem from the end of the
previous episode remains.

A final convention of soap, which I am going to briefly explain, is the role of

gossip. Gossip pertains to the soap opera in two ways, both inside and outside of
the serial. Inside the serial it is used to give a day-to-day feel. It also provides a
commentary on the viewed action and reveals different characters’ opinions,
viewpoints and moral positions concerning what is happening. Also gossip can
inform the audience of an event they have missed and provide new information and
more detail of the event. It is an important and integral part of the action and
development of the stories as they are often centred on the question of knowledge
or ignorance. Information can be imparted, withheld, revealed accidentally or
hinted at. Gossiping leads to speculation among the characters, which in turn
encourages the audience to speculate about future events. The audience may also
discuss soaps in terms of passing on and sharing information and opinions of the
latest episodes. Soap operas may also raise topical issues that the audience will
then discuss in a broader context, using the soap storyline as a starting point.

Actively Interpreting the Genre

Due to the wide range of characters that frequently participate in soaps, the genre
"invites not an exclusive and passive identification but rather an active and
participatory involvement" (Horton & Wohl, 1956 quoted by Livingstone, 1990:
52). The idea of passively assimilating the information viewed on the television
seems to be a natural assumption upon the initial contemplation of the manner of
"sponging up the information emanating from the television set without analysis or
any other conceptual process". (Peace, WWW document) This misconception
could be due to the fact that in watching a television soap the viewer is physically
inactive and their individual process of interpreting what they are seeing is
subconscious, therefore it is assumed that no activity is taking place. However,
"mentally processing television is a complex psychological task, even when
viewing is ritualistically to be relaxed or to be distracted. Viewers must keep track
of plots, characters and motivations to understand even the most mindless
programme." (Shapiro, 1995 quoted in Alcock, WWW document)

A specific process can be utilised to define the way in which an individual is

interpreting a programme, taking into consideration viewing methods, styles,
habits and tastes. The place in which a programme is viewed and the people it is
watched with can affect the method of interpretation utilised. Emotions may
become heightened if a viewer is accompanied in their viewing, causing for
example, feelings of outrage or consolidation.

The reason for watching the programme affects the subsequent interpretation, so if
the choice to view is made by some one else, the viewer may be less receptive to a
positive interpretation, whereas if the viewer has made a conscious decision to
watch something, they may be less critical and more open to the subtleties of the
plot and characterisation. Equally, the mood of the individual may add or subtract
from the viewing experience.

A further contributing factor to the method of interpretation is whether or not the

viewer belongs to the target audience. If a viewer is watching a programme of
which they are not the intended audience, their comprehension and engagement
with the programme may be noticeably affected.

My aim in highlighting how television programmes are actively interpreted is to

point out that the soap viewer is consciously participating in the process of the
soap drama; even by doing nothing more than being in earshot of the television, the
viewer will be interpreting what is being transmitted. I am curious to know,
therefore, the extent to which teenage girls engage with and interpret the genre of
soap opera. As stated by Geraghty, "It is the viewer who brings richness and
density to material which on the surface can look thin and unrewarding."
(Geraghty, 1990: 15) Yet teenagers are not traditionally the target audience for
soap opera, so could it be the case more so that my subjects’ experience of viewing
soaps will be, as stated by John Ellis, "typically a casual experience rather than an
intensive one"? (Ellis, 1982 quoted by Geraghty, 1990: 23)

Geraghty states, "…considering soaps…Ellis seems to underestimate the way in

which narrative works to encourage identification and engagement." I am aiming
to discover whether or not the convention of gossip comes into play among young
female viewers of soap, indeed whether or not the subsequent conversations about
soap are just as important in the meaning-making of the genre as the actual

To conclude this section, a statement by Davies (1984) which I intend to either

prove or dispute: "Soap opera audiences are not passive consumers of light
entertainment, but active participants in negotiating complex role models."
(Davies, 1984 quoted by Brown, 1994)


Area of Research

To summarise the previously mentioned areas that my research will cover, I intend
to investigate the following questions: -
1. To what extent does the young female viewer engage with the genre?
2. To what extent does identity play a role in the interpretation of the

As a method of finding an answer to the first question, I am going to broach the

following subjects: the method of viewing, the reason for viewing, the convention
of gossip, knowledge of soap conventions and their limitations and suggested
improvements of the genre.

Concerning question 2, I want to gain an insight into the viewers’ favourite

characters, whether or not they consider the storylines and characters to be
realistic, if anything can be learned from soaps and if they are ever helpful in terms
of problem solving.


My research employs a data-gathering methodological approach, as I used both

questionnaires and interviews as ways of obtaining the required information. The
questionnaire is no more than a page in length, so that it keeps the attention of the
person filling it in. My initial idea was to employ the strategy of attitude scales, as
this could be an effective way of ascertaining peoples’ opinions. However, I
rejected this method in favour of the traditional question and answer style, as for
some questions I required a more in-depth answer. The danger of this is that people
are rarely enthusiastic about completing questionnaires and perhaps tend not to
expand their answers as fully as the researcher would like. Nevertheless, this is the
approach I took, as much of the information I require is personal and easily
answered, so attitude scales do not seem the most appropriate method.

I issued the questionnaires to 30 pupils at the local secondary school, all female
viewers of soap, being sex-specific for the reasons stated in Part 1. I decided to
target 11 to 16 year olds. Eleven is the youngest I wanted to approach as this is the
age at which children first start to show signs of maturity, coinciding with the start
of secondary school and the questions I am asking will be too complex for younger
viewers to really comprehend. Sixteen is my upper age limit, as I do not want to
gauge adult responses, this is specifically aimed at younger female viewers.
Although this is not a wide age range, I feel that young girls experience huge
changes during this time and I think that their responses therefore could be
noticeably different. Thus to further break down this period of change and
maturity, I distributed the questionnaires at random to three groups of ten girls,
aged 11-12, 13-14 and 15-16.

I am aware that this is not a particularly large sample of people, however I am not
aiming to produce definitive answers, rather to give an impression of different
I decided to interview six girls, in three groups of two, one group from each age
range. My interviewees volunteered themselves and each pair was friends. I
decided to interview friends together instead of strangers or mere acquaintances so
as to make them feel more relaxed and more able to speak freely and easily. Often
when put in an enforced interview situation people, especially children may
respond with the answers they think you are seeking. I aimed to create a natural
setting in order to obtain truthful answers. For similar reasons, I interviewed in
pairs rather than altogether, so that the youngest girls were not intimidated by their

I constructed a semi-structured interview situation, as there were specific questions

I wanted to hear responses to, but equally, I wanted the interview to resemble a
conversation more so than a question and answer session so as to reveal some of
their thoughts through the more natural process of digression in conversation.
Whilst the questionnaires asked questions regarding soaps in general, the
interviews were based on EastEnders, as I wanted a starting point with which
everyone was familiar, so my central questions related to EastEnders, but I
encourage digression to other soaps if the interviewees felt they could better
emphasise their point in this way.

I made brief notes of the interviews but also recorded the proceedings to remind
me of the responses at a later date. As the interviewees were aware that they were
being recorded this knowledge may have affected their responses. This is a factor
to be considered when analysing the findings.

Questionnaire Findings

Having analysed the questionnaire responses I am going to report the most

interesting findings in terms of the three individual age groups and also the most
conclusive findings overall (bearing in mind that the whole sample is only 30 girls,
so the term "conclusive" I use relatively). I will offer my interpretation of this data
in this section, however the relevance and meanings of the responses I will address
in Part 3.

Of the 11-12 year age group (to be referred to as Group A), 7/10 watch more than
one soap opera on a regular basis, equally the same figure in the 13-14 year age
group (Group B), with a small drop to 5/10 in the 15-16 year age group (Group C).
This question was designed to establish whether or not the viewer is a more casual
or committed viewer of soap. These figures would tend to suggest that the girls on
the whole are regular, committed viewers.

Of all the soaps available to the viewer, 50% of Groups A and B stated a
preference for EastEnders over any other soap, whilst this figure rose to 60% for
Group C, giving an overall figure of 2/3 of the girls preferring EastEnders. I am
not surprised by this figure as Coronation Street seems to target an older audience
and whilst maybe the younger viewer could have stated a more general preference
for a younger-style soap such as HollyOaks, EastEnders is a long-established soap
opera, regularly attracting large audiences with its gritty storylines, as in the latest
"Who shot Phil Mitchell" saga.

Well over 50% of each group stated that they do not record soap operas if they are
going to miss an episode, with as many as 9/10 of Group C stating that they do not
record it. This is in accordance with my own viewing habits of soap opera,
although I watch several soaps on a regular basis, I would never record an episode.
This could indicate that the viewers are only watching for a lack of anything else to
do, or it could equally be that due to the very nature of soap, it is possible to miss
several consecutive episodes but still be able to follow the narrative when next

50% of each group reported doing nothing else at all whilst watching soap, whilst
the other 50% either eat or do homework, or both simultaneously. Conventionally
soap opera does not require the viewers’ full attention in order to be grasped and
understood, as originally it was targeting the busy housewife who did not have the
time to devote the full length of an episode to nothing but viewing. However, the
domestic chores that the housewife was simultaneously undertaking are essentially
mindless, allowing the female to concentrate her mind on what she is hearing. The
same can be said for the one activity mentioned by the girls; eating does not
require concentration, thus leaving the viewer free to assimilate the programme.
50% of the viewers either have nothing else to do or consciously set aside the time
to watch the soaps, either way, they devote their full attention to the television. The
viewers who attempt to do homework at the same time are undertaking a mind-
engaging activity (presumably) therefore they either comprehend the soap with
minimum attention or a seemingly more likely option is that the homework is
either not challenging enough or so dull that additional stimulation is required.

Furthermore is the notion that the particular soap is so unmissable that it takes
equal priority to something such as homework, which presumably sees punishment
administered if it is incomplete, although the statistics of those who record missed
episodes does not support the idea of a soap being "unmissable". It would be
interesting to talk to the viewer immediately after the particular soap that was
watched whilst doing homework, to ascertain 1. How much of the soap has been
absorbed compared to 2. The amount of homework completed correctly and
understood. Equally, it would be interesting to pursue this investigation over a
period of time to see whether or not students who persistently watch soaps whilst
doing homework suffer academically and achieve lower than expected grades.

In terms of discussing soap storylines with either family and/or friends, over half
of each group do so, with 100% of Group A, 9/10 of Group B and 6/10 of Group
C. This could suggest that either the younger the viewer, the more interested and
involved in the soap, or the older the viewer, the less the soap is talked about as
more important issues come into play. Indeed 7/10 of Group C’s viewers reported
discussing other issues with fellow soap watchers whilst they were viewing. This
figure was considerably lower for the other two groups who reported more so that
they either do not talk at all or else they discuss the particular soap being watched.

Concerning whether or not the viewer perceived the storylines to present an

accurate representation of real life, I will tackle each group independently. 5/10 of
Group A thought that yes, the storylines are accurate, 3/10 thought that they
sometimes represent real life and 2/10 answered no, the stories are not like real
life. Of Group B, 3/10 answered yes, 6/10 sometimes and 1/10 no. In Group C,
3/10 said yes, 3/10 sometimes and 4/10 no. Overall it seems that the older the
viewer, the less accurately she believes the soaps to represent actual life.

Of all the groups, an above average percentage declared that they attempt to work
out what will happen in the future on soaps, with 90% in Group A, 100% in Group
B and 60% in Group C. Again, the oldest group can be seen as being less involved
with the narrative.

One of the questions I posed in the questionnaire was whether or not soap
characters are similar to real people. Of Group A, 8/10 gave a positive answer, that
yes, the characters are similar to real people. Of the ten girls in Group B, three
gave the answer yes, while seven were more cautious with "sometimes". However
in Group C six out of ten girls thought that the characters are not similar to people
in real life. Again this shows an easier acceptance of soap’s characteristics by the
younger viewer and a more sceptical approach by the older girls.

A seemingly straightforward question I asked in the questionnaire was the main

reason for watching soap. Yet I suspect that many people have never questioned
their actual reasons for watching the genre, so I half-expected unrevealing answers.
Yet the responses fell into two categories: - good or interesting (storylines) or
boredom/something to do/entertainment. Of Group A, 6/10 listed the first category
and 3/10 the second. In Group B, 5/10 stated category 1 and 3/10 the second. But
in Group C, 2 people listed that they find soap interesting and 7 people said that
their main reason for watching was due to boredom or wanting something else to
do (other than homework). It seems as though the older viewers do not rate soaps
as highly as the younger viewers and are interested in it rather as a means of
passing time.

As far as the question regarding intended audience is concerned, the majority of all
three groups stated that soap opera is aimed at everyone, including men, women
and children.

Interview Findings
In this section I intend to detail the responses and themes raised from the
interviews and in Part 3 I will review these findings in relation to the relevant
literature and theories.

As previously mentioned, I intended the interviews to be of a semi-structured

nature to allow for tangents to be pursued, although due to the age of the
interviewees, I devised a set of questions to which I could loosely adhere if
necessary. I thought that the girls were not old enough to chatter freely and in an
uninhibited manner about their viewing experiences and were perhaps not old
enough to form extensive opinions on the spot, hence the question list to which to
refer. My questions fell into three sections:

1. Viewing practices

2. Engagement with genre

3. Pleasures/judgements

although the questions and sections invariably became mixed up. My aim is to
indicate how committed the viewer is, the extent to which they are involved with
the genre and its characteristics and how pleasure is gained through this

My First interview group was the 11-12 year olds, to be called Interviewee 1 and
Interviewee 2 (I1 & I2). I1 watches all of the English soap operas, although I2 is
only familiar with EastEnders. Possibly due to this (or possibly due to personal
characteristics) it quickly became obvious that I1 was the conversation leader and
to a certain extent I felt that I2 was agreeing with her friends’ responses rather than
challenging them or offering her own ideas.

I1 not only watches at least four soap operas on a regular basis, she also watches
the omnibus editions and records an episode if she is going to miss it. She views
alone in her room as her family does not watch soaps, however she then discusses
the storylines with her friends at school. I2 is a less committed viewer as she
watches EastEnders "when I can", although normally about twice a week and she
would not record an episode and does not watch the omnibus edition. She too
watches alone and discusses the programme with school friends. Both say that
during discussion they try and work out what is going to happen next, "like, who
shot Phil, and that."

I had decided instead of showing the interviewees a video clip of a soap to discuss,
I would ask them for their recollections of the previous episode, to ascertain the
details they had absorbed, if it had stuck in their memory and if there were any
differences in either the recollections of the three groups or their reactions to it.
When I asked the first group what had happened in the previous episode of
EastEnders, I1 at first could not remember so I prompted her that I thought it
might have been centred on Janine, she began describing a situation in which
Terry, a middle-aged single man, had finally been led to realise that Janine, the
young girl lodging with him, had been stealing money from his bank account and
that her latest scam had been to steal more money in order to bet it o a horse and
thus try and win back the amount she had stolen.

Although I2 had not seen this episode and could not contribute, I1 was more than
happy to describe the events, although her description was vague and a little patchy
in places, as though she may have been recalling things that she remembered
viewing but that did not make much sense to her. She commented on the character
of Janine, remarking that the final shot of the episode was of Janine smiling behind
Terry’s back, showing that she is lying and that she is sly, "like Charlotte!" (the
sister of I1) I asked I1 if she thought that soap characters were like the people she
knew in real life and she said, "sometimes", then nodding and giggling, "Grant and
Phil are like my Dad and Uncle". She said that she finds the characters and the
storylines realistic and that events from soap could happen in real life, "except
Lance and Alana", referring to two characters from the Australian soap eighbours
and a storyline which follows their belief in aliens, which I1 did not perceive as
believable. I asked therefore if I1 ever found soap opera to be more amusing or
funny than realistic but she claimed that on the whole they are more true to life
than comical. However she said that she finds Coronation Street more realistic
than EastEnders as EastEnders is too heavy going. She described EastEnders as
being, "part of it’s, like, really good, when it’s who shot Phil, but then some
parts…then it goes boring and then they have to bring something in to make it
good again." She went on to explain that, "sometimes, you’re, like, really caught
on to it and then sometimes you’re a bit, just, oh, flick over." At this point I2
nodded her agreement.

I asked the question, "Who is your favourite character?" to which both looked
blank for a moment before I1 replied that Lisa is her favourite because she’s a
good actress, her example being that when she’s crying, she looks like she’s really
crying. I2 agreed with this point but in general said that she did not favour any one
character more than another. The interviewees did not expand on this line of
questioning, so I asked them, given that they find the storylines realistic, could
soaps ever help you in dealing with certain issues or solving problems? They both
considered this for a moment before I1 hesitantly replied that she supposed they
could and I2 interjected, "but not me", as she thinks that soaps deal with adult
issues. I1 listed her reasons for watching soaps as being that they are interesting,
the best thing on television, in fact and it is something to do, better than doing
nothing. She also said that although it does not help her directly, she might be able
to learn things that she could tell to others in a situation where they would benefit
from the information.
I asked what sort of things might you think about the soap whilst watching it, or
criticise and I 1 mentioned that she often thinks that, "Oh, Kat (a 30 year old single
woman in EastEnders) looks a bit tarty today!" She also thinks sometimes "if
they’re crying, they could have done that a bit better or something."

I asked for opinions of Sonia (a teenage character who has recently had her
newborn baby adopted, being unaware that she was pregnant) to see a. if the
interviewees relate to a character of a similar age to themselves and b. if they made
moral judgements of the situation. I2 replied that she did not like her very much
and I1 added her agreement but that she thinks she has a good part to play. She
judged the situation with the baby as being sort of realistic "because that’s what
people do." She did not elaborate but went on to discuss the character of Kerry,
saying that she does not like her as her character is not brilliant, she acts the same
in every episode. I1 continued to explain that Kerry is not in EastEnders anymore
and explained the storylines that led to her departure. She said that a further reason
for liking soap is that the storylines are easy to follow. I asked if she would like to
see more young people in soaps so that the issues would be more relevant to her,
but she said that there are not many young people in the soaps at the moment and
she does not really want that to change because it would be boring to be at school
all day, then to watch programmes in the evening about school as "you would just
be like, watching the day again." I1 likes the fact that soap opera is about
something different to her life; it relaxes her to watch about other people.

The second interview group consisted of two representatives of the 13-14 year old
age group, to be known as I3 and I4. They instantly seemed more mature than the
first pair and whilst still a bit giggly at the prospect of being recorded, they were
not fazed or worried by it. They were both chatty from the outset. Both watch
every episode of EastEnders although neither would record it but I4 would watch
the omnibus. She tends to watch the programme in her room, as being the youngest
of the family her viewing preferences are rarely taken into consideration. Her
mother watches the soap although apparently claims not to (as though to do so
would be socially unacceptable) and her sister also watches it, so if they are
watching together they discuss the programme, such as what people are wearing.
I3 (who watches in the living room with whichever family member is present)
claims that her father talks about the programme while it is being aired but she
finds it annoying as she might be missing something.

Both girls began to discuss the Eastenders shooting storyline, claiming that they
had guessed the identity of the hit man as Lisa, as all the other suspects were too
obvious. I3 claimed that she realised it was Lisa because all of the other suspects
had been interviewed by the police, so the lack of attention focused on Lisa had led
her to believe that she must be the culprit. I4 agreed with her, adding that it’s like
in Heartbeat, the guilty one is always the one they try and make you suspect least.
Both girls talk about soaps with both family and friends. I asked them if they could
tell me what had happened in the previous episode and I3 had not seen it so I4
described the episode, focusing on the fact that Little Mo could not find her errant
husband Trevor, whilst I3 asked questions. Commenting on the cheating, wife–
beating character of Trevor, I3 declared, "I hate Trevor… well I like his accent
actually." Both girls decided that they did not like Trevor, I3 stating it is because of
the fact that he beats Little Mo. Then she made the comment, "Why Little Mo?
What a stupid name." I4 explained to her that the Grandmother’s name is Mo, so
the younger female in the family is known as "Little Mo." I4 then remembered
"Little Mo and Trevor are going to be on GMTV tomorrow." Then she commented
on the fact that Trevor is cheating on his wife and predicted, "He’ll get caught!" I3
was unaware of this and sounded incredulous to hear so. I4 explained the situation,
adding her own observations and predictions.

The main criticism they named of Eastenders is that it is "over the top", that in a
little street you would not find as much happening as in Albert Square. However
they counter balanced the criticism with the fact that it is easy to catch up after
missing an episode, which makes viewing easy.

Along the theme of criticisms, I4 mentioned a particular character in Coronation

Street and classed her as a "bad actress" whilst simultaneously mimicking her
accent which "does my head in!" She then began a discussion concerning the
storyline containing the "bad actress," telling us what was going to happen in
future episodes, information which she had read in a television magazine. I3
commented that she does not always read the magazines as it spoils her viewing

I4 made a comment that she wishes she could pick what to watch and fast forward
the boring bits, beginning a conversation of the aspects they find boring, such as
court cases and police interviews and progressing to their least favourite
characters. I4 listed several EastEnders male characters as being "boring," she
dislikes Mark Fowler as he "thinks he owns the square," Robbie because he "needs
to get a better job… and face…. and haircut!!" I3 agreed mainly saying that
storylines centred on Roy and the car lot bore her. I4 remarked that EastEnders
"picks bad male characters," although she likes Phil and Steve. I3 agreed, adding
that they are "mysterious and hard," but saying that she prefers Dan, as he’s "so
big!" I4 laughed at this, saying that Dan is too old "and anyway, he’s not always in
it, he comes and goes." She listed instead three other characters she prefers for
their physical attributes.

The conversation turned to how realistic the soaps seem and both girls felt that
EastEnders can be a bit "over the top", although some storylines are more likely to
happen than others. They decided that the shooting could happen but was a bit
drastic although they liked the initial tension surrounding the drama. I4 remarked
that the storyline became boring when it started to drag on; she wanted to discover
the identity of the hit man, although retrospectively she felt that the audience found
out too quickly. She commented on how sometimes soaps speed up events, so for
example, pregnancies never last for nine months. The girls made the point that the
soaps seem to copy each other and compete for ratings by showing dramatic
storylines at the same time. However, they think that the technique is not
successful, as "it’s boring the second time round."

In terms of whether or not the soaps can be helpful in any way, they thought that
controversial events could show you how to deal with such issues, such as physical
abuse. However, they condemned Coronation Street as being irresponsible in their
portrayal of the teenage pregnancy because now they feel it is being shown as a
positive thing which "could be a bad influence on kids".

I4 thinks that teenagers are represented badly on soaps, listing teenage characters
and their storylines involving pregnancy, drugs and alcohol abuse, saying, "No
wonder old people think badly of us!" They would like to see more teenagers in the
soaps, but represented in a positive light with less dramatic problems, more
relevant to their own lifestyles. They mentioned Hollyoaks as being more suited to
their age group and also more interesting as the narrative unfolds in a variety of
locations, where as in EastEnders the characters can always be found at the pub,
even at lunch time, even when they have no money.

Their main reasons for watching soap are that "you always want to know what’s
going to happen next", that although it can be a bit unrealistic it would be boring if
it were too lifelike. As it is, it’s more exciting than your own life, which keeps you

The third interview group (I5 and I6) was the 15-16 year age group. Again, they
were a little nervous at the prospect of being recorded but not excessively. Both
watch every episode of EastEnders, although do not record it and do not
particularly make a habit of watching the omnibus, rather they would catch up on a
missed episode by talking to friends, something they regularly indulge in,
especially when dramatic storylines are involved such as "that Lisa thing",
whereby their friendship group placed bets on the outcome of the story.

We began discussing the most recent episode as a starting point and both girls
contributed equally to the discussion, briefly outlining the main themes of the
episode and I6 concluded by adding her predictions and assumptions of what
would follow. Both girls admit that if they view together they discuss what they
think will happen next. If their predictions are correct, they feel pleased with their
ability to be thinking along the same lines as the writers. This constant game of
foreseeing the future keeps these viewers returning to the programme, as they are
interested in how temporary narrative closure will occur.
We began discussing characters and while the girls were unable to name any
particular favourites, I5 mentioned Emily, a teenager from Brookside who she
finds annoying, who apparently "you can sometimes see, she’s like some people at
school." From EastEnders, Kat was named as an annoying character, as she "loves
herself", whilst Janine was hated by I6 but I5 thought she had grown up a bit and

"getting better" as a character.

When the conversation turned to the character of Jamie, the decision was
unanimous that he is "lovely, nice-looking", and older characters were seen as
boring or nags (such as Pauline or Dot).

Storylines such as Sonia’s pregnancy were viewed cynically, as being "unrealistic"

and "so obvious"; also they were quite cynical about the way in which each suspect
of the shooting was linked to the scene both logistically and in motive. The way in
which daily events are exaggerated and blown out of proportion in soaps both add
to and subtract from the enjoyment of these viewers, as they are curious to know
what will happen next, so consequently keep viewing, but somehow feel cheated if
an event breaks the realms of reality.

Both viewers classed the older characters as boring and said that they pay less
attention when a story is centred on such characters, as they do not find this
relevant to their lives. Soap opera in general would interest these viewers more if it
focused on their worries and concerns and therefore featured younger characters. I6
mentioned how "they have them going to school and then coming back and they
never say anything about what’s happened at school." I5 and I6 would prefer
storylines based upon adolescent issues to which they could relate. They think that
the reason for the exemption of these issues is that soap is aimed primarily at older
viewers, although they believe that the addition of younger characters would add
diversity and make the programme more interesting. A suggestion for the lack of
young characters was that it probably would not work to centre too many storylines
around them, as they seem to leave the soap to pursue other career avenues. Also
the set is not designed particularly to incorporate young people and their social
activities. I6 remarked that in most soaps, much communal activity takes place in a
pub, although Coronation Street has recently created a doctors’ surgery to it’s set
and now stories will be based around medical issues or the lives of the characters
working there. I6 and I5 were unimpressed by this, as it does not promise to
provide any material more relevant to them.

A further comment relating to the set was connected to the surprise created when a
set is decorated or changed, such as in the Australian soap, Home & Away. "I was
like, ooohh, they’ve changed the diner!" Also they acknowledged that should soap
introduce a school-based set for the interest of their age group, it would be costly
in terms of the extras required to play the roles of pupils and teachers. Although I5
and I6 felt that the narrative would be more interesting if it unfolded over a
spatially larger area (such as in Hollyoaks), they acknowledged that it would then
possibly become confusing and lose some of the intimacy of "Coronation Street" or
"Albert Square".


Engagement with the Genre

From the information gathered in both the questionnaires and the interviews it
would appear that when watching soap opera, girls tend to concentrate solely on
what they are viewing, paying their full attention to the screen in front of them.
Although video recorders are not often used as a means of ensuring that an episode
of a favourite soap is not missed, and the omnibus is not frequently watched, the
girls surveyed classed themselves as "regular viewers", that is, watching at least
two episodes a week of any particular soap. Whether they watch alone or with their
family, a resounding majority then discuss the storylines and soap events with their
friends and/or family, passing on missed information, sharing details and
speculating as to future events.

The manner in which they devote themselves to the viewing of the soap suggests
that they are fully involved with the programme; they have consciously made the
decision to watch the programme and are actively involved with the genre. It is
clear from their systematic retelling of recent events in EastEnders that they are
mentally processing the information transmitted, keeping track of plots and
characters in order to make sense of the narrative. I would argue that the reasons
for watching a soap may affect the individual’s interpretation of events, as those
who stated that they watched because they find it "good" or "interesting" (namely
the younger viewers) were more open to the subscribed meaning of the text,
interpreting events in a positive light. The older girls who stated reasons of
boredom for viewing, tended to be more cynical about the whole genre in terms of
plot and characterisation.

Yet the fact that soap opera is clearly so widely talked about indicates that girls
from 11 – 16 are participating in the process of the soap drama (even mimicking
specific accents to heighten their involvement in the retelling of a storyline),
bringing "richness and density" (Geraghty, 1990: 15) to the text, applying their
own meaning and relevance. They are actively involved in the genre in terms of
predicting the future, using their acquired knowledge of storylines and the
conventions of the genre in order to foresee future episodes and turns of events.

Within the discussion groups, evidence of both involvement and detachment was
present. When discussing certain characters, the interviewees made remarks
concerning the characters’ habits, behaviour, dress sense – indicating that they are
treating the character as a person in their own right, showing audience involvement
through the overlap between fiction and reality.

However, comments were also made to prove their detachment from the same
characters, such as the comment, "Little Mo and Trevor are going to be on GMTV".
The interviewee indicated her detachment from the characters by bringing them
into the real world but by using their character names. Also, references were made
to "they" do this, that or the other, "they" referring to the production team or
writers of the soap, indicating that the girls are aware that the genre is fictional and
created by unseen bodies, that what they see on the screen before them is not in
fact continuing when our backs are turned, but that it is conventions which lead us
to think so.

Interview Group 3, when discussing how they would like to see more characters of
their own age, also made reference to the fact that another set would be required to
show children at school and that this, along with the other actors required would
prove costly. Regardless of their undisputed involvement with the genre, they are
aware that the programme is cleverly constructed and is in fact merely a
representation of real life.

Group 2 talked about "bad actresses" and wanting to fast forward over the boring
bits, showing that someone is in control of this fictional world. Even the youngest
group was able to point out that when Lisa’s crying, "it looks like she’s really


My aim in mentioning favourite characters was to see whether or not the same
names were ever mentioned and whether or not patterns emerged as to the reasons
why the girls liked a certain character, so were they, whether they realised it or not,
identifying with particular characters, or even a whole range of characters. But this
section proved to be very vague. Far from indicating an affinity for the strong
women characters on the soaps, the girls found it easier to name the characters they
disliked or found tedious, of which there were many. The questionnaire responses
did not produce any thing conclusive at all; more often than not the section was left
blank. Group 1 of the interview groups expressed a preference for Lisa, although
watching their reactions I gained the impression that they felt under pressure to
produce a name as they were being recorded, and having already mentioned Lisa
they opted for that name. Group 2 listed several of the male characters as their
favourites for reasons of physical attraction, while Group 3 responded the most
positively to Jamie, who they declared is "lovely". Yet even when asked directly
their opinions of the female characters, responses were not positive. The older
women characters were seen as boring, uninteresting, too much like authority
figures from which these girls are trying to escape. The younger female characters
were described, as "annoying" and I could not find a response that led me to
believe that some sort of positive identification was taking place. However, on two
occasions during the interviews, character names were mentioned as reminding the
interviewee of some one they knew, so in this way, the girls were able to see
familiar people represented in the soap, thus identifying with a character on a non-
personal basis.

Group 3 would prefer to see more characters of their own age, Group 2 would like
to see a more positive representation of teenage characters where as the youngest
group did not express an interest in seeing characters of her own age, explaining
that after a whole day at school, she did not want to see a rerun of her day in the
evening. Her enjoyment seemed to stem from the fact that she could gain an insight
into an adult’s world through watching the soaps (as mentioned by David
Buckingham in his study of youngsters and Eastenders in 1987).

Relating also to Buckingham’s study of Eastenders and his category of

"characterisation and identification", he stated that the more complex the character,
the more likely it is that identity will occur, whilst simpler characters are more
likely to be ignored or ridiculed. It is true to say that the more complex characters
of Steve, Dan and Phil were mentioned in a positive way, where as Robbie and
Kerry, simpler characters, were ridiculed.

It seems to me that the fact that identification does not seem to occur may be
attributable to the fact that these adolescent girls are probably just outside the
intended age of the audience, therefore they may not be engaging with the genre in
the way in which the producers intend. However, having made this point at the
very start of this study, I reiterate now that I would find it very difficult to name a
soap character with which I could identify, despite being a member of the target
audience. The questions then remains, from where does the main pleasure in
viewing soap opera stem?

It seems that the older the adolescent female viewer becomes, the more cynical
they become in their viewing and their interpretation of reality. The younger girls
surveyed found the characters and the storylines to be realistic in their
representation of daily life, but as the groups became older, their attitude became
more negative towards the representation of reality and they described storylines as
"unrealistic" and "so obvious". It must be considered that maybe the older girls do
not want to be seen as being involved in soap opera; they are well aware of the
negative connotations attached to the genre and there is the possibility that they are
attempting to protect their image by radiating a negative attitude towards the genre.
They perhaps do not want to be seen as the typically mindless female who
regularly tunes into soap in order to be entertained, as this is not an image that
would portray them in a flattering light in the ultra-cool youth culture set. Also, by
the determination of age alone, at 16 years old very little actually seems to enthuse
the adolescent, thereby soap opera is just another aspect of life that is bearable but
not to be raved over. Certainly it could not be described as "the best thing on
television" by this age group, even if at 11 or 12 this may be the case.

Therefore, it could be true that behind the cynical and negative exterior, there is no
reason to believe that 15-16 year olds gain any less pleasure from the genre of soap
than the younger (or indeed older) viewer. Yes, it can be said that the main reason
for viewing could be due to boredom; this could be true for any viewer of any
genre. That factor does not have to detract from the pleasure experienced once the
individual is seated and watching the latest episode of a soap. I would hazard an
explanation that one of the main pleasures of viewing soap opera stems from its
conventions; the way in which the audience is engaged with the narrative (a factor
I have indicated, even in the case of the least enthusiastic) is a strong and
compelling factor in the reason for viewing. Curiosity gets the better of us and we
cannot help but tune in to see the outcomes of the diverse and multiple storylines.
The way in which the audience is kept guessing and never granted a conclusive
resolution is a powerful method of keeping even the most cynical of viewer
returning to their regular seat in front of the parallel universe of soap.