Summer Reading

I like to take a stack of books (anymore, a fully-charged Kindle) off to the beach and bake in the sun and catch up on everything I meant to read during the year. Haven’t had time to do that this year, so I’ve been fitting a few titles in around the edges. Here are three worth noting:

MURDERING MY YOUTH by Cady McClain
Screen-Shot-2014-04-08-at-8.19.09-AMMcClain, in case you haven’t paid any attention to daytime dramas over the last two decades or so, is an Emmy-winning actress best known for her turns as Dixie Cooney Martin on All My Children and as Rosanna Cabot on As The World Turns. She can currently be seen as Kelly Andrews on The Young and the Restless.

I’ve always liked her as a performer and I thought I’d pick this up because a generic soap star bio would occupy my brain and not require me to think too much. If that is something that you want, don’t read this book.

McClain tells an unvarnished tale of abuse, terrible parenting, getting over it, accepting what she can’t change and moving on. It’s often a harrowing tale, but it’s so well-written you have to check yourself to make sure you’re still reading someone’s memoir and not a Stephen King novel. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, McClain makes you laugh out loud. Sometimes the hilarious parts are downright uncomfortable for the reader and yet, you can’t help yourself.

This is a terrific, gripping read. It is NOT AT ALL what I expected it was, but it’s miles better. You should absolutely check it out.

THE PRINCES AND THE TREASURE by Jeffrey A. Miles
princeAfter McClain’s memoir, I needed some light reading, so I turned to the latest alternative kid lit, an adorable tale of two princes who go off in search of the kidnapped princess and end up falling in love with each other.

It’s a great little book and J.L. Phillips’ illustrations are terrific. It hews very closely to the classic white knight-saves-damsel-in-distress trope except for the fact that the white knights like each other. Diversity-minded parents will find this a good story and little boys will like it because there’s no kissing or other, you know, icky junk! (And if your little boys are so inclined, the princes are cute as can be!)

THE ART OF BREATHING by T.J. Klune
20624305This is the third installment of Klune’s “Bear, Otter and the Kid” chronicles — or BOATK3, if you are in the know — and if you are into these books, you already love it, so my review is meaningless. And yet….

I resisted the original BOATK because I didn’t believe the hype and I was quite unconvinced that the debut work of an untested young novelist could be THAT good. Well, I was wrong. It was that good. It made me laugh until I cried and it made me straight up cry. It remains on my all-time greatest hits list.

I loved BOATK2 and eagerly awaited the release of The Art of Breathing. This one features an almost-grown-up Kid predominately and it has a bit of a different rhythm than the previous installments. Klune is verbose (like Bear) and sometimes I think he would be well-served with a serious editor. Still, it’s a damn good book and it comes highly recommended — with the caveat that you must read the first two installments first. I am sure there will be a BOATK4. You’ll think so, too, when you get to the end of this one!

NOTE: Click on any of the cover images to take you to their Amazon page to purchase.

All My Children Gets the Axe Again

It’s not every television series that can boast (?) of being cancelled more than once, but that’s the case with the once-perennial fixture of early afternoon viewing, All My Children. While there hasn’t been “official” official word from the show’s producers Prospect Park (at least publicly as of this writing), tweets from star Debbi Morgan (Angie Hubbard) expressing thanks to fans have been widely circulated and quoted by generally reliable sources such as Michael Fairman On Air On Soaps and retweeted by Cady McClain (Dixie Martin).

(Update: Cady McClain [always a class act, BTW] confirms via Michael Fairman.)

The cast of the "new" All My Children included many familiar faces, including original cast member Ray MacDonnell and longtime co-stars Cady McClain, Jill Larson, David Canary, Julia Barr and others. Image: Ferencomm/The Online Network.

The cast of the “new” All My Children included many familiar faces, including original cast member Ray MacDonnell and longtime co-stars Cady McClain, Jill Larson, David Canary, Julia Barr and others. Image: Ferencomm/The Online Network.

There’s going to be a lot of snarky fan reaction on the Innerwebs in the coming days and weeks along the lines of:

  • I knew it wouldn’t last.
  • Why couldn’t it have been every day?
  • I didn’t want to watch on Hulu.
  • I couldn’t figure out how to get it on my computer, so I gave up.
  • They didn’t have Erica Kane.

And here’s what I have to say about that, quoting that wonderful singer-songwriter Phoebe Kreutzboo frickin’ hoo.

Honest to God. I’m just happy to see someone try to do something differently. I was appreciative of the opportunity, as a viewer, to meet these characters on this new canvas for a while. To have produced 43 episodes in this new format is not a loss, it’s a win. Producers are finding more and more ways to interact with audiences through the Web than they ever have before:

  • Cady McClain made a cool short movie;
  • Freddie Smith, Shawn Christian (DOOL) and company are making a web series;
  • Indie phenom Adam Goldman is producing his second brilliant web series;
  • Broadway’s Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead produce, script and star in a smart web comedy
  • Kit Williamson and Van Hansis (ATWT) starred in Williamson’s exceptional web program….

I could go on and on. But to the naysayers, just remember, small, closed minds have never discovered new worlds, written great novels, played great music, developed cures for disease or launched the next life-changing app. They laughed at Edison, too, you know.

Pine Valley
It was terrific to see folks like Cady McClain and Debbie Morgan and Darnell Williams and Jill Larson in old familiar roles — even the never-count-him-amongst-the-dead Matthew Cowles — but it was even better to watch some terrific new talent like Eric Nelsen and Denise Tontz and Rob Scott Wilson emerge and breath new life into characters whose names, but not much else, were familiar to longtime viewers.

So, again, we write the elegy — and eulogy — for Pine Valley, but we move on, figuring out what’s next and where we’ll be tomorrow and what we’ll tune into then. Something new. And different. The world still turns. Well, as it were.

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Recent Ramblings on All My Children:

Cady McClain, the Decline of American TV Soaps, and Other Stuff

Here’s a link to a great article by All My Children’s Cady McClain about the decline of soap operas on American television. Alert readers will know that this is a topic that I broach with some frequency because, in all incarnations of my life, I have been and continue to be a storyteller. And one of the best ways to connect with your audience and tell important stories is using the serial format.

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for another day. Read Cady’s piece. She’s bang on; absolutely bang on.

As for the haters that are drawn to comment on her piece (which she tweeted about), I offer up this great piece on the subject courtesy of Mashable. I originally posted it a few months back.

Finally, below I am reposting a piece I did for Salon back in 2010 when As The World Turns was going off the air. It touches on some similar themes and also Cady and I quote from one of the same sources, Robert Allen, who wrote the terrific book, Speaking of Soap Operas, back in the 80s! All great minds…..?

P.S. In re-reading the piece below, it occurs to me that I’ve used the Schemering quote in more recent pieces. I should research more deeply. Still — it’s a great quote!

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LOSING OUR STORIES
On Friday, September 17, 2010, the soap opera As The World Turns goes off the air after a run of 54 years. A significant event? Yes, I think it is.

“We are a narrative species,” wrote Roger Rosenblatt in Time a decade ago. “We exist by storytelling — by relating our situations — and the test of our evolution may lie in getting the story right.”

I have always found true profundity in that quote and I have gone back to it hundreds of times because all of us relate to students, to colleagues, to friends, acquaintances and strangers, by telling our stories. And I often wonder if a generation gap is not widening because our outlets for teaching young people how to develop, expand and express their own stories have severely diminished in recent decades.

By way of example, we seem to be reaching the bitter end of serialized storytelling, something which can be dated back more than 500 years to Persian storytellers. Serial fiction became wildly popular in the 19th century with Charles Dickens, most famously, and other authors who published stories in magazines by installment. In the U.S., serialized stories began to be broadcast daily on radio in the 1930s. Derisively called soap operas, as most were sponsored by household products manufacturers and featured overly dramatic plots, they fast became the chief escapist fare for an audience of millions; most of whom were women.

If not the originator of the idea, certainly the most prolific purveyor of soap opera was Irna Phillips, an iron-willed, opinionated genius who acted-out her stories for a secretary to transcribe in lieu of literally putting pen to paper.

Character First
When Phillips created As The World Turns in 1956, it fast became the number one drama in America and stayed at that top spot for more than two decades. In writing about the program, Robert LaGuardia called Phillips “ahead of her time. … Irna saw daytime drama in terms of time and character, rather than story. She understood something that only loyal soap fans truly know: that people want to become involved with the lives of other people. … Story to Irna was simply a vehicle; it was from the moment-to-moment emotions of her characters, expressed to each other in quiet scenes, that viewers derived true vicarious pleasure.”

Soap operas exploded thanks to the advent of television and at the height of their reach some 30 years ago, daytime dramas reached a staggering 50 million viewers a week and raked in more than $700 million in profit annually. The size of the soap audience, argued essayist Robert C. Allen, made the programs “a significant cultural phenomenon.”

In the often laconic pacing of daily serials, audiences get to know characters on a level more intimate than in episodic storytelling and their emotional investment in those characters intensifies. The late Christopher Schemering, a journalist devoted to daytime drama, once noted that “as characterizations grow and the narrative stretches out over months and years and becomes more complex and ambiguous, one’s involvement deepens, forcing one to come to terms with the quirks of human nature, the darker sides of fundamentally good people. And thus there is the possibility of the viewer experiencing something new or complex or feeling some way he has never felt before.”

Theatre practitioners often say that the purpose of the art form is to illuminate the human condition and, arguably, soap opera’s true calling may be exactly the same.

Old-Fashioned Relevance
While many soaps have been derided over the years for outlandish plots, poor writing and occasional injections of science fiction or utter madness, As The World Turns remained relevant, said Schemering, because it told “powerful stories slowly and surely. The show was old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.” LaGuardia called it the “most historically important soap opera in modern times.”

In its early years, the show introduced what is believed to be the first illegitimate child on television and though the show was never considered cutting-edge like the early days of All My Children — where a young Erica Kane had television’s first legal abortion — the show did not shirk from the exploration of social issues. Over the years, alcoholism, cancer, adoption, racism, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other issues have been mined for stories.

Margo’s Rape
In the early 1990s on As The World Turns, the rape of police detective Margo Hughes was allowed to play out in real time. The character, who had to wait six months before she could take a test to determine if she had contracted HIV/AIDS from her rapist, was allowed to explore her own emotions, those of her husband, family and colleagues, and the impact her rape had on everyone in her life in a way that mirrored what happens in the real world. Nearly 20 years after this story first aired, actress Ellen Dolan says that it remains a touchstone for long-time viewers.

Luke’s Coming Out
The show has also, in recent years, been lauded for its long-term treatment of Luke Snyder’s homosexuality and its sensitive portrayal of young gay men. When the teenager came out to friends and family, he was met with both acceptance and derision, often from surprising or unexpected sources, but the character was allowed to hold to his own truth and the story showed the long-term positive effects of that truth-telling on members of the community.

And while soaps can be innovative and forward thinking, they can also be prudish. When the character of Luke fell in love with Noah Mayer, a young man with a completely different, harsher and occasionally frightening coming out story, the two finally shared daytime’s first gay male kiss — nearly a decade into the 21st century.

A gripping story such as Margo’s rape showed millions of women how one woman, married with children, reacted to such an unspeakable act and how it impacted her life. Luke and Noah’s story was written with intense courage and deep feeling and showed how one town accepted and embraced people who may have been different. Both stories allowed viewers, some of whom may not have had other avenues in which to explore them, new and potentially empowering ways to confront difference and prejudice and violence in their own lives.

A Real American Drama
Nearly 50 years ago, playwright William Inge said that while people may sneer at soap operas, they have “a basis for a truer, more meaningful drama. … I feel that in soap opera we have the roots for a native American drama.” Inge may have been right, but he could not have foretold the societal shifts that have occurred over the last three decades that has pushed the soap opera onto a cultural endangered species list.

Soap opera viewership is down a staggering 30 million weekly viewers since the mid-1980s and the number of dramas on the air has shrunk by more than half as well. The news from the Nielsen ratings continue to show a continuing sharp decline across all daytime dramatic programs in women viewers 18-49, the bread and butter demographic for soaps. In an era when working outside of the home is the norm rather than the exception for both genders, when DVR’s have released viewing from time constraints and online video has even freed it from TV sets, the soap audience has dwindled and is increasingly split between older viewers and teenagers; neither is a group that excites daytime’s traditional advertisers.

“There are two universal human needs or motives,” a colleague of mine wrote recently, “the need to know and the need to belong.”

That’s as important, I believe, as Rosenblatt’s assertion that “[w]e exist by storytelling.”

If Rosenblatt is correct, what becomes of a society that loses its stories? What happens to people who forget who they are or where they came from or who their ancestors were or how they deal with fellow citizens in a crisis? How do we write our history if we have no stories to tell? If there is a primal need for knowledge and belonging — and I fervently believe that there is — how can we satisfy that need if no one tells us our own story? How do we move forward if we cannot add to the narrative? How do we entertain each other without a collective act of imagining? How do we continue to educate future generations if we have no stories to bind us together?

You may be thinking this is all well and good, but when you get right down to it, it’s just a soap opera; it’s just a television show. Does it really matter? I think it does. And I think that any story that can be told without a break for more than 50 years, such as As The World Turns, deserves to be celebrated and its passing deserves to be mourned.

There are still people who need experiential outlets and serial drama may be an important and overlooked one to help people deal with their personal issues and to teach them to tell their own stories in a meaningful way.

What happens to those folks when we can no longer “tune in tomorrow?”

Whiny ‘Children’

I read with interest a letter to fans of All My Children and One Life to Live sent by Prospect Park’s (PP) The Online Network (TOLN) on May 16 informing them that the organization planned to reconfigure their distribution methods and release two rather than four new episodes of each show per week.

Then I watched the Internet explode.

The ridiculous hue and cry that was sent up by a vocal minority of viewers was pretty stupendous. It was as if PP had asked, collectively, for everyone to reach into their chests and remove their spleens. Grow up.

Here’s what AMC’s Jill Larson (Opal Cortlandt) had to say about it on Facebook:

Everyone has done a Herculean job, truly unbelievable, the shows look wonderful, I am so very proud to be able to be a part of this daring undertaking. Our producers and writers work until 4:00AM nearly every night, I wondered how long this could continue.

The cast of the "new" All My Children includes many familiar faces, including original cast member Ray MacDonnell and longtime co-stars Cady McClain, Jill Larson, David Canary, Julia Barr and others. Image: Ferencomm/The Online Network.

The cast of the “new” All My Children includes many familiar faces, including original cast member Ray MacDonnell and longtime co-stars and fan favorites Cady McClain, Jill Larson, David Canary, Julia Barr, Eden Reigel, Debbie Morgan, Darnell Williams and others. Image: Ferencomm/The Online Network.

And while Jill notes that this is not why the number of episodes being released each week is being cut back, it’s a very important thing to contemplate. If you’ve never worked in a theatre or on a soundstage, you have no idea just how many people it takes to create the entertainment that you’re experiencing. If those technicians burn out, your production suffers. And if you don’t know a dolly grip from a focus puller and why they’re so important, when shut your yammer.

Patterns Shift
Now, what PP did note in their initial communication was that they were as surprised as anyone about how the vast majority of viewers are consuming this material. And, as a marketer, I have no doubt that they are spot on in their adjustments and why they are doing it.

What you have to realize is that buying patterns and entertainment consumption patterns shift over time. Without getting too far into the weeds with marketing geek speak, at the end of the day, if you have data on your audience and you can see how and when they are consuming your material, you have an obligation to the consumer to deliver that material in a way that is beneficial to the majority of your audience.

Quite frankly, I was surprised that TOLN planned five half-hours of material per week (four of story and one behind-the-scenes show). If I was among those with decision-making power here, I might have lobbied for a return to the original Irna Phillips playbook and 15-minute programs because (A) it is at the root of the genre and (B) because of my knowledge of peoples’ online attention spans. [damn short] Of course, I would have in all likelihood been overruled, because while a 15-minute program four times a week and two 30-minute programs per week equate to the same amount of story, the ad impressions double in the half-hour segments and if you understand anything about TV (or its equivalents) you know it’s all about the Benjamins!

The Old School Viewer Weighs In
I guess the thing that really cheeses me off are the people who are accusing PP of creating this “viewing habits paradigm” out of whole cloth to get out of providing four days of programming per week.

I’m going out on a limb here to defend some people I know ZERO about personally, and say, “Shut up, ya ignorant cows.”

And, I can attest that in my experience, PP’s Jeff Kwatinetz is correct. His explanation is exactly how people are consuming online content. Ask anyone who streamed a full season of House of Cards all at once on Netflix. Ask Arrested Development fans how they spent May 26th (ask on the 28th, they’ll be sleeping on the 27th; they were up all night long). If someone has a free hour or two during the day — every day of the week — to devote to watching entertainment programming, please let me know how to get their life.

Hell, even back in the day, the only reason I could continue to watch continuing dramas was because of the advent of the VCR. (Some of us work.) I would tape shows and when I got home from work, I’d watch scenes with the characters I was interested in and fast-forwarded through the rest. Today, I’m happier to spend an hour on a rainy Saturday morning watching All My Children than I am to scurry around trying to find some time in my schedule to watch a half-hour every day. And, I’m less likely to find TWO hours on that same Saturday to catch up on four.

If PP is thinking that fans are watching BOTH All My Children and One Life to Live, then I think two things are important: (1) fan connections to both shows and (2) if subsequent weeks numbers show one show consistently outperforming the other or not.

An AMC Outlier
In spite of being a 20+ year viewer of All My Children, I’m an outlier. I was a diehard As The World Turns/Guiding Light viewer. All My Children was a fluke for me. It was the only then-ABC soap I watched and — with the sole exception of the Kyle Lewis/Oliver Fish storyline (which got botched big time) — nothing ever appealed to me about OLTL. Subsequently, when both shows returned online, I watched AMC and went on my merry way.

Bottom Line: Give PP some room to grow and to figure some stuff out. THIS IS ALL BRAND NEW. Let them play around with it without throwing in the damn towel on the first down and going home in a huff. Listen, they’ve just given you back Billy Clyde Tuggle, for the love of God, one of the greatest characters in the history of the genre. Quit bitching. Shut up. Be thankful. And watch.

Don’t make me have to rant at you again.

(P.S. — Has anyone ever bitched because you only get one episode of your favorite primetime network sitcom each week? And for 24-26 weeks per year, if you’re lucky? Hell, under this new paradigm, you’re still going to get more than 100 new episodes of each program each year. How is this still not a good thing???)

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Making Me Laugh, with TV’s Cady McClain

H/T to a tweet from Michael Fairman for this one.

All My Children’s Cady McClain (Dixie, for those in the know) in the guise of Web advice guru Suzy F*cking Homemaker explains how to watch All My Children when it debuts online later this month. Even if you don’t watch AMC, you should watch this!

More of Cady’s, I mean Suzy’s videos.