Bam! Pow! Carolyn Hinsey's new take-no-prisoners suds tome Afternoon Delight: Why Soaps Still Matter (available at thesoapbook.com and amazon.com) is already a hit, having commanded the No. 1 spot on Amazon Kindle's pop culture list for the last two weeks. And the hardcover edition is just shipping this week. If you've ever been addicted to a soap opera, you'll want to grab this terrific mix of historical perspective, sage advice, lip-smacking gossip, biting criticism (Ellen Wheeler, duck for cover!) and — most important — some real hope and faith in the long-term future of daytime drama. TV Guide Magazine spoke with Hinsey, who is best known for her outrageously snarky "It's Only My Opinion" column in Soap Opera Digest. We could talk to this broad all day!
TV Guide Magazine: Congrats on a smart, funny, tough-minded and very entertaining read — somehow you did it all! Talk about the scope and the sprawl of this book.
Hinsey: I wanted to write a book about soaps operas and how entertaining and fantastic they are because it seemed to me that some daytime executives weren't getting that. If you're going be the head of daytime, you need to understand and love soap operas. And if you don't, then how did you get the job? I started researching Afternoon Delight from a historical perspective and didn't realize that the first radio soap was created in 1930 by Irna Phillips, that women had been in positions of power and had everything to do with the creation of soaps. The first discussion on TV about a pap smear happened with Bert Bauer on Guiding Light in the early '60s — truly cutting edge! Irna created the first interracial relationship in daytime, which involved a Eurasian girl and an American pilot on Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. Fred Silverman thought it was too racy and said, "Cut it!" And so Irna quit! Back then, she and Agnes Nixon and Bill Bell had the power to do that. Now people are scared for their jobs, there are too many execs, it's all watered down and no one — except perhaps for the Bell family — has the autonomy to give the audience what it wants.
TV Guide Magazine: Reading your book makes me want to get in a time machine and go back and stop the hell and the madness from happening — because you can see so many junctures where it all started to go south.
Hinsey: I started the book to celebrate daytime and to research all the things I was curious about and by the time the book came out it had become a rallying cry about why soaps are important and why smart, passionate, funny people watch them. Now soaps are in the news every day. All My Children and One Life to Live are moving to the internet. Soaps still matter!
TV Guide Magazine: They matter to you and me and millions of fans and to most of the people who make them, but not so much to the suits who are running them. And that's how we got into this godforsaken mess.
Hinsey: You and I have been in the crow's nest on the Titanic screaming "Oh, my God, there's an iceberg coming!" for going on 20 years now and nobody's been listening. In fact, the band's still playing! But as you saw in the outrage over the cancellations, millions of people are clamoring to keep these shows on the air. When you look at the ratings of today's soaps, they're much higher than most of the so-called big hits on cable. Those numbers are too easily dismissed, and so are the fans. The networks have dismissed them at their own peril. ABC underestimated the connection the viewers feel to their soaps — even those who don't watch all the time — and it's a connection these same fans will never have when it comes to judge shows or game shows or food shows. And don't tell me that Katie Couric's new ABC talk show is going to cost less than a soap, because with her salary and Jeff Zucker's and all the production costs it's going to be twice what a soap costs with zero built-in viewing audience. It makes no sense. The last new hit show on ABC was The View and it's turning 15. You think you can get rid of Erica Kane and replace her with a food show with 700 rotating chomping hosts and get more viewers than the 2.8 million a day who watch AMC now? I don't think so.
TV Guide Magazine: You tirelessly campaign to make soaps better not only in this book but in your Soap Digest column, while I'm more of a cynical son of a bitch who thinks calling these people to task is a waste of time. These network execs either don't give a crap or don't have the talent to deliver first-class programming. They are not into pleasing the audience, they're into remaking — or canceling — these shows to suit their agendas. Still, I admire your faith and positivity!
Hinsey: I do believe we can turn these shows around and make them more successful! I don't know that any execs listen to me but I think some do listen to their fans and try to please them. You can't say that about AMC in the last few years. The head writers just wrote what they wanted. Chuck Pratt said, "I don't care what any of you think. I'm going to write what I want to write." And that was obviously a big nail in the coffin for that show. But I think [OLTL exec producer] Frank Valentini has done yeoman work, especially with a shrinking budget. There's always a veteran on air every day on OLTL — you never go weeks without seeing Viki or Dorian or the Buchanans. The same goes for The Bold and the Beautiful. Brad Bell puts Ridge and Brooke on air practically every day. So I do think they listen and that they do follow Agnes Nixon's famous advice, "If you can tell it tomorrow, don't tell it today," and they're doing it with characters we care about.
TV Guide Magazine: I won't argue with you regarding Brad, but I can't share your love for all things Valentini. On OLTL's best days there's no better soap, but there are too many bad days. And most of the younger ones are deadly dull and can't act. Hey, even you refer to the Ford boys as the Torso Brothers! Thinking it's OK to put pretty people who can't act on national television — like we viewers are morons who won't notice or care — is a big part of what's wrong with soaps. It shows a lack of respect for the customers.
Hinsey: But we don't know how much of that is [ABC Daytime chief] Brian Frons or someone else at ABC telling OLTL, "You better add five more good-looking kids to your cast by the end of the year," or "I don't want to pay more than $1200 a show to anyone you hire from now on."
TV Guide Magazine: It doesn't matter who's at fault — it's an assault on the viewer's sensibilities and it helps accelerate audience erosion. And by the way, Mark Teschner at General Hospital — also on ABC — has no problem finding fabulously talented young ones. On a lighter note, Afternoon Delight also has a ton of fun with the goofier aspects of the genre.
Hinsey: In the chapter called "Soaps 101" I talk about what's unique about soaps — how the DNA test will always be switched, how no one is ever really dead, all the fun staples we take for granted but when you pile them up all together it's hilarious. But here's the thing: Soap fans are in on the joke. We know that so much of what happens on our shows is ridiculous, but it's part of the entertainment factor. And I don't think most people who are critical of the soaps realize that.
TV Guide Magazine: You know you're going to get a lot of crap for the chapter called "Gays of Our Lives," right? You throw down the gauntlet and insist that gay characters can't work successfully in daytime.
Hinsey: There are a number of obstacles, one of the main ones being that soap opera storytelling spins around unwanted pregnancy. That's the reason birth control is zero percent ineffective in daytime and the reason gay characters have not worked in the past. Gay people don't have babies by accident. That whole arc of storytelling can't exist with gay characters. Now if you're creative, you can find another way to tell a good story, but with the exception of Bianca on AMC, that usually doesn't happen. They crafted that story well. They had Erica not understanding Bianca's orientation, which reflected the thoughts of many viewers. They had Greenlee being a mean girl and calling her Lesbianca, which made us feel sorry for Bianca and pretty soon we were rooting for the character. Then came Bianca and Maggie, and Lianca. It was perfectly done and people were invested. One of the problems you ran into with Kish on OLTL was that the gay community didn't think it was enough — they were resentful that their story was only on two days a week. The gay community had to be mindful that there were a lot of people in Middle America who did not want to see two men kissing or having a love scene on daytime TV.
TV Guide Magazine: But how can you say gay stories can't work when there were extenuating circumstances in almost every case? The Bianca story came to a dead halt because Chuck Pratt screwed it up and Eden Riegel got pissed and took a powder. Luke's story on As the World Turns was an absolute success and could have gone on for years if the show hadn't been cancelled. Otalia on Guiding Light was all the rage but P&G and/or CBS refused to play the story truthfully, to the point where those gals couldn't even kiss. And let's face facts — Kish was working great and then suddenly there was gay overkill. There were gay political protests in Llanview, gay beatings, gay villains, Dorian pretending to be lesbian to win the mayor's race. I caught hell for saying it at the time but I'm sticking to it — there was too much gay too quickly and the audience revolted. I think you sell the viewers short on this issue. And for proof all you have to do is look at primetime where there are gay characters everywhere these days. Bottom line, daytime makes only token attempts at diversity. Your chapter on African-Americans in soaps certainly points out this systematic failure. Why, after 30 years, are AMC's Angie and Jesse still the only black supercouple? Where are the Hispanics when stats say half of the U.S. population will be Hispanic in the not-so-distant future?
Hinsey: Those are definitely missed opportunities, you're 1000 percent right. One of the most shocking realizations in researching the book is that every single character on daytime right now is Christian, except for Nora, the half-Jewish woman on OLTL. There are no Muslims. There are no Jews. How is it possible? That's ridiculous when you're trying to reach out to the most number of people and bring the most eyeballs to your shows. When there's no one on the canvas that looks like you, you're not going to watch. By the time Agnes launched OLTL [in 1968] she had learned from all the other shows she'd worked on that it's hard to integrate new characters and new families into a town because fans are slow to respond to change. They want their same people every day doing things they can count on. So Agnes took advantage of a new show to create this fantastic character, Carla Gray [played by Ellen Holly], who was posing as white and put her in two different triangles — one with a white man, another with a black man, so from the get-go she was part of the fabric of the show. If you created a new soap now, you could easily have gay and black and Hispanic and Muslim characters in the mainstream. From the first episode it would be seamless.
TV Guide Magazine: But how do you explain soaps going backwards? Under Bill Bell, The Young and the Restless built up a fantastic group of black characters and had No. 1 ratings to prove this was A-OK with America. After he left the show, all that was lost.
Hinsey: Shemar Moore was a huge star — maybe the most popular next to Eric Braeden — and he quit Y&R. They couldn't recast him, so they fer-fumphed along and things sort of fell apart. Is that the show's fault, or is it the fact that Shemar quit?
TV Guide Magazine: It's the show! If all it takes is one actor leaving for things to fall apart — nothing against Shemar — then you haven't built a solid foundation. It's bad planning, bad management. I love fighting with you! And that's another great thing about your book — it throws all sorts of fascinating issues right in our faces, giving us viewers lots to think about and argue over.
Hinsey: Thank you. I was trying to be an expert and a critic but, at the end of it all, I'm foremost a fan. I want the shows to stay on the air and be good. There's never been one word of criticism from you or from me that involved saying these shows should go off the air. We're saying that the opportunity to make them better is there so why do the shows persist in not taking that opportunity? If there's one thing to take away from all my research, it's this: Don't let your new head writer try to put his or her own stamp on a show. That came through in Doug Marland's comments to me right before he died about how not to wreck a show — don't go into it and immediately start making major changes, because those changes will whittle away at your fan base. And yet every head writer still does it. Doug Marland died and ATWT was in free fall for seven years in the '90s until Hogan Sheffer took over — and then it went from nothing to winning four [writing] Emmys.
TV Guide Magazine: And then Hogan moved to Days and stunk up that show big time! It's maddening, isn't it? Well, at least you're sounding the alarm.
Hinsey: Then there's the attitude that if this bad writer doesn't work out, oh, well, we'll just get another one. It's that sort of hubris that brought us to where we are today and makes me have to write a book about why soaps still matter! [Laughs] I don't know, Logan, if only people would listen to us! Hey, I hope all the head writers will read this book and do everything right from now on. And, this time next year, we'll have 12 soaps on the air!