An Anatomy of Appreciation and of Viewing Amongst a Group of Fans of the Serial "EastEnders."

Article excerpt

EastEnders is one of the most widely viewed soap operas on British television. It attracts as many as twenty million viewers (depending on season and on publicity for plot lines, out of a total population of some 56 million) for each screened episode. Launched by the BBC in 1985, after a shaky start EastEnders soon rose to parity in terms of audience size, with Coronation Street. While the latter is the "flagship" of the most widely viewed terrestrial television channel, "ITV", EastEnders is BBC1's most widely viewed program. It is set in a mythical Albert Square, in the east end of London, the traditional home of earthy "cockney" folk speaking something like Eliza Dolittle did before she accepted speech training. When EastEnders was shown on PBS it had to be provided with subtitles to facilitate comprehension for American viewers. Close to London's now obsolete but historic port, the area was the first home for waves of immigrants, including those from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century but more recently hosting newcomers from Cyprus, the Caribbean and Bangla Desh. The program's producers decided early on to include such ethnic minorities in the template of society presented at first in two, but now in three episodes per week. Being in a poorer quarter, much of the economic activity is of trading and other services, and petty crime; people live in small apartments in terraced houses and meet each other at such places as "the Vic(toria)" pub, street market, cafe and laundromat. The environment thus provides a fertile setting for problems in relationships which provide the scriptwriters with their dramatic themes.

A copious "literature" has sprung up in the press, concerning this program. Tabloid newspapers headline the activities (and not infrequently) the misdemeanours of the stars, lesser articles discuss future plot possibilities and the comings and goings of executives and their plans, and the television critics analyse the discourse for their readers. Journalists sometimes offer firm, though empirically unfounded opinions as to reasons for the success of the serial. Researchers for broadcasting organisations have also collected audience opinions and analyses of viewing behaviour which may explain something about the program's appeal (see below), though most of these studies remain unpublished. A relatively small body of published academic work on the serial is based on small and/or unrepresentative samples; thus Buckingham (1987) based his discussion on viewers' perceptions of and feelings about the serial on 12 "focus groups" comprising 60 people aged 7-18; an example of the kinds of inference Buckingham made comes after his discussion of the structural content features of "the cliff-hanger and the laying of narrative snares.. both ... I would argue (our italics) are perceived as such by the viewer. The pleasure they afford is based on a degree of distance from the narrative". Buckingham did not operationalize or measure "degree of distance" (of the viewer from some element of content) or pleasure, nor did he attempt to correlate the two constructs empirically. Buckingham also interviewed the program originators and reported that one idea of theirs was that the realism of the serial would attract viewing. Virtually no other empirically-based research on the topic has been published since Buckingham's, so there is much scope for such a study which will explore the reasons why this serial is so well appreciated and widely viewed.

There is no shortage, however, of attempts by critics to answer this question. Amongst the more interesting hypotheses to explain the serial's success is a contention by (the American) Janet Daley who wrote in The Independent (7 August, 1989, p12) "All soap opera shares a capacity for emotional entrapment which most drama, good or indifferent, does not possess. Human psychology is such that the exposure of even vaguely realistic intimate feelings evokes empathy. Soap characters engage us by their self revelation. …