Thomas Skill spends a lot of time watching soap operas--but not just to learn whether Jill will spill her secret or Tom and Brooke will finally get back together.
Skill, a University of Dayton assistant professor of communication arts, was among the first academics to take soap operas seriously, researching how the serials treated health issues, women, the elderly and other subjects.
"We're also interested in what the audience thinks and does with the programs and why they're so loyal, because they must be getting some kind of reward from participating," Skill said. "We think it's because it's good drama, and we like good stories. That's a part of human nature."
Skill began researching daytime serials as an undergraduate at New York State-Buffalo in 1978, a time when almost nothing academic was being published about the dramas.
"In Sickness and in Health," a paper stemming from that study, was published in 1979 in the prestigious "Journal of Communication" and later was cited in the New England Journal of Medicine. Skill was aided in his work by communications professor Mary Cassata, then his faculty adviser.
"In Sickness and in Health" looked at how the soaps treated sickness and dying, Skill said. The dramas in their early stages in the 1940s and '50s invented fictional diseases, using sickness solely as a plot device.
Modern soaps, however, are much more realistic--and even informative--in portraying illness, he said. Latter-day serials are less likely to kill off characters and instead offer hope, Skill said.
He also studied how soap operas portrayed the elderly, who often are seen as crime victims, poor and weak during prime-time TV. Old people on soaps, however, often are "tent-pole characters," the "moral fiber" of the story. They are seen as respected and influential, he said.
The research on soap-opera images of the elderly was included in "Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-in of American Serial Drama," a book Skill co-authored with Cassata.
In his dissertation at Buffalo, Skill analyzed the reasons why college students watch soap operas and how this relates to their personalities. The majority watch as a social activity and to enjoy the drama, he said.
But a small percentage--about 8%--watch because they are insecure, having problems with relationships in their lives and seeking some answers, he said.
Skill, however, contended, "You can't really say soaps present real answers."
But he did note that generally in soap operas, good is rewarded and evil is punished--although not always right away.
Skill's research on soaps led to a consulting position with Procter & Gamble Productions Inc., sponsor of four soaps that began to do poorly in the ratings several years ago. The firm wanted to know why college students were turning away from "One Life to Live," "Another World," "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light."
Skill said the serials were thought of as "frumpy old ladies shows" and needed some changes. His suggestions included simplifying the plot somewhat to avoid scaring away new viewers; using "teasers" of subsequent plot actions to entice viewers, and spicing up graphics and introductions.
"All My Children," "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" were cited by Skill as the highest-quality daytime serials. Although all the soaps have good points, the actions of characters in those three shows in particular consistently remained true to form, Skill said.
"It's much more sophisticated drama than people are willing to give it credit for being," Skill said of soap operas. But, he noted, "It's a popular art form, so it has a lot of the common problems that people identify with popular arts.
"It tends to repeat itself occasionally, it tends not to offer a lot of wisdom and subtlety and a great understanding of beauty all the time," Skill said.
Studying the serials is growing in academic popularity, Skill said, but acceptance didn't come quickly.
"When we first started doing it, we did have some snickers from the colleagues," Skill said. "We were in it very early and you get known as the 'soap opera people' and they kind of laugh at you."
Skill's most recent research is focusing on the presentation of family life in television, including both daytime and prime time. He will present a paper on the subject at a conference at the University of Dayton in May called "Using the Media to Promote Knowledge and Skills in Family Dynamics."