What would a world without soap operas look like? Barbara Irwin has been pursuing the answer to that question throughout her career.
Irwin is a professor emerita at Canisius University, where she taught courses in media studies, mass communication and journalism for 32 years. In addition to her teaching role, Irwin has served as an audience researcher for The Young and the Restless (Y&R): the long-running daytime drama that has aired on CBS since 1973. Irwin’s work for the show has included co-authorship of two books: The Young and the Restless: Most Memorable Moments and The Young and the Restless, Special Silver Anniversary Collector’s Edition.
How did Irwin become an expert on daytime television? In a recent interview, she described the path she took from teaching in Buffalo to researching in Los Angeles; meetings with legendary soap opera creators; soaps’ impact on women both on-camera and off; and the future of daytime television.
Please note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. All photos are courtesy of Barbara Irwin.
Deanna Howes Spiro: Could you tell me a little bit about your background in academia and what drew you to Canisius?
Barbara Irwin: I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, and did all three of my degrees at the University of Buffalo. It was there that I met Mary Cassata, who was my mentor and a soap opera research pioneer. I finished my dissertation on soap operas and was on the job market, and was just interested in learning more about Canisius. I didn’t really know much about the school, so I asked for an informational interview with then-communication department chair, Marilyn Watt. I arranged to meet with her and had a wonderful conversation during which she said they were actually going to be searching for a new professor and the job description was very similar to what I did.
So, it was a one-year position: I ended up applying and was hired and then they did a search for a tenure-track position during my first year. I applied for that and was hired on the tenure-track line. I think my interest in Canisius probably had much to do with the fact that it was a local school and it was wonderful for me to be able to stay in Buffalo.
After I did the informational interview with Marilyn, she said, “I think it would be beneficial for you to talk with some of our students. We have a TV station here, CCTV [Canisius College TV], and our students produce a soap opera called ‘Campus.’ I think they could really use some help. Would you mind coming to talk with them some time?”
I met some great students and had a great conversation with them. I put together a whole packet of materials about producing a soap opera and what goes into that. They were excited about the fact that I appreciated soaps, so when I showed Marilyn the materials that I had put together for the students, she said this could be a course, which later became “Analysis of Daytime TV.” It included soaps and some other things, but it was heavily focused on soaps.
How has working at Canisius, a Jesuit institution, affected you personally and professionally? Was there anything about it being Jesuit that drew you there?
Quite honestly, I didn’t know much about Jesuit colleges or universities when I was applying, so I think what drew me more to Canisius than that was what I could tell from the interactions of faculty with students. I was able to see that the relationship between students and faculty was very different from my experience at a big university in terms of how faculty really seem to care about their students and interact on many different levels with them. There was almost an expectation for students to establish close relationships with their faculty at Canisius and I just really loved that.
Obviously, I came to understand through my time there, how important the Jesuit ideals are. And I really believe in Jesuit education and was able to participate in the Ignatian Colleagues Program several years ago. That came at a good time for me to really dig deeper into the meaning of all of this, so that was a great experience.
I would love to know how you came into soaps. Did you grow up watching them and, if so, which ones?
I can remember as a young child seeing General Hospital on TV in the living room when my mom would be ironing. Not that she watched it faithfully, but that was my very first exposure to soaps. When I was in high school, I would come home early enough that One Life to Live was on, so my mom and I would watch while talking about what happened at school that day.
By the time I went to college, I wasn’t paying attention to any soaps. When I was a senior, I was taking courses in mass communication and media, and I knew that Mary Cassata taught a course about soap operas, which I very purposefully avoided because I thought, “Why would anyone ever want to take a course about soap operas?”
When I started graduate school, I went back part-time for my first semester just to kind of dabble and see if I liked it. I did what all students do: I looked at the list of courses and just picked two by title. One of them was called “Television Criticism,” which I thought sounded interesting. I registered for that course and when I walked in the first night, I saw it was taught by Mary Cassata, who said that we were going to spend the semester critiquing soap operas!
But I thought, “I’m a graduate student now and I’ll be open-minded about this.” I stayed in that course, which was all about mass communication research and included a study on soap viewers. I’ve always been kind of intrigued in the behind-the-scenes of what goes into creating TV, so when it came time to come up with a dissertation topic, I wanted something that would hold my interest for a couple of years. I had done some directive reading with some English professors about the production of prime-time television and thought that there was nothing like this about daytime television or soaps. That’s when I decided that my dissertation would be an oral history of soaps.
I wrote letters and sent them off to writers, producers, directors, actors and network executives, and couldn’t believe the responses that I got. I vividly remember the day that Agnes Nixon [creator of One Life to Live and All My Children] called me. She said, “Barbara, I have your letter here and would love to talk to you. When will you be in New York? Come to dinner!” So, I went to have dinner at Agnes’ apartment in New York and had a wonderful evening and conversation with her. I still have the menu from it!
What I discovered was that not many people were being asked about their work because soap operas were sort of the “lesser stepchild” of the entertainment industry. I think they were receptive to the idea of someone who was interested in what they did. So, I spent a lot of time in New York and a lot of time in Los Angeles just talking with all of these people. They invited me on the sets so I could see the productions and it was just an incredible experience. I met Bill Bell [co-creator of Y&R and The Bold and the Beautiful] that way, at his office at CBS’ Television City.
I gained an appreciation and a true respect for what soap operas are and for all of the people who work on them. And a lot of people say that the acting and writing on soaps are so horrible, but it’s incredible that they ever existed and that they’ve continued for as long as they have, because the amount of work that goes into doing that is just mind-boggling. You’ve got an 80-page script and you’ve got to learn your lines for tomorrow. It’s not an easy thing to do.
What led you into focusing on The Young and the Restless?
After my dissertation and after speaking with Bill, I made the offer to him that if he ever needed any research done about his soaps, Mary and I would be happy to do something. Maybe a year later, he got in touch and said that he’d like to take us up on our offer. He wanted to know how audiences were responding to characters on Y&R and B&B. So Mary and I did a study. We reached out to audience members and got feedback on various characters. We submitted it to Bill and he was fascinated by it. Three or four years after we had done the study, we visited him in his office in LA, where he pulled it out of a drawer and said, “I can’t tell you how often I have referred to this study and how important this has been to me writing these shows.”
What was the process like for writing your two books on Y&R? How do you write a history of a TV show?
There wasn’t much available in the way of video because those were all buried in a vault somewhere, so we didn’t have access to go back and watch episodes. But what they had in their offices were notebooks full of the daily outlines of every episode. At the time, it was something like 6,000 episodes, so it was notebook after notebook. We lived in the Y&R offices: Mary and I rented out an apartment in LA several times for a month or more at a time to work on the books.
We had enough of an idea of what we thought we would focus on so that we could direct ourselves to certain stories, characters, couples, and things like that. When it came to writing about each year of the soap for the 25th anniversary book, that became much more intense to make sure we got everything right. We interviewed everyone connected to the show; they were very helpful.
Soap Opera Digest and the other soap press were things we looked through to check on stories. It was an enormous job to try to get these stories straight, but it was also a ton of fun. We spent incredible amounts of time in the CBS and Sony archives to look through photos because obviously the books are photo-driven.
Through this process, we became sort of the unofficial historians of Y&R. When I was out in LA in March for the 50th anniversary of the show, I can’t tell you how many people on the production team said to me that they still relied on the books.
You wrote the 25th anniversary book at a time when there were so many soaps on air and today, there are only four, one of which is streaming. During the pandemic, it felt like the soaps missed an opportunity to do an advertising blitz because everyone was forced to stay home during the day. I couldn’t understand why writers weren’t suggesting that people watch soaps! How did you feel about that during the pandemic, i.e., this could have been a good time for soaps to have a new heyday?
It’s an interesting idea that it could have drawn people in, but I think the thing that works against soaps in the long run is just the fact that there’s a commitment that I think viewers don’t necessarily want to make anymore. I think there was a little bit of a spike in the ratings during that time, but coming out of that, are people willing to invest their time in continuing to watch this? I’d like to believe that the soaps that we have will continue and I think people working in the soaps now are looking at it as, “We’ll take whatever our life span is. We’re going to pour everything into it, but we really don’t know how long this will continue.”
The world of soap operas has always been dominated by women: Irna Phillips, Agnes Nixon, Lee Bell, to name a few. It’s an important field to study in part because so many women have been so involved with it. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I would. It’s always been a female-dominated genre and to go back to those earliest pioneers, they were fighting in a system that wasn’t necessarily open to a lot of women. The power that Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon held was really, really important to telling a different kind of story.
I always had great respect for the kinds of issue-driven stories that were told on soaps. We did a lot of research on health in the soaps and there was a big shift from the early days when ailments had made-up names, to the stories in later years that were infused with very solid medical information for characters. Agnes talked about how she would get letters from women who said they saved her life because of a story about uterine cancer that she wrote for Guiding Light. Bill Bell was very committed to that too. He felt very strongly that he had a responsibility to tell stories like that on his shows.
How did Canisius support you as you did your work on Y&R over the years?
Throughout my career there, they’ve been incredibly supportive. Canisius is very open to all different kinds of scholarship. I’m sure there were some people early on who thought, “Oh, soap operas,” but I never really felt that. I think my colleagues in my department got kind of a kick out of the fact that I knew all of these soap opera people.
When we wrote our books, I did get a course release one year: our travel was always during school breaks, so we would go out during the winter or summer and spend extended time in LA. But I always had very positive feedback, encouragement, and enthusiasm for what we were doing.
A note from Deanna Howes Spiro: When I was in middle school, I purchased both of Barbara Irwin’s books on The Young and the Restless, which I had been watching since childhood. Last March, I was delighted to learn through Canisius University’s social media accounts that Barbara attended the show’s 50th anniversary time capsule reveal in Los Angeles! It was an incredible honor to make her acquaintance through Canisius’ communications department, and we enjoyed a wonderful Zoom conversation together in early September.
The Young and the Restless has long been an important part of my life: I wrote about how it helped me survive the pandemic in an article for America in December 2020. The show’s theme song was even the theme of my college application essay to Fordham University. I grew up watching Y&R with my grandfather: some day, I hope that my daughter becomes a fan!