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Between December 2000 and February 2001 the Irish soap opera Fair City ran an unprecedented, risky and controversial abortion storyline. This came before a looming referendum on the legality of abortion. Here, Fair City was not just offering entertainment, but provoking debate and discussion on a divisive issue in Irish society. In this case, and many others, it appears that soap opera, by promoting such discussion, may contribute to the formation of public opinion in contemporary civil society. Heretofore, most academic studies have overlooked the possible consequences of soap opera for civil society, public opinion and the democratic process. This study breaks with this by using Habermas’s concept of the public sphere to describe and explore the ways in which soap opera may affect social and political life. In a further departure from former studies that have studied audiences or soap operas texts, this work offers an in-depth investigation of Fair City’s production process. It explores the programme’s potential contribution to public life by uncovering how its production system shapes what social issues it can and cannot address and how it may address them. Habermas offers an underlying conceptual structure for the study. Production research, however, necessitates a conceptual model that can explain everyday production work and decisions within a complex globalised broadcasting environment. To this end, the study employs a Bourdieuian perspective as a middle-range theory. This allows Fair City to be understood as the emergent product of numerous struggles to define the show’s form and content.
I argue that shows like Fair City are a necessity for smaller national broadcasters like RTÉ in a harsh and competitive global broadcasting environment. Such production line soap operas provide dramatic entertainment to large repeat audiences at the lowest possible cost. Soap opera’s competitiveness depends on a highly rationalised, factory-style of production. However, this low-cost, high-speed, production routine geared towards maximising audiences, constrains what Fair City can and cannot say. Accordingly, certain public issues simply cannot be introduced to the public sphere through soap opera. This may have significant consequences for discussion, debate and the formation of public opinion in democratic societies.
Brennan, E. 2004. The Fair City Production Line: An exploration of soap opera’s potential contribution to the public sphere. University College Dublin: Unpublished.
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