originally posted on May 7, 2011
Soap fans were crushed recently when ABC decided to axe both ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIFE unceremoniously and, in the case of the ONE LIFE TO LIVE, without warning. Now there are rumors that Katie Couric is threatening GENERAL HOSPITAL’s existence as well. AS THE WORLD TURNS and GUIDING LIGHT went down last year. If GENERAL HOSPITAL does indeed go, there will only be three daytime soaps left on the air. How long can they possibly last?
In the wake of the soap opera cancellations, people say things to me like “Well, I guess people just aren’t watching them anymore,” or “I guess people just don’t like them anymore.” The former statement is both true and not true, the latter not true at all.
Many factors have contributed to the lack of soap viewership since 1988 when I worked at Soap Opera Digest magazine (my first play, Cockeyed Today, is set in the offices of a soap magazine, in fact) and there were a healthy eleven or twelve shows surviving just fine. Some people say that viewership began eroding with the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, which pre-empted soap for weeks on end. If it takes 21 days to make a habit, viewers had ample time to find something else to do during their scheduled soap time.
The evolving nature of the stay-at-home mom, once the mainstay viewer of soaps, meant fewer children were growing up watching soap operas. Talk to anybody in their forties, and they have memories of coming home from school and catching the last few minutes of GENERAL HOSPITAL or AS THE WORLD TURNS or GUIDING LIGHT with their mothers or grandmothers. If not that, they got hooked during a school vacation–when there was nothing else to watch. When one grows up with characters, loyal viewers are created. This simply isn’t happening in the numbers it once did. For many, being a stay-at-home mom is a luxury borne from a desire to actively raise one’s children. Many of the moms who can afford to stay home have cars, which means they’re not home looking for diversions, and they’re busy with playgroups and activities for their children or volunteer activities. And let’s not forget the obvious: more women are working, which means they’re not home at all.
Soaps took another big hit with the advent of cable. Suddenly, there were choices about what to watch during the day; viewers weren’t relegated to game shows and talk shows or soaps. There were movies and niche programs, and more potential viewers were diverted. And then came computers, and dishes, and even more cable channels, and Netflix, and streaming. Viewers are simply presented with too many options now. It’s about lifestyle changes, and soaps are the newspapers of television viewing. They take too much time–a five-hour-a-week commitment–and there’s too much else to do, too many easier choices.
My kids don’t even watch TV; their electronic time is spent online, where they might catch an episode of a show they missed. Parents, too, spend more face time in front of computers. And those who have never watched soaps don’t understand why the genre will be missed, even as they get their continuing drama fix from MAD MEN, THE WIRE, DEXTER, GAME OF THRONES (all of which they watch in season-long marathons through streaming or Netflix, never understanding the true value of waiting to see how a cliffhanger resolves itself). Because all dramas have certainly hooked into the knowledge that continuing drama is what brings viewers back. I once wrote an article for Soap Opera Digest where I interviewed an executive at L.A. LAW, one of the first evening non-soap shows to employ arc stories that carried from one episode to the next. He told me that all shows are continuing drama because, after all, how would you know to laugh at someone sitting in Archie Bunker’s chair if you didn’t already know how Archie would react to that?
But ask yourself this: If you’ve watched any prime time or cable show for a number of seasons, why is it better by the third or fourth season? It’s not always because the writing is better. Very often, it’s because you now know these characters so well that the writers can achieve nuance through a raised eyebrow. Soaps, then, are able to do this better than anybody because their characters have played out daily for years. A cliffhanger can be as simple as one enemy waiting on another’s doorstep. They can play out every beat of a story so that you can see the reactions from every character you care about. No weekly drama will ever be able to match this level and depth of storytelling. And it’s this depth, the feeling that you really know the people you watch every day, that has given soaps their loyalty despite their plotting missteps, poorer production values, lack of rehearsal time. Viewers are forgiving because the characters are family. And because what they care most about is story. When soaps are good, there is nothing better. But legions and legions of future television viewers will never know that.
Finally, let’s not forget about money. If the current soaps ratings were applied to a talk show or chooking show (THE CHEW, really?), they’d be just fine. But when you’ve got a cast’s worth of salaries, sets, writers, etc. the costs escalate proportionately. It’s not that those shows will be better or even more desired, they just won’t cost as much. I feel like poor Tessio being told there’s nothing that can be done for old time’s sake: “It’s just business.”