I feel sick.
The NBC president casually let it drop today, in his press release regarding the cancellation of Passions, that Days of Our Lives will probably not continue past 2009. First of all, it’s an insult to any show, on any network, to say something so damning and yet so vague.
I know that ratings for all daytime soaps have been steadily declining since 2000. (I’ll speculate as to why in a moment.) I can’t deny that reality, and I know that original programming like Days will always be more expensive for a network—a lot more—than showing a reality show, or a syndicated rerun, which as things stand now might very well bring in comparable numbers. I know this. And yet it seems like there are so many things that could be tried before taking the drastic step of pulling the plug. In other countries they show their soap operas during the late afternoon, between 4 and 7 pm, so teens can watch after school, or people can watch as they prepare dinner. It seems to me that moving Days to 3 or 4 or 5 pm would be an easy thing to try. Also, and I’m just feeling my way here as I write this, but it seems like someone, somewhere, has to be making original programming, there’s so many channels that show reruns, or celebrity talk shows with celebrities talking about the other shows they’re doing. If TV is a big monster feeding on itself, when does it all become self-referential, where it’s all famous people who are famous for talking about other famous people?
Call me a fool—I’m calling myself one as I write this—but I can’t imagine a world without Days in it. Even during the long hiatus I took, from 1990 to 2005, I always knew it was there. I even knew vaguely what was happening—I knew that Marlena’s little blonde daughter Samantha grew up and was wreaking havoc in the 90’s. I knew that Hope came back from the dead and had amnesia and thought her name was Gina. I heard that Gina married Bo and then became Hope again. I heard about the devil possession storyline. I heard that Jack came back from the dead a couple more times. And I would hear about these things, and smile, or shake my head, and it was like hearing about friends of mine that I’ve lost touch with, but I wish them well.
I think about other TV shows I’ve watched, and loved, and I don’t feel the same. I love(d) Gilmore Girls, but have never been dismayed at the idea of it ending. In fact, I didn’t want it to go on too long. I want it to end before the plots get tiresome and repetitive. But a show like Gilmore Girls is different, because it’s about two characters and the people they interact with. You can’t have Gilmore Girls without the Gilmore girls. But on Days, or any soap, there’s always someone new who can come along and be the next big thing in Salem. And there’s no denying the plots are recycled, but because they happen to different people, there’s always the potential for a new spin. I even watched Judi Evans play practically the same plot twice in two years, because she was Beth Raines who got raped by her stepfather on Guiding Light (one of my few excursions to other soaps) and Adrienne Johnson who got raped by her father on Days. But it was engaging both times—same actress, similar plot, but different characters, different spin.
And yet, though any soap could have a new character come along any time, that doesn’t mean that a soap viewer would happily substitute a new soap for “their” soap. The idea of switching to Y&R, though it’s supposed to be good, holds no appeal for me at all. I love the history of Salem, I love the fact that I’m watching a new generation of Hortons, and of Bradys, coming up. Some people like soaps, I like Days.
Part of the reason I feel the way I do about Days is that I grew up with it. It’s something I share with my mom. When we talk every week we usually devote a few minutes to discussing the goings-on in Salem. I’ve heard that many people are the same, they watch a soap because their mothers did. And maybe that’s part of the problem with getting new viewers these days. You don’t have the mothers staying home, with their soap on, and the kids running in and out and possibly getting sucked in at some point. Working mothers who watch a soap (like me!) watch it on their DVRs after the kids are in bed.
But that doesn’t fully explain the drop in ratings, not even close. Soaps did quite well in the 90s, and it’s only been since 2000 that the viewership has steadily declined. (I only found out how badly last week, when I happened on a thread on a discussion board that posted old ratings. A 2.7 share, like Days had the first week in January 2007, was equivalent to the lowest rated soap in 2000!) I have to believe that this is due to the sheer number of channels available, and reality TV. Sheer number of channels is pretty self-explanatory—competition. Reality TV, I think, is siphoning off those viewers who might tune into soaps for the camp value. Reality TV like “America’s Next Top Model” is a soap opera unto itself, and viewers can dish and bitch about the characters like a lot of people do for soaps. And a reality TV show, though it may have more limited shelf life, costs a fraction of what it costs a soap to produce.
And maybe the whole genre is passing. Back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Hollywood churned out movies geared toward women, the so-called “women’s film.” Their crackpot plots rivaled what we see on soaps today, with unwed motherhood, husbands coming back from the dead, amnesia storylines, etc. Women turned out in droves for these movies, but by 1960 the genre was dead, replaced by—guess what—the afternoon soap opera. Time marches on.