I’m sure you have all heard about the cancellation of All my Children and One Life to Live. While the news isn’t shocking in and of itself—the rumors have been swirling for awhile—it was a shock to realize that there are only four soaps left. That fact, more than anything, convinces me that it’s only a matter of time before there are no soaps left. Y&R and B&B will likely hang around the longest, but even for them I don’t see a window longer than five years.
So what happened? Well, like a lot of things, it’s complicated. Some of it, maybe most of it, is that women went to work. It’s a lot harder to keep up with a show that runs five days a week when you’re spending those five days a week at the office. The coming of VCRs and then DVRs meant you could still keep up, but it involved more effort. And, perhaps more crucially, when women went to work, little boys and girls weren’t there to watch the shows on their mother’s knee. The link to the next generation of viewers was snapped.
Thinking back to the beginning of television, back in the 50’s and 60’s, when television genre conventions were being established, there was a clear division between primetime storytelling and daytime storytelling. Primetime shows were sharply episodic. Plot threads introduced at the beginning of the episode were wrapped up neatly by the end of the episode. Also, the degree to which things could change was extremely curtailed. If the Beav’s mom went out and got a job, the end of the episode saw her safely ensconced once again in the Cleaver kitchen. Perry Mason couldn’t stop being a lawyer. We remember things like the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy and Greg’s new room on The Brady Bunch precisely because things otherwise changed so little.
Soaps, on the other hand, had a lot more leeway. Characters could leave, or switch jobs, or marry, or divorce, or have kids—in the fact the genre demanded these changes as part of the long term plots that evolved over time. The story arcs were long, with lots of teasing cliffhangers along the way. Soaps have always trucked in dramatic, over the top plots—that’s part of how they hook you in. What will Mickey say when he finds out his brother is Mike’s real father? And they did all they could to string things out, delaying the payoff, delaying the tidy resolution. But here’s the crucial thing: they made good use of the time in between, letting you get to know the characters, offering emotional realism and depth. By the time that particular plot was resolved, you were so invested in the characters that you had to keep watching. That, in the end, is the appeal. Here were people that you could get to know like friends—but friends who had much more interesting lives than you did!
Part of soap’s problem is simply competition. The niche that soaps filled has been encroached on from all sides. Primetime dramas are no longer purely episodic—they almost always have continuing story arcs now. The lawyer shows still do cases, the doctor shows still treat patients, but we also see their personal lives. They fall in love, they grow and change—at least a little bit. Even sitcoms do it, Friends or Sex in the City have couples breaking up and making up, lead characters having babies. And for over the top plots and heightened reality, reality TV and entertainment journalism can give viewers the vicarious thrill of watching people screw up and ruin their lives, make a comeback and then ruin their lives again … and if it all lacks the complexity of a well crafted plot, it has a little extra zing because it’s all REAL!
But it’s more than that. None of these changes happened in a vacuum. I’ve seen a lot of suggestions for soaps and what they could do to revitalize themselves: try more socially relevant plots, try a telenovella format, go to three days a week, move to a later time slot so working women have a chance to watch. I think all of these could be worth trying. But I have a sinking feeling that the ship has sailed, the decline has been going on too long. In my opinion, the competition from reality TV and nighttime dramas led soaps to do exactly the wrong thing. They revved up their pace, went further and further into the realm of the ridiculous in their plots. And they forgot the other half of the equation: emotional realism, character consistency and rootability.
I suspect that many of the viewers that do remain watch in honor of what once was, instead of what is on the screen today. Soaps stopped getting new viewers, people who had never watched a soap before. In their panic, soaps gave up the one advantage that no other show could touch: the time we could spend with the characters, and the richness that was possible because of it. They forgot that over-the-top plots are short-lived—it’s the characters and relationships that make lifetime viewers.