And then there were four

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.

9 thoughts on “And then there were four

  1. How very true on all points MP and how very sad. I personally prefer a soap over these reality shows. The thought that some of these people are doing these things for real makes me a little nauseated. When you saw it on a soap, at least it wasn’t happening to someone in real life. Or if it was, divorce, etc., you were shocked and sympathetic.

    I think Days was at it’s best in the 80s. Some of the stories they attempted were actually pretty good and socially conscious. I remember being happy to see black people on the soap with Abe, his brother Danny and then Marcus. Then the s/l with Jo’s breast cancer and of course, Kayla’s deaf s/l was wonderful. They tried the autism s/l but it just fizzled. Had they done something with it, it would have been great.

    I had high hopes when they brought S&K back at first. I hoped they would have Kayla sponsor a family fleeing the violence in Sudan or Congo. Sort of like the mini story they did when the waitress at the Cheatin Heart talked about giving up her son to help push along Steve’s s/l about what it was like to be put in an orphanage. You saw the story from the mother’s POV who loved her son but wanted him to have more, and then from the son’s, Steve’s POV, of what it felt like to be abandoned. So much potential. But we can’t blame it solely on the s/l’s. It is definitely a combination of many things. The passing of an era. I’m glad while it lasted. And we’ll always have Stockholm!๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I had high hopes when Steve and Kayla came back too. Sigh—don’t remind me.

    I can’t say much about Days earlier decades, though I did watch in the 70’s as a child. But I definitely agree that the 80’s was the high point for me. The supercouple formula may be flawed from a long term perspective, but those stories they told with it were magical—and they still stand up today. It’s true we’ll always have Stockholm.๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Ah, my history with “Days” only goes back to 1987, beginning with Matthew Ashford’s entrance as Jack, but it sounds like I should look into the Stockholm story.๐Ÿ™‚

    The death of the American soap opera is a very interesting cultural phenomenon. I think you’ve done an excellent and thoughtful job of summing up what has happened. It’s true that reality TV and primetime dramas and even sitcoms have been filling the same emotional niche as soaps in many ways. Also, even if a soap is getting as many viewers as the reality show or talk show that could replace it, the latter two options take far less effort and are cheaper to produce. Another thing that interests me is the negative stigma attached to being a soap fan. In my opinion, almost no creative effort goes into producing “The Kardashians” or “The Bachelorette” and such shows are far more voyeuristic and mind numbing than a soap opera, yet folks seem much less apologetic or ashamed of being fans of these types of shows. I suppose it boils down to sexism in the end—soaps being pegged as something women (even worse, housewives—I am currently a housewife, by the way) watch.

    I am sad to see the truly unique art form that is the American soap opera being lost. Even though reality TV and primetime are largely giving people the same emotional release, there are missing components. I love to see the fast paced, minimally rehearsed acting of soap opera. I love following a character for literally decades. These things aren’t happening on primetime or reality TV.

    Though it is true that I think soaps would most likely be on their way out even if the writing were better, I am sad to see the state of the writing now. I think you are correct about soaps shooting themselves in the foot on this one. Character. It’s about characters and relationships. You pointed out a great example of a missed opportunity with Steve and Kayla’s return. Jack was also back at the time. There was a gold mine for some interaction there that was basically wasted. Also, we need to feel like we know our characters, and we don’t want to see them acting in ways we do not understand. I stopped watching “Days” because it stopped being interesting. Why did it stop being interesting? I don’t mind over-the-top soap plots; it’s okay with me that Stefano never stays dead, but doppelgangers and brides shooting grooms in the head on what would have been the wedding night do not make a show interesting. An event like Sami shooting EJ should be all about the fallout between these characters, and the shooting has already been swept away. Compare that with the years that Jack’s rape of Kayla reverberated. Also, I am not interested in EJ forgetting Sami and finding insta-love with Taylor, delivering lines like, “I’ve never felt this way” that just leave me scratching my head. I am not interested in seeing Jennifer Horton show very little pain over the possibility that her twenty year relationship with Jack may be over while she drools over Dr. Let’s Just Be Glad He’s Not A Pediatrician. Perhaps the time has come for soaps to go (though maybe they’ll survive in internet form), but I hate to see “Days” going out with writing like this.

    (Sorry this comment is so long. I get venting . . .)

  4. Angie, excellent points. You are right that soaps seem uniquely scorned when you think about reality TV, talk shows, or celebrity news. Somehow these are more respectable, and when you look at the quality of each there really is no reason for it. I always think romance novels are like that too, unfairly scorned as compared to other genre fiction.

    And yes, I too am sad that Days likely won’t be able to go out with dignity. At one point when cancellation rumors were swirling about Days (2009 I think), I wrote a letter to Ken Corday suggesting he let the show die with dignity, let the writers come up with a umbrella story to end all umbrella stories. That was when Hogan was writing (whose writing, while not perfect, I liked much better) and we had lots of long term characters: Steve and Kayla, Bo, Hope, John, Marlena, Stefano, Tony, Anna. It seemed possible that something like that could really happen, where you could pick up lots of threads from over the years and really do something interesting. Now I can’t imagine it.

  5. As i was home today, i tried to watch an episode of days on line. I watched a few minutes of jennifer dithering about earrings to wear on her “date” with Dr. Feel good, as the pod abby further trashed her onc most beloved father.
    If one thinks why ratings are tanking and people are not watching, there is a simple reason. The characters who we rushed home to watch or record on VCR, (remember
    those?), do not who even remotely resemble, even in absentia (jack)the characters we once looked forward to watching.
    just for fun, even I should have been cleaning my house but was spending time on the laptop watching classic episodes of days and general hospital from the 1990’s, i saw familiar characters dressed beautifully at balls of family events,intertwining storylines. sorry to say but in some ways the writing is on the wall for the future of soaps.

  6. And the latest news is that General Hospital may be cancelled to make way for Katie Couric’s new show. And then there were three …

  7. Oh, I hadn’t heard that. If that happens, it would be sooner than I thought. Eek.

    love the soaps, I am so sorry to hear what’s happening with Jen’s return. When Steve and Kayla were still on the show (especially during the Ava story) I remember occasionally being envious at the sendoff Jack and Jen got, that they got their happy ending and were “safe” from further mucking up by the writers. I’m sorry that that happy ending has been compromised.

    And yes, I remember rushing home to the VCR after school and waiting impatiently through the weekends.

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