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All My Children Commentary
August 23, 2010
Are Soap Operas a Dying Breed?
It's great to be back sharing soap talk with the fan club. I hope you are all having a fantastic wind down to summer!
I have been giving a great deal of thought to this idea that has been going around the soap community for many years suggesting that our beloved genre is on the way out. We all know that life - and particularly TV - works in cycles. We see this clearly in the prime time shows that are offered. We have our "cop" cycles, our "cute kid" show cycles, our "hospital" show cycles, our "oh we're just a cuh-razy ordinary family" show cycles... One crops up and is successful and pretty soon, we have 4-5 of the same theme going on. Now, we are in a prolific reality show cycle that seems as though it is going to go on forever.
Most of us remember back in the 1980's when we had a night time soap opera cycle. Much like the night time cartoon cycle (Family Guy, Futurama, Simpsons, King of the Hill), it came, stuck around for a good long time and then faded away. We had Falcon Crest, Knott's Landing, Dynasty and Dallas as the forerunners. Later, came the children of those shows, "Dawson's Creek," "90210," "Party of Five," "Melrose Place," etc. Yes, we do go through our phases.
Soap operas, as everyone knows, began on the radio and then transitioned into half hour TV shows. Many of us remember when ABC soaps only lasted for 30 minutes and also when they were in black and white with very dramatic music scores. They focused primarily on interpersonal relationships and medical drama, so the angst of things like amnesia, adultery, child paternity, back-stabbing and did I mention adultery were all prominent forces. We transitioned into the awkward 45 minute shows for a short while, then blossomed into the 60 minutes of one show you now enjoy. Ah, we were in heaven!
In the early days before All My Children came around, not everyone was rich. Jesse Brewer, Dr. Hardy, the Segals and the Grays were all people of modest means on General Hospital and One Life to Live. People did not find instant wealth and lived lives that were only slightly more exaggerated than our own.
When the 80's came around and there was a Luke and Laura explosion, suddenly soaps were in their heyday and far from being the guilty pleasure of housewives nationwide, it was now college cool to hurry back in time to catch the soaps.
When "Edge of Night' was canceled, soap viewers were disappointed and walked around feeling as though a goose had walked over their grave for a few weeks, but then they shook it off and took it as an isolated event. When "Port Charles" was canceled, it was disheartening, but we could write it off as an experiment that ran its course. "Port Charles," "Another World," "Passions..." Yes that was disturbing, but we consoled ourselves by saying that they were the oddballs dealing with vampires and witches and angels and Satan and so of course, they'd written their own fate, especially among the more conservative viewership.
"As the World Turns?" What? "As the World Turns?" That's when people really started to get uncomfortable. Suddenly, we are left with very few non ABC soaps. ATWT was an industry standard and to have it suddenly canceled left us with no reasonable explanation to use to appease ourselves. Now we have "The Young and the Restless" and "Days of Our Lives" and "Bold and the Beautiful" and "Guiding Light" and... and... Hmmmm...
The whispers behind the backs of hands turned into a roar of concern. ABC execs quickly rushed to assure viewers that their soaps were safe and there were no plans to cancel any of them. Fans of "One Life to Live" immediately let out a collective groan. Everyone and anyone knows that GH is ABC Daytime's fair haired child and big money was just spent to relocate "All My Children" to the West Coast for production. That means that everyone's little black sheep, OLTL, was the most likely to land on the chopping block. Despite its cutting edge stories and tenacious push to step into the most controversial of subjects, OLTL has always been the little show that could on ABC. Its fans braced for impact.
The most recent terror trap came with the announcement that SOAPnet would be out of business in 2012. Is there any wonder why the Mayan calendar ends? No SOAPnet? That means there's not a living chance on God's green earth of "GH: Night Shift" showing up again. I do fully understand ABC's decision to dump SOAPnet. Lord knows we need some more children's programming. I haven't heard nearly enough sing-song, chanting, kid platitudes to last me a lifetime. When SOAPnet debuted, it revolutionized soap viewing for the viewers who did not have the luxury of waiting with baited breath in front of the TV for the day's episode. Gone were the days of coming home to find that once again, your stupid VCR had not honored its programming orders and faithfully taped the show. No cliffhangers cut off due to the video tape running out! No more lost episodes due to news flash pre-emptions! We had two, three, even four chances to catch the episodes we missed! New and innovative shows like "One Day With" and "GH: Night Shift" showed up. They gave it a good shot and had a good run of it.
Along came DVRs, which were infinitely more reliable than VCRs. Along came streaming video at ABC.com so that any time you want, you can click over and watch any episode. As those options became available, fewer and fewer people were turning into SOAPnet. It became obsolete and it was time to move on to other uses for the network. Although in the overall context of concern, I understand why the upcoming cancellation of SOAPnet struck fear in the hearts of ABC soap fans, I do not think it is a critical harbinger of the death of the entire genre.
As I mentioned early on, TV, like life, works in cycles. One benefit ABC soaps have in that regard is that they are not afraid to evolve and adapt. When budgets were cut and less money was available for production, the shows began to make changes. Some of those changes compromised the overall integrity of the show, such as actors having to take a cut in pay or be sacrificed. Some of those changes we barely noticed (fewer "on location" shots, for instance, and more "outside" work done on the sound stage). We don't always agree with how the studio does spend their money. For instance, who among us wouldn't prefer to have a powerful story unfolding in front of us, show-casing the acting skills of our cast rather than big budget special effects of something burning down or blowing up yet again? In soaps especially, you just can't please everyone.
There are rumors of daytime talk shows (another genre that never seems to die) and daytime reality shows taking the place of our soaps. Do I think it will happen? Eventually, perhaps, but I'm not feeling it any time soon. ABC soaps continue to roll with the punches and work to adapt to the economic constraints they face. All you have to do is attend one of the major fan club weekend events to see the degree of fandom and viewership that is supporting the shows. Our shows have been held up as the trailblazers in many different respects and I feel that if the genre does die, they will be the last to go.
Overall, TV viewers still cleave to serialized stories. Very few successful dramatic primetime series aren't serialized. We love a good story that goes on and on and on. The proving grounds for primetime have always been fickle and brutal. TV series come and go (mostly the ones I enjoy seem to be the ones that "go"), popping up like Pez after the last one has kicked out. Daytime is different, however. Daytime fans demand longevity and familiarity. As long as the human condition is such that they want to see people out exaggerated versions of their own lives, there will be soaps. As long as viewers want to look at rich, beautiful people going through adversity they can hardly imagine, there will be soaps. As long as we have a need to vicariously experience every possible human emotion cranked all the way up to eleven, there will be soaps.
Am I worried?
Besides, Uncle Brian told me ABC soaps aren't going away and he just doesn't lie.
See you soon,
This column is written by Katrina Rasbold or Kate Brown (depending on the week) from www.eyeonsoaps.com. The opinions expressed herein are solely their own and are not reflective of the opinions of the Official AMC Fan Club, Debbie Morris, All My Children, ABC, the Girl Scouts of America, the National Rifle Association or your local Rotary Club.
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