Saturday, April 16, 2011

ABC Soaps Hit the Suds

Pull out the hankies, soap opera lovers. ABC has canceled the long-running "All My Children" and "One Life To Live," and will replace them with information and lifestyle shows by 2012, cutting the number of American daytime soaps down by a third. "One Life" has been running since 1968 and "All My Children" since 1970. They're only the latest in a string of daytime TV casualties. Last year saw the end of "As the World Turns," which had been airing since the 50s, and the year before that we lost "Guiding Light," which began on radio in 1937. This will leave ABC with a single soap, "General Hospital." With NBC down to "Days of our Lives" and CBS hanging in there with "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," there will fewer daytime soap operas airing in 2012 than at any time since 1955.

The decline of the American soap opera is old news. Ratings have been falling precipitously since the 80s as more women went to work and younger audiences failed to replace older ones. There were several attempts to bridge the generational divide with hipper material, but none got very far. I remember the ruckus around the cancellation of "Another World" in 1998, with its slot going to "Passions," a soap aimed directly at younger viewers that featured a lot of silly supernatural shtick. It lasted until 2008, despite coming in dead last in the ratings for most of its run. Talk shows and reality programs have dominated the daytime landscape for as far back as I can remember, and it's no wonder why the networks prefer them since they're much cheaper and easier to produce.

But why should this matter? Why should we care? Daytime soaps have long been derided for their romance novel plots, lethargic pace, and propensity for cheap tricks. They're practically time-fillers by design, meant to be easily followed while doing mundane housework. Surely from a critical standpoint there's not much here worth saving. I gave soap operas a try when I was in high school, since a few of my girlfriends watched and enjoyed them. I picked up "General Hospital" for a few months, and caught a couple of episodes of its spinoff, "Port Charles." "General Hospital" was generally favored by my friends because it featured mobster characters and occasional fisticuffs. I went along for a while, but the shallow characters and corny dialogue got on my nerves, and I lost interest.

However, I watched for long enough to understand why soaps can be addictive. Despite their reputations for storylines that can go in endless circles without resolution, the individual epiosdes are full of over-the-top drama and emotional turmoil. They're easy to make fun of, but they can also be a lot of fun. And once you become interested in a particular character or relationship, you can follow the lives of these people for years and years. It's no wonder some viewers become so attached to certain shows, because they've invested so much time in some of the stories. And there is a certain art to keeping these long-running daily programs interesting, and coming up with new ways to engage the audience five days a week, for roughly fifty weeks out of the year. The level of quality is actually pretty impressive when you realize the lightning fast production times involved. I learned with "General Hospital" that even though the most exciting events always happened on Fridays, usually with a cliffhanger going into the weekend, you couldn't only watch on Fridays if you wanted to keep up.

But who has the time to devote to daily soap operas anymore? And in the age of Netflix and Hulu and watching whatever you want whenever you want, how could they compare to all the other content out there? Daytime soaps, like Saturday morning cartoons, once flourished because of how television programming was structured and because of certain American cultural norms that simply no longer exist. It's notable that all daytime programming has seen losses in viewership as the notion of appointment television has steadily eroded. With the departure of Oprah Winfrey in a few months, 2011 may mark the end of traditional daytime television as we know it.

I expect that daytime soaps will still linger for a few years to come as talent and audiences consolidate around the remaining shows. In the short term, the cancellations mean a lot of lost jobs and another blow to scripted television. However, viewers may be glad to know that prime time is still full of soap operas, like "Brothers and Sisters" and "Desperate Housewives," but as once-a-week programs they have higher production values, quicker paces, and generally enjoy more creative freedom. But then, they'll never have the kind of audience intimacy or ability to do those day-to-day storylines the way their daytime cousins do.

So in the end, I am going to miss them, even if I was only part of their audience for a very short time. There is a certain comfort in the continuity of the soap opera, the knowledge that I could turn on the TV today, and find the Spencers and the Quartermaines still living their crazy, dramatic lives on "General Hospital" just like they were fifteen years ago. It's always sad to see any kind of storytelling format die out. These shows didn't last for as long as they did by accident.

And the saddest part is, with soaps we won't even have the reruns.

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