The Death of Soap Operas

It goes without saying that daytime soap operas are a dying breed. Like Westerns before it, soaps are a peculiarly American invention, and yet they are fast losing the power they once had to entertain audiences. This has little to do with the fact that Americans no longer find continual storytelling interesting forms of entertainment. Indeed, most primetime television has adopted continual storytelling as part of their narrative arcs.

Ever since the CBS primetime soap Dallas became a ratings smash during the eighties, television series as disparate as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere have used narrative arcs as forms of storytelling, borrowing directly from a genre that has used continual storytelling with far greater efficiency. Now, shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, and others are using this storytelling form with greater depth, while daytime soaps are quickly abandoning it for shorter arcs, often lasting no more than a few weeks.

In the past, fairy tale romances and family secrets would take years to resolve, but now soap writers and producers, fearing an ever greater fickle daytime audience, resolve their stories far too quickly. Other soaps treat each story as though they were telenovelas, with none of the stories of the past having any effect on the stories of the present and the stories of the present having absolutely no effect on future tales.

In other words, character development, which was painstakingly told on daytime soaps, is thrown out of the window as motivations and personalities are fitted for whatever plot is currently on canvas.

The sad state of soap storytelling has now affected ratings as fans leave their favorite soaps in droves. How did daytime soaps come to this?

Many people have their speculations. The industry has famously blamed the O.J. Simpson trial of the mid-nineties for the ratings bleed. But even that explanation fails to hold water. Soaps have been notoriously pre-empted for other programming in the past, such as the Watergate hearings of the 1970s, the Iran-Contra Hearings, and the 1988 writer’s strike of the ’80s. And while these pre-emptions have had varying effects on the industry, fans still returned to their favorite soaps. Indeed, during the 1990s, after the O.J. trial, the ratings for soaps were still fairly strong.

The highest-rated soap, The Young And the Restless, only saw a .7 percentage drop between the 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 seasons, while the other soaps maintained steady ratings and, in some cases, saw a rebound in ratings following the trial. Nonetheless, the perception that O.J. was affecting ratings in the daytime had set off a wave of panic within the industry, and network executives began tinkering with their programs to lure fans back.

The Young And the Restless
The Young And the Restless:

It was during this time that soaps began using gimmicks to attract fans. On Days of Our Lives, for instance, then headwriter James E. Reilly scored a ratings hit with the story of the show’s heroine, Marlena Black, being possessed by the devil. Other networks, recognizing that they could appeal to younger demographics through these types of storylines, began following suit. Yet many fans debate today whether these gimmicks eventually hurt the medium as the networks pursued more inane storylines that turned off long-term fans, many of whom were often the gateway to creating newer and younger fans through family interactions. Ask any soap fan how she started watching her favorite show, and many will say that they began watching at the feet of their mother’s, aunt’s, or grandmother’s feet. As older fans began ditching the shows, younger fans who would be interested in these shows saw few opportunities to watch outside of college.

A bigger reason why soaps are now a dying breed is that in the past, soaps, like most television, were largely a writer’s medium. Writers such as Irna Phillips, the dean of all soaps, Agnes Nixon, Harding LeMay, Douglas Marland, Henry Slesar, and others had enormous control over storyline directions. And while many of these writers were still beholden to network executive dictations, they were still given the freedom to determine storyline and casting decisions.

That changed during the late 1970s when executive producer Gloria Monty singlehandedly saved the ABC serial General Hospital from cancellation by modernizing story pacing and bringing cinematic conventions to daytime. Afterward, the executive producer became the real visionary of daytime. Though writers continued to exercise some control over storylines during the 1980s, by the ’90s and ’00s, that medium became largely the visions of executive producers as writers were shuffled from one soap to the next, creating a schizophrenic identity for each soap from which none has ever quite recovered.

In the case of ABC soaps, each show is now under the micromanagement control of the head of daytime Brian Frons, whose vision for the shows blurs out any distinction in favor of bland homogeneity.

Decisions regarding storylines, casting, production, etc., are now determined by whether they’ll appeal to younger demographics under the misguided notion that younger viewers are only interested in watching stories and characters that vainly reflect their own realities. This means that older, veteran characters much beloved by longtime fans are now being shoved to the back burner or written off entirely to make way for younger actors, many of whom were cast for their various good looks and not for their acting skills.

These various decisions have dumbed down the medium and earned it the stereotypical reputation that non-soap viewers have regarded it over the years. Bad acting and wildly implausible storylines now rule the day as executive producers attempt their desperate bids to goose up anemic ratings. Their efforts end up resulting in what online fans are now speculating is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the networks to do away with soap operas entirely.

For years, fans of the P&G soaps have long speculated that the company wants to get out of the soap industry entirely by purposely undermining the shows under their production (Another World, Guiding Light, As the World Turns), despite the company’s many pleas to the contrary.

Another reason why soap ratings are plunging is also due to the internet and social media.

While fans have long bemoaned the readily available spoilers found on the internet for ruining daytime since fans know ahead of time what will happen on their favorite shows and choose to watch or not watch, I contend that the internet has hurt daytime in other ways. Largely, the internet has offered like-minded fans the opportunity to congregate and talk about their favorite characters or couples. This has created the illusion among fans about their power as viewers, using the internet as a means to control and dictate stories on their favorite shows, often to the detriment of the show’s overall health.

Fans have long rumored that these fanbases will game soap magazine fan polls to make their favorite couple or characters more popular than they are, often encouraging members of these fanbases to vote more than once in these polls. Other fanbases have even been known to send gifts to head writers or send in letter-writing campaigns to win the favor of these PTBs. Executive producers, believing that these fanbases represent a healthy number of their show’s fans, were eager to please them by keeping characters or supercouples on the front burner at the expense of other characters and storylines.

One well-known example of this was on Guiding Light when fans of the super couple Matt and Vanessa were vehemently vocal about the show’s direction of the couple. Actor Robert Newman (Josh Lewis) even warned fans at the time to be careful about what they asked for, and indeed, eventually, the show wrote Matt and Vanessa off the show when their hands were tied over the characters’ direction. Yet despite how vocal fanbases were for their favorite characters and couples, it became apparent that their numbers, no matter how inflated, didn’t actually compute into higher ratings.

Likewise, whenever producers and writers did respond to fan input, these fans never seemed satisfied with story directions either, creating an impression that they were never happy no matter what the show did. I suspect, in the long run, producers and writers soon began tuning out viewer dissatisfaction because of this, now to the point where TPTB refuses to listen even when fans have valid reasons for their displeasure.

But the PTB’s overreliance on focus polls and the misguided conventional wisdom of what fans want, in the long run, is what’s destroying the creativity of the medium.

Now, soaps are merely written in a paint-by-numbers fashion, with the same stories being repeated over and over again to increase fan dissatisfaction. In the end, it is the vision and control of the producers who are to blame for the genre’s sad state of affairs.

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