Arts & Culture

The Sad State of the Soaps

Soap operas have never been considered the most elite medium in our crowded cultural landscape. Because they air during the day and are targeted toward women, they’re dismissed as fluffy, melodramatic, and unrealistic. All of those things are often true, … Read More

By / August 30, 2009

Soap operas have never been considered the most elite medium in our crowded cultural landscape. Because they air during the day and are targeted toward women, they’re dismissed as fluffy, melodramatic, and unrealistic. All of those things are often true, but soaps-at-night-with-younger-casts like Gossip Girl and The OC are allowed to become pop-culture touchstones instead of being dismissed as irrelevant.

There are many reasons given for why soap operas are becoming less successful and less popular – the OJ Simpson trial, which ate up many hours of daytime TV programming and caused many soaps to be suspended or air at different, less favorable hours, is a popular blame target. In addition, many blame soaps’ decreasing ratings to be the result of more women entering the workforce, which makes them less likely to be home during the day. My own theory? It has to do with soaps being largely unsuccessful at adapting to a culture which is less interested in serial drama. In the age of internet spoilers and fast-paced action-driven shows like 24, what incentive is there to tune into a show where storylines last for years?

Furthermore, soaps are expensive to produce, not only compared to other scripted shows but compared to game shows and reality programs, which are more likely to air during the day and compete against soaps. In order to keep multiple plots going on at once, soap canvases are crowded, and veteran actors work out deals that keep them well-paid even when they’re not getting a lot of screentime – imagine a House with half a dozen Hugh Lauries. Because of soaps’ longevity, actors – and their characters – can stick around for decades. Since soaps juggle multiple story arcs at once, they not only require a full stable of actors but large crews and a variety of sets. When Harrison Ford was once asked to name an actor he admired, and he said ‘soap opera actors,’ because they have to memorize huge chunks of dialogue in short periods. Soaps air five days a week, year round, and never show reruns. (If you’re interested in catching old episodes, your best bet is the ABC-controlled SoapNET network, which shows the occasional vintage soap but is more interested in creating new soaplike series, such as Southern Belles: Louisville.)

In April of this year, CBS announced that it was cancelling Guiding Light, the longest-running TV show in history, which started as a radio program in 1937 and made the move to television in 1952. The show, which regularly came in close to or at the bottom of the ratings, had been in danger for some time. Executive producer Ellen Wheeler (who used to star in soaps, winning a Daytime Emmy for her work on Another World) had cut the show’s costs as much as possible, moving the New York City-based show out to rural New Jersey to save money on set construction and space rental. Unfortunately, the ploy didn’t work, and Guiding Light‘s final episode will air on September 18.

As for the other seven soaps that currently air on three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), the prognosis is grim. Arguably the most famous and popular actress in daytime, All My Children‘s Susan Lucci, reportedly agreed to take a pay cut last year in order to keep other actors from being let go. Now, the show, which is based in New York, will be moving to Los Angeles in order to lower production costs. The show will go dark during the winter while everyone relocates and will resume airing in new HD episodes in February, just in time for sweeps. It’s unclear which actors will choose to go with the show and which ones won’t, but some soap fans suspect that the move isn’t so much a way to save money as it is to cut actors – including beloved veterans – without the producers looking like bad guys. Other drastic measures are being taken. Days of Our Lives, which was almost cancelled last year, fired the show’s most popular and enduring supercouple, John and Marlena (played by Drake Hogestyn and Deidre Hall), both of whom commanded large salaries. Days is currently NBC’s only soap.

Why should we care about soaps? After all, a lot of people associate soap operas with baby-swapping, long-lost evil twins, and people coming back from the dead. But many famous actors cut their teeth on soap operas. Guiding Light alone boasts Christopher Walken, Kevin Bacon, Hayden Panettiere, Taye Diggs, and Calista Flockhart as alumni. The year-round land of soaps is often a great training ground for young talent. Furthermore, soap operas are unique in their storytelling – even epic shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost only last a few years, but soaps endure for generations. My mom watched General Hospital when I was a kid, and if I tune in now I still see people I recognize. Soaps are the television equivalent of Grandma’s roast beef – comforting, familiar, and reminds you of home. Sure, Days had a plot where Marlena was possessed by the devil, and Guiding Light had their reigning queen bee, Reva, "die" and then get cloned by her loved ones. But when you have to generate about 300 days of TV a year, you’re not always going to write brilliant art. Throwing soaps by the wayside in favor of cheap, disposable reality TV and talk shows is like replacing the evening news with a 30-second commercial. Soaps’ strength has always been in the fullness of their stories, multigenerational families and their changing relationships over time. In a culture that moves lighting-quick from one drama to the next, shows oriented around family history seem positively quaint.

What can be done? Passions, NBC’s short-lived attempt to liven up the genre by having lots of young characters and embracing absurdist plots with witches and demons, didn’t work. Struggling soap As the World Turns, which is reportedly on the bubble, has had some success with attracting a gay following thanks to its same-sex couple Luke and Noah (who fans like blogger Perez Hilton have christened "Nuke").  SoapNET aired a reality show, I Wanna Be a Soap Star, which had aspiring actors go through challenges a la America’s Next Top Model, with the winner landing a spot on a real show. The Bold and the Beautiful, a mediocre performer in the US, is a huge hit abroad and rakes in cash from international licensing fees. Sadly, though, it seems that the times may have a-changed too much for the current incarnation of soaps to succeed. When stalwart soap Another World was cancelled, it got replaced by another soap. When Guiding Light says goodbye next month, it will be replaced by a game show – an update of the classic Let’s Make a Deal.