Fewer Suds All Around

If video really killed the radio star, then reality television killed the soap opera. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

I remember sitting with my grandmother as she watched one of her “stories,” as she called them. As the World Turns was the show, and my grandmother was a daily viewer. I never really got into the show; I watched because my grandmother did and because I loved spending time with her. According to Wikipedia, As the World Turned “aired on CBS from April 2, 1956 to September 17, 2010.”

Harkening back to the 1950s, soap operas have been a longtime staple of daytime television in the US. Most were set in fictional Midwestern towns and plots focused on a few of the town’s families, following their somewhat extraordinary daily lives filled with romance, affairs, legal problems, health crises.

I began watching The Young and the Restless when I was just a kid. It aired at the same time as The Brady Bunch, but my sister Karen insisted on watching her “soap.” I was so into the show that I somehow convinced my 6th grade teacher to let us watch Brad and Leslie’s wedding. I’ve watched the show off and on again for years. I lost interest in the show while I was in college, but tuned back in when I was studying for my comps in grad school. Soon I was hooked; watching the absurd trials and tribulations of my old friends in Genoa City was a wonderful respite from my studies. It just so happened that programmable VCRs were available at that time, so I was able to tape the show and watch whenever I had time. I taped the show for years after passing my comps and beginning my career at Bigass U. From programmable VCR to programmable DVR, I followed the Young and The Restless until just a few years ago when I found myself fast forwarding through more than I watched. I haven’t seen the show in years, and I don’t miss it.

Seems I’m not alone in tiring of the soap. Ratings for soaps have taken a nose dive since the late 1990s, and many long-running soaps have been cancelled: The Guiding Light was the first to go in 2009, followed by As the World Turns in 2010, and this spring ABC announced the cancellation of  All My Children and One Life to Live. There are also reports that ABC might ax General Hospital. That would leave 3 soaps for the 2011-2012 season: Young and the Restless and Bold and the Beautiful on CBS and Days of Our Lives on NBC.

So what’s happening to the long-standing television genre? Soaps survived the late 60s and 70s as more women, soap’s primary audience, entered the work force; they also survived the invention of cable tee vee. In January 1976, Time Magazine thought the genre was worthy of a feature story.  While some might want to see the demise of the genre as a trivial event, its long-standing place in American culture suggests otherwise.  As Abigail De Kosnik, C. Lee Harrington, and Sam Ford demonstrate in The Survival of Soap Opera , the soap opera was once considered the stable revenue generator of broadcast television; it was the success of these consistently popular daytime drama that helped fund primetime programming.

Clearly the genre’s demise cannot be pinned on any one thing. Money looms large, as it does everywhere:  programming alternatives such as talk shows and game shows are much less expensive to produce, and our current financial crisis, dating back to 2007, has caused networks to reduce their budgets as advertising dollars shrink. The popularity of the Internet is another factor that must be considered. Who has time to watch a soap when there’s email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and you name it? Then there’s the fact that most cable and satellite television packages offer more channels than Judge Judy can shake her finger at. I also imagine the sort of multigenerational viewing–my grandmother watched As the World Turns, so I did too–isn’t at work any more. So we can attribute the soap opera’s passing to various societal changes, monetary forces, technology, and to changes in media consumption in general.

That seems reasonable enough, but there’s something about the way soap opera ratings have declined or that fact that their slide has been so much more severe than other genres that suggests something else is at work. Let’s consider what made soaps so popular–they offered a kind of escapism with their ever unfolding, multiple plot lines and multi-generational casts, melodrama, over-the-top characters, and sometimes remote and dangerous locations. Shorten that list of features and the attention span needed to follow them, toss out real actors and writers, cut the budget, and what do you have? Yep, reality television.

So, if the Buggles are right, and video killed the radio star, then reality tv is killing the soap opera. Wonder who will write a song about that?

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3 Responses to Fewer Suds All Around

  1. Doc says:

    All these years and I never knew you were a fan of Young/Restless. Wow. Just Wow. Desert’s hidden secret.

    Like all your stuff, this post is beautifully written.

    Bigass U. Perfect.

  2. I imagine there are a number of secret soap fans in the academy just as there are secret trashy mystery fans. Which conversation seems more likely:
    So, what did you do this weekend? Oh, I caught up on some Zizek. or
    So, what did you do this weekend? Oh, I caught up on my soaps. LOL

    Yeah, I was a Y&R fan for years, but I haven’t watched for 3 or so years now. I suppose I could tune in this summer and be caught up in a matter of days 🙂

  3. Sam Ford says:

    Really enjoyed the piece, and I appreciate your shout-out to our book. Agreed that it’s a complex issue that took what was once a staple in the television line-up to what is now looking like an endangered species. Certainly, you hear the usual suspects rattled off as to what killed the soap opera: women heading into the workforce, a proliferation of media choices, the O.J. Simpson trial, and a ratings trend that isn’t that much unlike what primetime is seeing as well. But I think soaps were especially hurt by HOW the shows responded to dropping ratings.

    As in…they took the same path primetime did: they buckled down on 18-34/18-49-year-old women as their sole target. For a primetime show that’s only going to air for a few years, that model might make sense. For a daytime show, that’s supposed to be multigenerational and a “world without end,” the idea of targeting one sliver of the audience at the exclusion of others can help kill what made the genre popular to begin with.

    Also mind-boggling, though, is this focus on only younger audiences. Soaps are alienating the audiences they have (Boomer women, for instance) in an effort to gain audiences they don’t. Forty years ago, when the push for just worrying about target demos began its serious run, the argument made sense. Older people were Depression-Era mindset, weren’t as receptive to advertising, were hesitant to spend money, etc. Today, though, AARP age is the realm of Boomers. To say that these audiences should be ignored when it comes to advertising (and, since advertising drives programming, ultimately that they should be ignored in content production) is a strange argument to make these days…

    In any case, appreciate the piece!

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