All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

17 April 2011

Tune in Tomorrow...Not Any More-The End of a Genre

 "Tune in Tomorrow"-the phrase that ended each episode of almost every Soap Opera on daytime TV...soon there will be no tomorrow as the traditional television networks cancel these institutions of popular culture one by one...on Thursday ABC shut the door on All My Children and One Life to Live after over 40 years . Long before Reality TV, The Jersey Shore or Gray's Anatomy there was Daytime Drama...Soap Opera.

True confession... from probably the 5th grade straight through grad school I was a soap opera fan-watching or taping shows such as The Bold and the Beautiful, Capital, Guiding Light ,As the World Turns, Santa Barbara, Days of Our Lives, All My Children, One Life to Live, Ryan's Hope and General Hospital. At one time I think the only series I missed were the Young and the Restless and Another World-couldn't fit them in I guess. In college many of us scheduled our classes around our soaps, often we divided up who would watch which show and report back the day's episode. These were very bright politically and socially aware women but we never missed an episode! Soap Operas were a part of our day.

Soap Opera began in radio and the daytime dramas were sponsored by companies such as Colgate Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble selling ...soap. Many radio dramas continued into the new medium of television, best known of these was Guiding Light which CBS canceled  last year after 70 years of broadcasting. Soaps were not just for daytime TV -Peyton Place was must see TV in the 60s and in the 80s there was Dallas, Knot's Landing, Falcon Crest and of course Dynasty. Long before the Twilight series there was even a vampire soap which I was not allowed to watch-Dark Shadows. In Great Britain Soap Operas such as East Enders and Coronation Street celebrated less glamorous everyday lives but became a national pastime to rival English soccer. Tuning into a favorite soap was a unifying event. In the days before cable and iPads soap operas were something everyone listened to and television was a natural medium for the genre with a need to fill the air and sell to women who were the main consumers. The core audience for televised soaps was housewives but it was not only housewives watching and the shows changed over the years to reach younger audiences --gone were kitchen table chat over coffee cups and in came bedroom scenes and shirtless heroes. Daytime TV despite the fact that it aired when kids came home from school was often much racier than nighttime could be and the long format allowed story lines to be done in event could go on for weeks on daytime, a wedding storyline could last for days-there was always that hook to make you tune in tomorrow.

Romance and great looking men, who cared if they could deliver a line, became a key reason to watch. At the end of the day, however, soap opera was an escape from everyday and those characters and stories gave people from all backgrounds and generations a unifying experience. No matter your age or social strata if you watched All My Children or As the World Turns you had something in common and something to talk about...I can remember visiting my mom after she had some surgery and we had the television on one afternoon in the hospital...Ryan's Hope I think, and every nurse and a few doctors poked their head in to see what was happening-General Hospital's Luke and Laura wedding was one of the highest rated programs in ABCs history, daytime or nighttime..

Actually the misconception about soap was always that the scripts were terrible and the acting worse but soap opera was very often ground breaking popular culture...dealing with topics of race, gender roles, drug and alcohol addiction, rape, adoption,adultery, cancer and other disease awareness. Long before mainstream media would or could ..writer/creator Agnes Nixon who oversaw many of ABC's soaps has been credited for taking the genre and breathing real-life into the scripts adding topics of relevance and educating its audience. Many very respected actors such as Tommy Lee Jones, Juliane Moore and Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt, Ryan Phillipi, Kevin Bacon... got their starts on soaps as it was considered a great training ground and with a good role very steady work, of course until they gave you a disease. It was also where many veteran actors from stage and Hollywood found steady work. Very often popular characters were brought back even if they had been killed off and it was not unusual to see famous actors,athletes and celebrities make cameo appearances as Elizabeth Taylor did on General Hospital.

Somewhere it all got really very silly with plots that bordered on absurd. Reaching and keeping audiences became harder and more competitive as older audiences were replaced with a new generation that had many other distractions and outlets for their attention. Soaps became littered with younger and younger actors and fewer good characters and stories.  In 1991, according to Nielsen, daytime dramas had an overall audience of 6.5M people. In 2009, that number dropped to 1.3M people. .Popular culture has of course changed dramatically yet ironically soap opera is built for the need to know now generation...but the networks who are all struggling to figure it out have seen a dramatic drop in ratings -Soap Opera Digest,the bible of the industry which had a circulation of 1.2 million at its height in the 80s now has a 150,000 readers

One day I too just stopped watching...maybe they were always silly and vapid but somehow I had piles of taped episodes and didn't care anymore and apparently I wasn't alone. Networks began canceling show after show including last year canceling Guiding Light after over 70 years on CBS..and this week ABC said seeya to Erica Kane and Pine Valley along with One Life to Live axing these TV institutions after over 40 years leaving only 4 daytime dramas on the air. The genre will never die but the daytime televised drama ritual of so many, stories and heartthrobs that got us tuning in each afternoon are gone. The networks will  fill the air with more reality and talk as they try to figure out how to capture audiences and a new generation of iPhone and twitter devotees. Networks are struggling with both daytime and nighttime to get and keep audiences and many feel the age of network television as with network news is over with too many outlets for information and entertainment..gone are the days where one show had the nation sitting and watching together.

I don't think soaps will or can  disappear --the format is a cornerstone of popular culture and our social fabric. They will may simply take on new iPhone app or gaming??  Good storytelling, however, will never go away. Younger generation have certainly embraced serialized dramas such as the Twilight series and even Harry Pottter.  If you care about characters you want to know what happens to them-it goes back to Shakespeare and of course Dickens who was originally published in a serial format. Mad Men, as slick and exquisitely written as it is is still is Upstairs Downstairs... it comes down to how you dress it up-The Tudors, Desperate HousewivesGray's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters...all soaps formatted with characters and storylines designed to get you involved and coming back every week.  For those who may be going through Daytime drama withdrawal there is always Masterpiece or a good book!