Salvaging the Sinking Soaps?

June 16, 2011
By | 3 Comments

Could the demise of so many daytime soaps be causing a return to form for a genre fans have long felt was losing its way? The rapidly changing world of U.S. daytime television has as many highs and lows as a juicy soap storyline these days. Chief amongst the lows are the many cancellations of long-running dramas. In the wake of losing the CBS/Procter & Gamble soaps Guiding Light and As the World Turns, ABC’s decision to end All My Children and One Life to Live may have seemed unsurprising to many.  However, the drastic step of canceling two soaps at the same time was shocking nonetheless.  Because ABC owns all three of the soaps it currently airs, it has had a more secure economic model for the genre than its competitors.  Replacing those programs with lifestyle programming titled The Chew and The Revolution (the first about eating, the second about dieting, I kid you not) only magnified the expressions of dismay amongst the soaps’ casts, producers, and crews, as well as their fans.

More recently, as ABC has signed Katie Couric to a syndicated talk show deal, the network’s only remaining soap, General Hospital, appears all the more vulnerable. (Couric’s show is scheduled to air in GH’s current time slot on ABC’s owned & operated stations.)  ABC president Anne Sweeney declared a survival of the fittest competition between GH, The Chew, The Revolution, and Couric, a contest GH seems poised to lose.  While president of ABC Daytime Brian Frons has pitched the cancellations and replacement series as responses to audience demands, there is no question that the main motivation is that the binge-and-purge “lifestyle” pairing can be produced much more cheaply than a soap, and thus can draw a smaller audience and still allow the network to come out ahead.

Yet these developments have been accompanied by some promising high points, steps that offer fascinating illustrations of new industry/fan interactions.  These shifts have exposed and magnified the tensions between network management, the soaps’ creative talent, and audiences, and have suggested that management might be taking viewers’ perspectives into account in a way they have not for many years.  ABC is clearly allowing AMC and OLTL some budgetary leeway in wrapping up their shows, as every day brings announcements of former cast members returning to the screen as the programs conclude.  Here, at least, fans and the soaps’ creative teams are being afforded the chance to have a proper send-off.

Even more intriguing are the behind-the-scenes developments at General Hospital.  Perhaps because there is nothing left to lose, soon after the cancelation announcement, ABC fired GH’s long-running head writer, Bob Guza, a man that fans perpetually blame for the serial’s decline in quality over the past fifteen years.  These complaints are not centered around unpopular couplings or preposterous plot twists; instead they are protests against the program’s male-centered, even misogynist, storytelling, with male mobster characters and their ever-faithful female love interests skewing the program’s moral compass in disturbing directions.  Replacing Guza is a staff writer, Garin Wolf, who wrote the show during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike in ways that met with fan approval (along with many other soap writers, Wolf worked under the Guild’s fi-core status).  Among Wolf’s many admirable qualities, in the eyes of fans and former fans, is his respect for and investment in the history of the on-screen world, as well as his privileging of female characters and commitment to romance-centered storylines.

At a time when the future of the show is in grave doubt, ABC finally seems willing to attend to audience complaints. (NBC’s Days of Our Lives is also making major changes behind the scenes, so this may be an industry-wide trend.) Almost none of the discourse on the end of the soaps has considered the content of the shows themselves, seeing such developments as the expanding media universe, the fragmentation of audiences, and the rising numbers of women in the workplace as explanation enough.  Yet many viewers (and former viewers) insist that the problem with the soaps is that they are just not as good as they used to be, and that they would gladly watch more, or return to watching, with some different kinds of storytelling.  To see the networks and production companies giving some credence to that theory as they make these backstage changes is quite remarkable.  The recent wave of cancellations has no one optimistic about the big picture future of the genre.  However, the industry’s newfound investment in heeding viewer concerns may help to make whatever time is left truer to fans’ desires for classic soap storytelling.


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3 Responses to “ Salvaging the Sinking Soaps? ”

  1. Sarah Adams on June 16, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    It is sad to see this but I am curious if soaps will take a new shape in the form of webisodic television.

    I am a long-time fan who has been fascinated by them since I was a kid.

    Even with the sendoff, there is a destruction of legacy that can never be replaced and I think networks have failed to see this. They have long violated a rule that I read in a Douglas Marland interview many years ago, Respect the viewers. The concept of respect of the viewers was destroyed in the 1990s. This began in the 1990s, when the network executives, in power at that time, did not understand the genre and thus the decisions regarding production and writing harmed the genre.

    To this day, I still blame OJ Simpson for destroying American Television.

    On OLTL they actually ran a very tight ship and often came in under budget, yet put a very watchable product. Valentini, as a producer was shrewd and talented.

    There is historical aspect to the soaps that many forget, in the 1980s, they were among the first shows outside of news broadcasts to do close-captioning. The first soap to be close-captioned was Search for Tomorrow.

    I, for one, will not be watching the replacement programs and I am not a fan of Katie Couric.

    It has been very interesting watching the developments at Days.

    Time will tell if the ones that are left will survive, yet I see the fans preserving the soaps in a way that network big cats will never understand andyou are already seeing it in fanvids, fan fiction and fan art

  2. Christine Becker on June 17, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    While in London, I’ve gotten hooked on two British soaps, EastEnders & Emmerdale. Outside of sharing basic soaptastic plotlines with their American cousins (betrayals, break-ups, baby stealing), they feel quite different in being less sensationalistic, more focused on everyday issues and feelings (as much as baby stealing can be about the everyday). It’s revitalized my love for soaps, and so I really appreciate your point about a largely ignored element of US soap demise being content-related. I wonder if another outgrowth of the OJ and reality TV hits is that they detrimentally convinced soap headwriters they had to go bigger and bolder and more outlandish to compete. While I do like that in a soap (One Life to Live is often better the weirder it tries to be), that’s not really what most fans are into soaps for long-term, and it’s so refreshing now to be watching soaps that are just fundamentally about relationships and emotions. When I get back, I’ll do what I can to keep up with EE and Emmerdale and I suspect they’ll help me get over losing two shows I’ve been watching for 25 years.

  3. Kathleen Battles on June 17, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    Thanks for this piece. I started watching soaps in the 70s as a kid – and I have long insisted that what has “killed” the genre is in fact clueless executive decisions about content. The OJ trial was certainly a blow, but their demise predated that. The shows tried too aggressively to go for the “youth” market by competing with the nighttime teen oriented soaps (BH 90210 and Melrose Place in their original incarnations). Or they tried to compete with their flashier (and ultimately emotionally stunted) nighttime cousins. I remember many years ago ABC selling AMC with a summer campaign focussed on the teen characters and thinking how incredibly short sighted that was. While demographic and market changes might have temporarily shaken up the soap world, certainly better planning and adherence to amazing qualities of the genre would have allowed producers to more fully take advantage of the current digital landscape to reinvigorate the genre and re-engage audiences. Economically speaking ABC might come out ahead in the short term – but in the long term I’m not sure this will be a wise decision.