The Soaps Rise Again?
Here I am, about to start writing this column, when the news arrives. Frisco Jones! Back on General Hospital! Secretly shooting as we speak! If you find this half as exciting as I do, you just may have spent the 1980s in a bedroom wallpapered with photos of GH actors and/or as a charter member of the Jack Wagner fan club.
Jack Wagner’s imminent return to General Hospital is the latest in a long string of actors reprising their roles on ABC’s sole remaining daytime soap. Over the past year, an ongoing stream of GH favorites from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have appeared on screen, some in short-term runs, others in long-term contract roles. That these characters were part of General Hospital’s heyday, the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s when the program achieved high ratings and reaped major ad dollars, is reflected in the fan excitement that attends each of these returns. But the rejuvenation of General Hospital is not just about the appearance of popular actors. Since former One Life to Live executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati took over in early 2012, the program has mined its own rich history, as well as that of ABC Daytime and the soap genre more broadly, to tell stories rooted in the long on-screen lives of its characters, referencing story events from as far back in General Hospital history as the 1970s, and bringing into the diegetic world characters and events from defunct ABC soaps, as well. These returns and references have made forward-driving contributions to new and ongoing stories and have remained true to most fans’ understandings of the characters. Most importantly, they express an unabashed love and respect for these on-screen worlds, the daytime soap genre, and viewers’ life-long commitments to these programs.
Between 2009 and early 2012, things looked very dire for the U.S. daytime soap opera. In that period, four of the genre’s eight shows were canceled, including CBS’s Guiding Light, a carry-over from radio, and As the World Turns, the longest running TV soap to date. Also in this period, ABC canceled two of its three remaining soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, in a single blow. Yet something curious has happened over the past year. In this time, the genre has seen something of a revival both economically and culturally. The remaining four soaps seem relatively secure in their network berths, and the production company Prospect Park has put into place in recent weeks the production of both All My Children and One Life to Live for their web-based The OnLine Network. News coverage and fan buzz about soaps has been positive and hopeful of late, a 180-degree turn from just over a year ago, when despair, cynicism, and dismissiveness reigned.
We might explain the rejuvenation of this scaled-down genre in multiple ways. For one, the broadcast networks can much more viably manage the economics of one (or two, in the case of CBS) daytime soaps on their schedule than they could the multiple programs of the recent past, helping the remaining four broadcast soaps achieve a new kind of stability. In addition, the intensive investment of soap fans and our culture’s enthusiasm for new media innovations are bringing Prospect Park’s online revivals some heady buzz, even if their long-term viability remains uncertain. Such developments suggest that shifting soaps into niche-targeted slots within the broader media landscape, as opposed to expecting them to retain mass hit status amidst universal audience fragmentation, may be the key to sustaining the genre’s economic viability.
But soap viewers have long known that many of the problems the genre has faced were as much about the substance of the shows themselves as they were about changes in TV economics or a mismatch between the genre and contemporary women (a view Oprah Winfrey, among others, endorsed). Soaps were often victims of mismanagement, of network interference in the creative labor of writers and producers, and of some of those creative forces too readily buying into the argument that soaps no longer resonate with the needs and interests of their primarily female audience. Over the past twenty years, the genre’s basic principles, its respect for narrative history, its concern with the travails of strong women, and its ability to weave complex narratives out of a multi-dimensional, multi-generational array of characters, were too often abandoned. But in the past year, spearheaded by the remarkable final weeks of One Life to Live, viewers of some soaps have witnessed a return to such principles, buoyed by faster-paced storytelling and the paired emotional experiences of laughter and tears that had been a trademark of the ABC soaps in particular. With this resurgence of respect for the genre and its viewers, the present moment has become one of the more exciting and promising in U.S. daytime soap history.