TV Review - The Death of American Soap Operas

James Franco guest stars
on ABC's "General Hospital"
April 2011, ABC announced that it was cancelling two iconic and long-running TV series, All My Children and One Life to Live. Both were signature melodramas, noted for sponsors or advertisers that were mainly cleaning products like soaps. Nicknamed "soap operas," they dominated daytime TV programming on the broadcast networks.

Over the past decade, however, ratings for soap operas have been steadily declining. If the ratings fall, the shows lose money or become less profitable. Despite the fact that these shows have been going for decades, once a TV show is no longer profitable-enough to justify its existence, the result is cancellation. It's doubtful that the shows that replace these two particular soap operas will raise ratings, but they will certainly be cheaper, cheap enough so that if they do get low ratings, they won't be as hurtful to the network. The two soaps will in fact be replaced by talk shows, which are cheaper.

When I started watching soap operas back in 1994, the three major broadcasters, ABC, CBS and NBC, each had at least three hours of programming dedicated for them. Sometimes, it was more. All in all, it was about ten hours of programming a day. Things started to go downhill when NBC cancelled Another World in 1999. It certainly wasn't the first soap opera to get axed, but it was the first with as long and as significant a history.

Yes, these shows are melodramas, but Passions, which supplanted Another World, took the idea of melodrama to extreme and even outlandish levels. The show went to an incest storyline to a storyline involving a witch who pretended a midget was a doll that she toted. The pacing of it was also ridiculously slow. The characters would spend a week's worth of episodes with the entire cast in the same spot and in the same clothes, having not moved an inch, rehashing every single thing.

Passions was actually more a daytime comedy than a daytime drama. I was actually glad to see it go in 2007, but the first nail in the coffin for soap operas came when CBS cancelled Guiding Light in 2009. Guiding Light was the longest-running daytime drama in history, a soap opera so old that it began as a radio show in 1937. After a desperate attempt to cheapen the production value, by shooting the show using digital camcorders exclusively, the show was yanked for a lame, game show in 2009.

The following year, CBS also cancelled As the World Turns, a show I had only started watching in 2007. The reason I did was because it was announced that the show would have the first ever gay male kiss and first ever gay male couple storyline. It was doing something different and taking on a current social issue. Instead of doing something ridiculous like midgets and magic, it was doing something real.

Unfortunately, these shows were seriously playing catch up. Prime-time shows are in many ways doing what soap operas used to do. The reality shows like The Real Housewives of New York are doing what soap operas used to do or at least satisfying the itch that soap operas used to satisfy. Except, they're doing it more economically.

There's also a stark contrast between what American soap operas portray and what British soap operas, for example, portray. In the United States, one of the big stories of 2011 was the Occupy Wall Street story. Along with it came the idea of "we are the 99 percent." Ironically, British soap operas are the ones representing that 99 percent. The British soaps depict working-class people. American soap operas are always about the 1 percent. American soap operas always portray the wealthy, the elite, or at least people who think they're such.

American soap operas, even in the way they're produced, have maintained a disconnect, which makes them nothing more than fantasies. That's attractive to some people and at some times, but over the long haul and especially over the shifting socioeconomic landscape, it can get to be wearing. Now, where there was ten hours of soap operas in the daytime, only three hours remain. The dedication was reduced by more than half.

Those three hours basically represent the three soaps that will remain on the air starting in January 2012. Those are Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless and General Hospital. There is some talk that General Hospital will either get reduced or cancelled by the end of 2012. It's resorted to stunts like having Oscar-nominee James Franco guest star, but with the way things have been going, it doesn't seem like that's going to have much help. It's a shame because it was the one show that I liked and followed more than any other.

That being said, I won't be sad to see it go. These shows served a purpose and have now worn out their welcome. A show like The Young and the Restless might continue in perpetuity for nostalgia's sake or simply because whatever fan base soap operas have will rally around it and give it enough ratings to justify an existence, but it might be safe to say that daytime dramas, the traditional American soap operas, are dead.


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