Make no mistake about it: Soap operas are dead. To quote Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, we got here just in time for the death rattle. Last gasp. Last grope. Ratings have been in decline for almost three decades, while network execs stood by and twiddled their thumbs. A combination of the course of natural events and stunning executive incompetence destroyed a stalwart genre that had lasted decades as a tradition passed down from generation to generation.
Guiding Light, which had been on the air more than 70 years, is gone. As the World Turns, which lasted more than 50, is next. Only six soaps will remain, down from almost 20 in the salad days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The ratings for the shows still lingering are embarrassing: 3.7 for leader The Young and the Restless, down to a 1.7 for One Life to Live and General Hospital. Ratings are down across the board this decade for all network television, but soaps’ ratings decline has been precipitous. In 1980, the heyday of supercouple Luke and Laura, General Hospital finished 13th out of all network programs (including primetime) in the Nielsen ratings, often achieving a 40 share in its time slot. Seriously, read that again.
After the publicity from Luke and Laura’s wedding, and Elizabeth Taylor’s guest stint, died down, GH and all of the soaps entered a slow, steady and unalarming decline. Unalarming, that is, until the O.J. Simpson trial. Prior to 1995, soaps were losing viewers for essentially the same reason all network ratings were eroding. Cable television had exploded, and viewing options were increasing exponentially. Soaps had to deal with the added onus of losing much of its targeted demographic, as women left home and entered the workforce. By the early ‘90s, the talk show craze hit daytime, and Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake began to siphon viewers away from All My Children and Days of Our Lives. These issues were problematic, but they could have been dealt with. Talk shows, in particular, reeked of a short-term fad that would pass in time.
Then the O.J. trial hit the daytime world like a knife to the throat. The Simpson saga captivated the nation for many of the same reasons the soaps used to: luridness, fascinating characters and ongoing drama. The damage caused by the trial, and the way the networks handled it, cannot be underestimated. ABC, NBC and CBS preempted weeks of regular programming to show pre-trial hearings, and anything during the trial that the news department considered important. No one knew it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for soaps. And the networks fucked it up.
O.J.’s trial was not an event that necessarily demanded around-the-clock coverage. In terms of newsworthiness, the trial couldn’t touch a war or a famine or even a market crash. Unfortunately, networks were weak and caved in to short-term pressure at the cost of long-term vision. Viewers who wanted O.J. could have turned to CNN, Court TV or any number of other channels. Had the big three, or even one of the networks, continued showing the soaps without interruption, not only would they have avoided alienating long-term fans, they could have attracted new viewers who were sick of Kato Kaelin and Marcia Clark. Instead, the trial destroyed the daily, methodical flow of the soaps, something crucial to the allure of the form. Soap fans considered the constant O.J. coverage a slap in the face, an insult to their intelligence. Networks were telling them that they, and the shows they ardently cared about, didn’t matter. Many of them were lost forever.
Understand, O.J. would have hurt either way, as soaps lost some 2 million viewers to CNN and the like during the course of the trial. But a brave network could have minimized the damage. The O.J. trial was the soap opera equivalent of the 1994-5 baseball strike, which alienated the game’s fans, many of whom would not return for several years. Soaps were hit even harder than baseball, because once viewers lose track of the continuing plots and characters, they lose interest permanently.
Soap opera ratings fell 14 percent the year of the Simpson trial, and had fallen 25 percent in a ten-year span. Ratings then receded even further, as our four soaps have lost an average of more than 600,000 households each in the last ten years. Advertising revenues continued to drop, and soaps are not the cash cows they used to be. At one time, soap operas were the most profitable portion of the network day, due to low production costs and a high quantity of commercials. Production costs rose as ad dollars fell, though, and many network affiliates have grown more independent, electing to air cheaper programming during the day. The New York CBS affiliate, for example, bumped Guiding Light to 10 a.m. in the early ‘00s, and filled its previous time slot with talk shows and court shows.
There was an opportunity, once upon a time, for networks to step in and save soap operas, even post-O.J., post cable, post Internet. And they were worth saving.
Soaps were never the most intelligent form of entertainment out there. They were patronizing, simple and crafted so viewers could skip 15 episodes and not miss a beat. But my God, at least it was scripted drama. There were interesting characters, good performances, some clever lines, some surprising twists. There were even a couple sublime eras on a couple different soaps, eras that managed to transcend the low-to-the-ground trappings of the genre. And there was some comfort in the fact that you could watch the same show, the same characters even, as your grandparents had watched with your parents.
More importantly, soaps, at their putrid, insulting worst, were still always superior to garbage paternity-case talk shows, Judge Joe Brown, and whatever else the fuck networks are filling their weekdays with now.
Soaps were worth saving for the networks, too, not just for the greater good of American culture. They inspire network loyalty unlike any other type of programming. A soap viewer self-brands as an ABC viewer or a CBS viewer. A talk show viewer clicks around until they find the situation that looks most likely to lead to a brawl. Then does crystal meth during the commercial breaks.
With even a hint in ingenuity, the networks wouldn’t be where they are now – with six dying carcasses and a host of PR problems on their hands.
Any number of television genres has disappeared off our screens, some permanently, some temporarily. The western, for example, is gone and may never return. Cops shows, medical dramas and others come and go on a more cyclical basis, so they hold no real value in comparison to soaps. Saturday morning cartoons were in deep trouble in the mid-‘80s, before the Smurfs single-handedly breathed new life into the form. But weekly cartoons aimed at children do not share much commonality with daytime serials. Rather, it is the game show that shares the most with soaps as a TV genre. Like soap operas, game shows began on radio and made the leap to television in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Game shows historically share the same primary adult female audience with soaps. Both game shows and soaps have appeared weekly during primetime and daily during daytime. Finally, game shows and soap operas share uniqueness, if that is possible. Soaps lure viewers for very specific reasons: the need to connect with characters, to feel like part of a community, and to live vicariously through alter egos on screen. Game shows similarly hold singular appeal because they allow viewers to play along with contestants (and often feel smarter than them) and connect to the Horatio Alger aspect of the American dream. Game shows have proven to be a remarkably durable form, so soaps could have looked to game shows for guidance when dealing with low ratings.
A day has not passed since 1946 without at least one game show on the air. During the 1950s, a wave of game shows proliferated on primetime. They turned out to be so popular that the form expanded to include several different sub-genres, including panel shows (What’s My Line?), stunt shows (Beat the Clock) and so-called agony shows (Queen For a Day). One of these sub-genres, the quiz show, eventually struck the game show form a blow not unlike the one the O.J. trial dealt soaps nearly 40 years later. In 1958, a contestant on the show “Dotto” came forward with allegations that the show was rigged; that certain contestants had been supplied answers to pre-determine the outcome. The accusations soon spread to other shows, including “The $64,000 Question” and “The $64,000 Challenge.” Most notable of these tainted quiz shows, of course, was NBC’s “Twenty-One.” Handsome professor Charles Van Doren rose to national fame as he embarked on an impressive winning streak on the big-money show in 1957. The next year, a contestant defeated by Van Doren testified before a New York grand jury that producers had fed the professor the answers in order to have a likeable champion. The ensuing scandal engulfed the game show world, and nearly every primetime game show on the air was canceled by 1960. Indictments were handed out to producers of the rigged shows, and Congress passed a law criminalizing the rigging of TV game shows. Another baseball analogy was invoked, as President Eisenhower compared the scandals’ betrayal of the peoples’ trust to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.
Game shows in the late ‘50s were in a worse state than soap operas in the early ‘00s. The appearance of impropriety hung over the genre like a dark cloud, and erased all the momentum the shows had built through the previous decade. The genre did not take long to regroup, however. Within a few years, game shows had reinvented themselves and moved to daytime. New shows like “Jeopardy!” and “Password” became hallmarks of daytime television in the ‘60s. The form survived because of its adaptability. The scandals, combined with waning interest, forced games out of primetime, so they simply jumped to daytime. The industry also began to evolve with the times. Game shows in the ‘60s added glitz, flash and an element of wackiness. With the sexual revolution came titillating shows like “The Dating Game” and “Three’s a Crowd.” The freewheeling ‘70s saw the introduction of a gambling element to game shows. This adaptability allowed game shows to survive in a Darwinian manner, even as society endured monumental changes. The dreaded quiz show form would even reappear in primetime some 40 years later, and yet again become a sensation as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” scored monster ratings for us at ABC.
Game shows hit another peak in the late ‘70s before viewer disinterest all but knocked them off the air again. This lull was not to due to any scandal or trial, but just a general trend in what audiences wanted to see. In this respect, the decline holds more similarity to soaps of today, when viewership continuesd to erode years after O.J. commandeered the airwaves. Again, game shows rolled with the punches and reinvented themselves. This time, producers took advantage of increased affiliate independence (due to more channels and more airtime to fill) to air “Wheel of Fortune” and a new version of “Jeopardy!” in the hours just before the network primetime schedule began. The two shows were an enormous success, and games were off and running again.
From game shows’ two distinct rebounds, it’s clear that had soap operas increased their flexibility and learned to change with the times, they could have survived. Granted, game shows have an advantage over soaps in that the form is not continual. If one game show falls out of date, just cancel it and invent another. The task of evolving is much more burdensome for soap operas, with their serial storylines and 30-year histories. But soap opera stuck stubbornly to their guns, trotting out the same bullshit amnesia and evil twin storylines that became targets of ridicule decades earlier, and that even the dumbest of audiences had grown too sophisticated for.
And networks continued marketing soap operas in the same tired way, in the same tired magazines, and with the same tired misleading promos. ABC introduced SoapNet, a cable channel that, in the age of Tivo and Hulu, simply re-ran that day’s soaps every night in primetime.
The serial form obviously still holds appeal, considering shows as varied as The Office, Survivor, True Blood and The Wire contain serial elements. Given that, soaps could have managed their inevitable decline without utter collapse. Keeping in mind the way game shows have become the “Teflon genre” by constantly evolving, networks could have implemented an aggressive new marketing campaign de-emphasizing the lurid, voyeuristic aspect of soaps, since reality in the age of Snooki and Tiger Woods is more explicit than anything writers can dream up.
If quality, character and plot had been emphasized, the stigma that soaps are for bored housewives could have been erased, attracting the new daytime audience that is out there. More people than ever work at home or are unemployed, and many men now stay home with the children. Soaps should have targeted the more diverse and more educated viewership that exists today. If that meant tinkering with the form, or even inventing new sub-genres of soaps, then that should have been considered. Network execs and producers needed to be nearly as flexible with the soaps as their predecessors were with game shows.
The window to take those steps has closed. The numbers get worse every year. Long-standing institutions have been cancelled. It’s all over by the overly dramatic crying. And it’s a fucking shame.
Goodnight, Frisco. Goodnight, Blackie.