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October 23, 2014

Is There Still a Future for Soap Operas?

by Michael Maloney, posted Dec 9th 2009 7:10PM
As the World TurnsWith the immortal words "Good morning, dear," actress Helen Wagner (Nancy Hughes) opened the CBS soap opera 'As the World Turns' on April 2, 1956. Alas, in light of the show's cancellation on Dec. 8, longtime soap fans are wondering if they'll be saying, "Good-bye, dear," to the beloved daytime genre entirely.

The sad reality is that viewers have bid farewell to too many soaps recently. In addition to 'ATWT''s cancellation, 'Guiding Light' ended its 72-year run on Sept. 18; ratings for ABC stalwart 'General Hospital' hit record lows this summer. Are these struggles an indication that the heyday of soaps is over? These days, with more women in the workplace, there are fewer stay-at-home moms who are able to watch soaps in the daytime -- what effect, if any, has that had on soap opera viewership?As the World TurnsWith the immortal words "Good morning, dear," actress Helen Wagner (Nancy Hughes) opened the CBS soap opera 'As the World Turns' on April 2, 1956. Alas, in light of the show's cancellation on Dec. 8, longtime soap fans are wondering if they'll be saying, "Good-bye, dear," to the beloved daytime genre entirely.

The sad reality is that viewers have bid farewell to too many soaps recently. In addition to 'ATWT''s demise, 'Guiding Light' ended its 72-year run on Sept. 18; ratings for ABC stalwart 'General Hospital' hit record lows this summer. Are these struggles an indication that the heyday of soaps is over? These days, with more women in the workplace, there are fewer stay-at-home moms who are able to watch soaps in the daytime -- what effect, if any, has that had on soap opera viewership?

All My ChildrenWhile it's no secret that the daytime serial is facing tough economic times, there actually are some positive signs in the industry. ABC's 'All My Children,' which celebrates its 40th anniversary next month, is moving its location from New York City to Los Angeles in order to keep the show economically viable. "This move is not being made for a six-month reprieve," says daytime talent manager Michael Bruno, who reps AMC's Ricky Paull Goldin (Jake). "The show's budget has to be projected over a year or two. They might lose money in the first three months, but they'll start making money after that."

There are also encouraging signs as to the genre's potential over at NBC's 'Days of our Lives.' The week of Nov. 16-20, 'Days' ranked second among network daytime series with women 18-49. "Everyone in the industry is looking at 'Days' and asking why, in the midst of all the negativity facing us, is 'Days' not only doing well, but also gaining viewers?" Bruno asks. "That's something people didn't think could happen anymore."

ABC has also seen increases in viewership. This season, all three ABC dramas are up among women 18-34. 'General Hospital,' despite its declines earlier this year, ranked no. 1 during last month's sweeps period in that demographic, and 'The Young and the Restless' remains daytime's top-rated drama in households with 5.17 million viewers. 'Y&R' also claims the top demographic (1.8) among women 18-49.

'Days'' increase could be attributed to the return of such fan favorites as Crystal Chappell (Carly), Louise Sorel (Vivian) and Wally Kurth (Justin). (Ratings soared back in 1993 when Vivian buried Carly alive.) Bruno advises shows seeking to maintain and rebuild their fan bases to copy 'Days' methods. "I'd bring back Genie Francis to 'General Hospital,' Victoria Rowell to 'The Young and the Restless' and Cady McClain and Julia Barr back to 'All My Children,'" the manager says.

Bringing on fresh faces tied to existing characters is also key to a successful soap. "[Late soap opera head writer] Doug Marland said, 'You have to introduce new characters, but you have to careful how you do it,'" explains Grant Aleksander, who played Phillip on 'Guiding Light' on and off from 1982 until the show's cancellation. "You try to do it in a way that brings [newcomers] through existing characters and you hope that it takes. Anyone responsible for those decisions will tell you that you wait for the audience to tell you that you've brought one on that you want to keep."

'Days' has kept up its publicity and marketing campaigns, too. The show spent four days in Detroit in November making appearances at hospitals and reached out to college campuses including the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Concordia University with a talent and "ultimate fan" search.

But what of the gradual change in who watches soaps, and when? For decades, soaps relied on stay-at-home moms to watch and also encourage their children to get hooked on the drama. "If women were not in the workforce as much, we'd have more viewers," suggests Bruno. "You come home from school and your mother and grandmother are watching and you watch, too."

Martha Byrne, who played Lily for over 20 years on 'As the World Turns,' counters that working moms are still watching daytime. "I'm a working mom and I have been my whole life," the actress says. "I make sure I find time to watch 'Y&R'; my friends do, too. They watch SOAPnet. They like having the freedom to watch after their kids have gone to bed."

Given that shift in viewership, the future of soaps may ultimately lie in the Web. Byrne is one of a handful of actresses who've created Web soap operas. Her program 'Gotham' utilizes familiar faces from daytime, as does Chappell's 'Venice.' "I certainly think that we're going to see more shows pop up on the Web," says Chappell, who hastens to add, "I'm not convinced that daytime network TV won't survive. It'll have to tweak itself and do it for less money."

Industry folks and fans alike agree that grabbing and maintaining viewers comes down to story -- not the special glitzy effects that started popping up on soaps in the '80s. "The truth of the matter is we got comfortable in the '80s and '90s," says Bradley Bell, executive producer/head writer of 'The Bold and the Beautiful.' "We did four or five takes [per scene]. None of that was really organic behavior to what soap operas really are about. We're more reliant on scripts and less on bells and whistles."

"Story is 99.9% of the success of anything dramatic," concurs Aleksander.

'B&B' delivered powerhouse scenes recently with guest star Betty White, whose character Ann Douglas made peace with her daughters Stephanie and Pam before dying. The episodes were shot economically on a beach and had a film quality to them in terms of acting, writing, producing and directing.

The key to the future is to keep soaps under budget. "The shows that can do that will be the ones that survive," Bell says.

How and when do you watch your favorite soap operas? Sound off below.


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caervi

I've been a Days fan for most of my life, watching it with my mother and now as a mother of grown children. I do work so I DVR it each day and watch it when it get home at night. I can't imagine not seeing future shows so I hope there is a future for soaps. My advice is to continue creating great storylines but shorten them. Some of them just drag out and I get bored and frustrated with them. On Days right now, I'm ready for the real Rafe to come back. There was a great opportunity in the storyline for him to return but instead it slipped away. It is getting old. I'm also ready for some of the evil on the show (Stefano and E.J.) to get what they deserve. I hope the storyline that includes Nicole does just that. Onward and upward with more soap reality!

May 01 2011 at 10:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cindy

yes there is a future for the soaps, they need to get back to real issues. y and r is a great one for that. well they used to be more than now. when william bell was alive he always had real life topics on the show lid face lifts , diabetes, all things real. now most of the shows are love, cheating, killing, women loveing thier husbands brothers, and no one mentions hey he is my brother it is gross. come on we want real situations. if a brother sleeps with his sister in law, it is horrible. not just oh its ok i want you back. no way. and this crazy person can double for someone and noeone notices. that is what is screwing soaps. if i want sience fiction i will watch that station. please get real. save our soaps.

June 28 2010 at 2:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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