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TV's changing landscape is washing soaps away

It’s been decades, but Melissa Leo can still recall what it was like to join the cast of “All My Children” in 1984. “I was fresh out of acting school, and (co-star) Peter Bergman took me by the hand like a big brother would to a little sister and made it so comfortable to be there,” said the actress, who won an Oscar earlier this year for her role in “The Fighter.” The cancellation o
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It’s been decades, but Melissa Leo can still recall what it was like to join the cast of “All My Children” in 1984.

“I was fresh out of acting school, and (co-star) Peter Bergman took me by the hand like a big brother would to a little sister and made it so comfortable to be there,” said the actress, who won an Oscar earlier this year for her role in “The Fighter.”

The cancellation of “AMC” and “One Life to Live” on April 14 sent shock waves through an already-reeling soap-opera industry. Last year, CBS killed off two of the longest-running daytime serials — “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” — which was already a major blow for an industry that was losing viewers. But ABC’s surprise twofer announcement seemed to confirm that one by one, broadcast networks are giving up on the idea of original scripted drama in the daytime.

“These are shows that came into your home five days a week, week in and week out,” said Julia Barr, who has appeared on “All My Children” on and off for 30 years. “It’s unlike any other as far as the entertainment medium is concerned.”

Soaps may have been the butt of jokes for years for their melodrama and over-the-top story lines, but they provided an original hour (or half-hour) of content five days a week without reruns. Imagine “Mad Men” or “The Office” attempting that feat.

Networks grind out soap episodes with no rest and very little time between script and air date, leaving performers to refer to their soap jobs as “acting boot camp.” Yet this genre has produced major, award-winning stars such as Morgan Freeman, Julianne Moore, Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei and Laurence Fishburne, to name just a few. For generations of loyal fans who were known to get wrapped up in all the tiny machinations of every character, soaps truly were the first must-see TV.

They were also once valuable properties, said Lynn Leahey, editorial director for Soap Opera Digest.

“Once, soaps were like this cash cow, and their revenue paid for prime time and all the pilots getting made,” she said. “When that changed in the 1990s, the industry never regained its footing.”

Back in the 1960s, soaps were in their heyday. In 1969 there were 19 soaps on the air every day, with the highest rated pulling in as many as 15 million viewers. By comparison, the lowest-rated soaps from back then pulled in 4 million viewers — which is what “The Young and the Restless,” today’s highest-rated soap, averages. But in a way, soaps are victims of their own success.

“If you take the 1960s as the high watermark period for soaps, remember there weren’t any nighttime serials to any extent,” said Bradley S. Greenberg, professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University. “Then the serial episode format moved from soaps to prime time to create ‘Dallas’ or ‘Peyton Place’ and later ‘Melrose Place,’ and today we have ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Desperate Housewives.’ That’s what really began to erode the audience.”

“We don’t have to get that tune-in-tomorrow goose bumps from a soap opera anymore because everyone has stolen from the soaps and done very well by the form,” said TV Guide daytime TV columnist Michael Logan.

Fast decline

A gradual loss of fans led to less advertising revenue — which didn’t impact soaps right away. But when the soaps became too costly to support the loss of revenue, their descent accelerated.

“Over the years, commercial time has expanded within the soaps, but there are only so many minutes in an hour, so a network can only run so many minutes of ads,” explained Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, former executive vice president for ABC Daytime. 

So what is more affordable than soaps? CBS replaced “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” with “Let’s Make a Deal” and “The Talk,” respectively; the “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” time slots will be filled by “The Chew” and “The Revolution” — all talk, game or lifestyle shows.

“You’re now seeing the ushering in of the disposable daytime programming era,” said Logan. “Networks are in the mindset of ‘we’ll try this or that,’ ‘we’ll rip this off,’ ‘we’ll raid Bravo’s ideas’ and this doesn’t work, we’ll come up with something else, no big loss. Fans can’t get their brains around this. They can’t understand why shows that have been around for four decades are going away to be replaced by yet another cooking show or weight-loss show.”

Viewers aren’t the only ones baffled. Longtime soap writer and actress Courtney Simon is surprised that the networks are exchanging viewer loyalty for a lower-cost show with no guarantee of success. (Much less the staying power of decades, as with soaps.)

“It matters how fans feel about what they’re watching,” she said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get the passionate loyalty you get from a soap-opera viewer when you have a lifestyle show. Someone who has watched the ABC lineup for 30 years will be proud of that and say, ‘I love that network.’ Now, they’ll be saying, ‘I have 10 minutes to kill. Let’s see if Mario Batali is making lasagna.’ It’s not the same connection.”

Looking ahead

So is there a future anywhere for soap operas? The four that remain — “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital,” “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Young” — have a managed level of mass audience familiarity that most of the others never achieved. But even they are under siege.  “We’ll just do good work as long as we can do it,” said “Bold” showrunner Edward Scott.

But for soaps to have their own “tune-in-tomorrow” moments, they’ll likely have to jump to cable or the Internet — broadcast daytime is a rough neighborhood these days. Most in the industry are hopeful the genre can be saved. After all, soaps are big business around the world. “The Bold and the Beautiful” earns a fair amount of revenue from its foreign distribution, and the Internet is a hotbed of creative content eager for viewers.

“It doesn’t mean soaps can’t make a comeback,” said Scott. “It just may take on different forms. There are still four left. And remember: Networks may find they’re not really going to make any money on these new shows. You can still go to the Food Network and watch what they’re doing there ... done better.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”