Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is There Still a Future for Soap Operas?

With 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?

While 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 alsogaining 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 arestill 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.


  1. I think that Soapnet has a lot to do with daytime soap viewership. I am thankful for Soapnet and wish they would just buy out all of the soaps and make it all cable channels so we can watch when it is convenient to us. I am tired of the hold these unconscious execs have on our shows. We need someone like Ted Turner to take over soaps and create the perfect recepticle for the genre. We cannot lose this very important part of our lives and of television.

  2. General Hospital is nuts to not have Genie back on a permanent basis. She is an excellent actress and has so much history with so many of the cast members. They really dropped the ball on that one. I haven't watched the show since. I'd have to say if I hear one more thing about Sonny or Jason which the show seems to be totally centered around I'm going to throw up!!

  3. I've watched soaps for 45 years, mainly P&G but ultimately I've covered the gamut of all 3 networks. The VCR was a godsend for me, and the DVR is even better, and that's how I am able to watch all the soaps instead of having to pick and choose between networks.