It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the revenue generated by daytime soap operas paid for nighttime programming on the major networks. This past decade and more, soap operas were not just on the wane, but an endangered species. With only four currently left on the air, the demise of this once popular genre seemed to be less a question of if and more a question of when.
There have been a lot of theories proposed as to why soaps have declined so rapidly and so entirely. Of course, a big part of it was the large numbers of women entering the work force over the past three decades. Some point to the televised O.J. Simpson trial as the beginning of the end of soaps, but the advent of cable and satellite television services, with the huge increase in programming choices, probably had more to do with it.
Some, including myself, point to how soap operas lost their way when they were at the peak of their popularity. During the late 70s and early 80s, General Hospital changed soaps from familial and romantic relationship stories to adventure, mystery and even sci-fi and fantasy stories. While they were fun at the time, and there had been soaps with these elements before (i.e. Dark Shadows and The Edge Of Night) these kinds of stories were pretty much the antithesis of what soap operas were about. Some of the fall-out from these changes were increased production values, including expensive location shoots. As they became more mainstream pop culture icons, the most popular soap opera stars began to demand and get million dollar salaries.
The outstanding success of General Hospital with college students at the time (I was one of those) forced other soap operas to attempt to replicate their success. Most could not get the high ratings needed and soon began disappearing from the air as the expense to produce them did not justify the ever-decreasing revenue they generated. Networks began to realize they could make more money from a talk or game show, since they cost far less to produce.
When ABC cancelled two of their once-popular soap operas, All My Children and One Life To Live, that seemed to be the beginning of the end. But soon there was talk that the two shows might find new life as web series. This quickly fell apart as the production company, Prospect Park, failed to make deals with the actors unions.
The two shows, which were believed to be dead-dead over the past year, are now in the process of a resurrection, as Prospect Park ironed out deals with the unions. They have now secured several actors and some executives for the new productions. There are even rumors that these may turn out to be television series again (most likely on a cable network) and not just web series.
Whether or not these shows succeed in their new incarnation remains to be seen, but it may be the right time now for them to return. Nighttime soaps are having a resurgence, as shows like Revenge, Scandal and the reboot of Dallas are finding appreciative audiences. They’re doing so well the networks have several more nighttime soaps in the development pipeline. The stunning success of Downton Abbey, which takes the staid British historical drama and livens it up with more suds than ten soap operas, also seems to indicate that audiences are ready to revisit the genre. (An American version, called The Gilded Age, is currently in the works.)
I’d like to think that forced to pare down their production values, All My Children and One Life To Live could return to the glory days when soaps were about characters and relationships. One thing that gives me hope it might actually happen is the news that Agnes Nixon, creator of both shows, has been hired by Prospect Park as a consultant. It will be exciting to see if this experiment breathes new life into a genre thought to be almost over and done.
- Prospect Park Confirms Production of On-Line Versions of ‘All My Children’ & ‘One Life to Live’ (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- ‘All My Children’ to air online; will Susan Lucci return? (newyork.newsday.com)