The End of an Era

Black Thursday:  As an historian, I know most people associate that day with the beginning of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 (October 24, 1929).  As someone who has loosely followed daytime dramas/soaps over the years, yesterday (Thursday, April 14, 2011) is also being called Black Thursday, because ABC Daytime announced the cancellation of two long-running soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live.  These cancellations come on the heels of the demise of Guiding Light in 2009 and of As The World Turns in 2010.  The genre certainly has undergone considerable change over the past few years, but after January 2012 only four soaps will remain on network television:  General Hospital on ABC, Days of Our Lives on NBC, and The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS (both produced by the Bell family).  To think that forty-one years ago (when All My Children debuted in 1970), there were sixteen daytime dramas on the three networks, including such long-running serials as Another World (1964-1999), The Doctors (1963-1982), The Edge of Night (1956-1984), Love of Life (1951-1980), Search for Tomorrow (1951-1986), and The Secret Storm (1954-1974).  Shorter-lived soaps like Bright Promise (1969-1972), Dark Shadows (1966-1971), Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1967-1973), and Where the Heart Is (1969-1973) also aired when All My Children debuted in January 1970. 

I’m sure that declining ratings were a factor in the cancellation of these two long-running soaps.  According to the April 19, 2011 issue of Soap Opera Digest, both of them rank near the bottom of the ratings:  All My Children had a 1.8, and One Life to Live a 1.9 as of the week of March 21 (each rating point represents 1,159,000 homes).  Only Days of Our Lives (1.7) has lower ratings, and that show has been on the verge of cancellation for several years.  Even the highest rated daytime drama, Young and the Restless, only has a 3.3 rating; if these were prime-time series, they wouldn’t have lasted one episode, much less 20+ years (40+ for AMC and OLTL).  At least these ratings now include same-day DVR playback, but they do not include anyone who watches the episodes online or on SoapNet (all but Bold and the Beautiful are repeated on SoapNet after 7:00 p.m. Eastern).  Soap watchers viewing habits have changed, but the method of determining actual viewership really hasn’t.

What does this mean for American culture?  Again, I am someone who has loosely followed soaps over the years–and who once had a roommate who changed her major because a required course conflicted with General Hospital.   Children grew up watching these serials with their mothers (and, in some cases, grandmothers) and became fans for life.  Serials like AMC and OLTL have been part of our culture since the days of “The Perils of Pauline” in movie theaters (which were part of an entertainment experience that included newsreels, cartoons, and often a double feature).  Mothers listened to soaps on the radio like Ma Perkins, One Man’s Family, Portia Faces Life, Stella Dallas, The Romance of Helen Trent, and Young Doctor Malone while they did their housework (and, in case anyone is wondering—they were called soaps because they were sponsored by soap companies like Proctor & Gamble).  Some of these made the transition to television in the 1950s, with The Guiding Light the best known of them.  Soaps, daytime dramas, serials—whatever you wish to call them, they ARE a part of American life, one that is slowly disappearing.

In my case, the first soap that I followed was Ryan’s Hope (1975-1989), which still airs in repeats on SoapNet.  Christmas break in 1984 was the first time I started watching “my mother’s soaps”—ABC from 11-2 Central (Ryan’s Hope, Loving, All My Children, and One Life to Live) and CBS from 2-3 Central (Guiding Light).  I didn’t watch them when I returned to grad school in Spring 1985, but I did begin to read the weekly recaps in the Sunday newspapers.  After moving back to Houston in August 1986, I would watch them with my mother if I wasn’t working or researching—and, even then, I might record them to watch later if the storyline was really interesting.  As someone who has had a passion for Pennsylvania history as long as I can remember, I had a particular attachment to both All My Children (Pine Valley, PA) and One Life to Live (Llanview, PA), both created by Agnes Nixon.

Fast forward to 2011—because of my work schedule (and other commitments), I do not watch AMC or OLTL as much as I used to, but I do follow them through Soap Opera Digest and through my mother (who really is distraught about the demise of One Life to Live; I probably am related to the only AMC fan who can’t stand Erica Kane).  None of the remaining shows really capture her interest, plus she doesn’t want to get invested in a storyline and then have the show snatched away.  She will not watch the “lifestyle” shows that will air in those time slots (partly as a protest, partly because she really isn’t all that interested in them).  In my case, I’ll probably let my Soap Opera Digest subscription expire, because the main reason I subscribe is to keep up with the storylines of those two shows (well, okay, I also ready the interviews with some of the actors on these shows—and some readers of this blog know what else I do when I look through the magazine). 

Serials like “The Perils of Pauline” began as shorts—maximum 15 minutes, with a cliffhanger at the end to keep you coming back (a ploy, in a sense, to have you return to the movie theater and watch more feature films the following week).  Radio soaps were brief as well, usually 15 minutes, but certainly not longer than 30 minutes—with a cliffhanger at the end so you would tune in the next day.  When soaps moved to television in the 1950s, they started out as 15 minute episodes then expanded to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and finally 60 minutes (although Bold and the Beautiful has remained at 30 minutes since its inception in 1987).  Primetime shows have incorporated the cliffhanger into their plots in an attempt to keep viewers tuned in, even if they are not considered “soaps”; certainly multi-episode story arcs that involve hunts for serial killers can be considered a form of soaps, even if they are not sponsored by soap companies. 

In some ways, web soaps are a return to the days of radio soaps and “The Perils of Pauline”—usually no longer than 10 minutes in length, with a cliffhanger to keep the audience tuned in.  Some, like Steamboat, have started blogs and encourage viewer interaction (such as a blog post to discuss the season 1 cliffhanger); Steamboat includes several actors who previously were on Guiding Light and As the World TurnsThe Bay includes former stars from Another World, Days of Our Lives, and Santa Barbara, among other soaps.  Venice includes current and former actors from As the World Turns, Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, and One Life to Live.  Perhaps they are the wave of the future—but at the same time, web soaps lose an audience that had followed television soaps for years, as there are people like my mother who don’t watch shows online.

We knew that the end was coming; certainly there have been enough rumors over the past few years.  Once AMC relocated its production to California, only OLTL was left in New York City—which was where many of the daytime dramas were produced until the 1980s.  The cancellation of these two shows, then, definitely is the end of an era.  We can hope that both All My Children and One Life to Live are given a proper send-off so that there is closure for the characters—such as Maeve Ryan singing “Danny Boy” at the end of Ryan’s Hope—rather than leaving the audience with an unresolved cliffhanger.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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16 Responses to The End of an Era

  1. Nikki says:

    If I ever have a windfall of mad money, I plan to buy the entire collection of Ballykissangel, a British soap. http://www.world-productions.com/wp/content/shows/ballyk/ballyk.htm

    We grew up watching soaps with our Mom and with our neighbor who was our babysitter. We knew all the characters and just what was going on even though at a young age we didn’t know what all of the words meant. Another World and Days of Our Lives were my favorites.

  2. Jeannie says:

    I haven’t watched “soaps” in many years. In fact, the only one I was ever addicted to was “General Hospital” back in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. It started at 2:00 here in Vegas, the same time that high school got out. When there was a really interesting cliff hanger, the next day I would make up some excuse to my 6th period teacher to get out of class early so I could be home by 2:00 (I’m sorry and please don’t tell my children). Of course, those were in the Luke and Laura days. When I went to college in 1981, hundreds of people, if not more, planned their schedules around “General Hospital”. The student union was filled with people glued to the TV. I’m sure I would of been a DOOL fan if I would have known then what I know now. I guess it’s my generations turn to say, “Those were the good ‘ole days.” I can’t say that I’ll miss the soaps, after all I haven’t been watching them anyway. But, I do feel the nostalgia of another era from my youth going by the way side. What will be next?

    • Jeannie says:

      I hate it when I make grammar mistakes because I’ m typing too fast. I meant that “I’m sure I would ‘have’ been a DOOL fan . . .”

      • Karen says:

        In this case–you were typing like a college student. I see that mistake more often than I really want to–and sometimes they understand why I circle the word ‘of’ in the sentence.

  3. Jeannie says:

    By the way, great post. You must not have had any papers to grade last night.

    • Karen says:

      Actually, I did. I just didn’t grade them; I figured they could wait until the weekend. In a way, I was in shock–it’s kind of like you know someone is going to die, but when it happens you are still stunned and upset. The writing had been on the wall for some time (especially with the numerous rumors that had been floating about for weeks). But when it actually happens, it’s still a bit of a shock.

      And, of course, when I look at the list of departed soaps–I now realize that the “birth” and “death” dates are almost like tombstone inscriptions.

  4. Laurie says:

    Very insightful. Although I suppose the daytime drama — the soap opera which was used to peddle soap to housewives in the 1950s originally — is diminishing, the continuing drama series will still survive…but in different formats. There are still weekly continuing drama shows out there, whether they be “The Borgias” or “Desperate Housewives” or “True Blood”; so the form will survive. I also believe in the internet series which are still in their baby stages. Just as soaps evolved from radio to the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, I believe they are evolving yet again. Lovers of the genre just have to ride out the storm of this change.

    • Karen says:

      Historians hate change! Okay, it’s out of my system. I’m old enough to remember the 1980s, when you also had popular soaps at night. “Who Shot J.R.?” was the big question in 1980–people tuned in and watched “Dallas” to find out who did it (probably one of the best cliffhangers of all time). We had “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” and “Dynasty” too. Certainly “Desperate Housewives” fits into that mold, especially with former daytime actors like Marcia Cross as part of the cast. I actually enjoy some of the internet series; if you haven’t watched “Steamboat,” you really should. It’s a spoof of soaps, just like the movie “Soapdish.”

  5. RT44DVC says:

    This is certainly a sad time for fans of daytime TV. I started watching GH with my Nana in the 70’s. I saw the very first episode of Loving, as it had debuted over the summer I believe. My whole family got hooked and that was why we bought our first recorder (as was the case with most things, of course we bought a Beta). I became…what’s the word….addicted to DOOL from 84-92 after being introduced to it by my aunt. When I got married in ’89 my husband and I had a big fight over ABC vs. NBC soaps. We compromised and watched AMC/OLTL/GH a few days a week and DOOL the others (unless, of course a storyline was too good to switch) We actually had cable installed in the office of one of the restaurant we owned so we could watch our soaps when it wasn’t too busy. My middle child is named after a character on OLTL. I sure hope something can be done to save the ones that are left, but when the producers aren’t the slightest bit interested in what the public wants it’s difficult to see how they will last.

    • Karen says:

      It’s amazing to see the outpouring of affection that people have demonstrated for their soaps. Twitter blew up–and some soap actors who never were on Twitter before have joined in the fun (and are getting followers). For some people, it appears that they are losing a member of the family (or, in the case of these shows, entire families). While I haven’t named any children after soap characters, I do know students who obviously are (I never asked the student, but when his name is Shane Donovan, you sort of know what program his mother watched back in the late 1980s).

  6. skat35 says:

    It is hard for the long time fans. Shows how times change. Sometimes change is hard. I was so disappointed when Guiding Light went off the air so knowing how your mom feels. Do you guys think is because more people are working or is it because of the internet that soaps may be losing popularity? I know how i am loving on demand so i can watch my faves on my own time. Great invention there. And HBO and Encore we don’t watch as much because of Netflix. My husband watches movies on his laptop. Where before he was glued to his giant flat screen. OMG, i so loved Dallas, Dynasty, & Falcon Crest.

    • Karen says:

      I think it’s a combination of factors–long time fans are dying off (and, unlike characters of soaps, they don’t come back to life), more people are working during the daytime, different ways of watching the soap operas–either online or on SoapNet (which doesn’t factor into the ratings), etc. There has been a significant response to these two cancellations; hopefully the groundswell will be enough to save one, if not both, of these programs. Probably one of the most intriguing outcomes is that more of the soap actors are now involved with social media; I know one didn’t even have a twitter account until last week, and she now has over 4,700 followers. Plus, corporate sponsors are beginning to pull ads in protest, and viewers are boycotting ABC programs–ratings for “Dancing With The Stars” were down more than 10% from last week.

  7. skat35 says:

    So are you thinking soaps will morph to other shows? I do know folks who like stuff like True Blood. I haven’t tried it, no into vampires.. Or is it reality shows that are taking hold? Give your mom my condolences! Technology is changing so fast like all these touch web phones. It is good but hard to keep up with. Just getting texting down. lol

    • skat35 says:

      Makes me wonder or worry what other changes are coming with TV.

    • Karen says:

      I really don’t think soaps will morph into other shows, although there are signs that some of the standard soap cliches have been affecting prime time television for years–think back to “The Fugitive” in the 1960s. Writers will try to develop ways to keep the audience tuned in, and certainly end-of-the season cliffhangers are a way to encourage the network to renew the program. After all, thinking back to one television show that starred the chap who’s in my Gravitar–certainly the potential plane crash at the end of Season 3 or Fran falling overboard in the wedding episode (and Maxwell diving in after her) at the end of Season 5 fit into the “cliffhanger” genre, as the writers wanted a way to keep the audience tuned in to watch the next season.

  8. ravagli cristina says:

    is 15 years since I saw a girl I used soap races home from work to make time to see General Hospital & Trails remember with nostalgia those days, why is the end of Roxana was a sin!

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