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 Turns. The 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.