Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Culture Shock 12.10.09: Another soap opera's bubble has just burst

Chalk up another victim of the changing demographics and economics of daytime television.

CBS announced Tuesday that it is canceling its long-running soap opera "As the World Turns," which has been a fixture of daytime TV for more than 50 years. The last episode will air in September 2010, giving the show's writers and remaining viewers plenty of time to say goodbye.

It's the swan song not just for a TV show, but for an era. Earlier this year, CBS aired the final episode of "Guiding Light," its longest-running soap, which started as a radio drama in 1937 before jumping to television in 1952.

Daytime soap operas are a dying breed, at least in the U.S. With the cancellation of "As the World Turns," CBS has only two daytime dramas left: "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." Both are safe for now. They're daytime's two highest-rated soaps.

Meanwhile, NBC's daytime schedule is in even worse shape than its fourth-place primetime lineup. "Days of Our Lives," NBC's sole surviving daytime soap, was flirting with cancellation, too, just a couple of years ago. The soap's producers even dropped two of their most popular and highest-paid actors — Drake Hogestyn and Deidre Hall — in order to cut costs.

Surprisingly, kicking John and Marlena to the curb didn't hurt the show's ratings. "Days" is now tied for second with "The Bold and the Beautiful" and is the only soap to increase its audience in 2009. (But I think my mom has stopped tuning in. You can't please everyone.)

That leaves only ABC with a full slate of daytime soaps: "All My Children," "One Life to Live," which could be the next casualty, and "General Hospital." And a full slate isn't what it used to be, with local affiliates pressuring the networks for more local time in the mornings and afternoons.

Time and technology aren't being kind to daytime dramas. The stay-at-home moms who once made up the bulk of soap viewers are a shrinking demographic. Add to that increasing competition from cable channels, TiVo, DVDs and soccer practice, and soaps are under more pressure than ever.

The decline in soap viewership doesn't come as much of a surprise. Most daytime dramas are virtually unwatchable, with ludicrous stories and dubious acting. Seriously, how Susan Lucci finally won that Daytime Emmy in 1999 — after 18 previous nominations — is a mystery. I guess the pity vote carried the day.

Still, that awfulness is sometimes a soap's greatest selling point. When I was in college, "Days of Our Lives" had a long storyline in which Marlena was possessed by the devil. This included plenty of "Exorcist"-style demonic growing and levitating-above-the-bed action. You have to admire a soap opera that's willing to go that far over the top. Every day brought some new horror-movie cliché, sanitized just enough for daytime's broadcast standards. Yes, it was a good time to watch TV between classes.

A few years later, "Days" even beat ABC's primetime hit "Lost" to the stranded-on-a-mysterious-island plot. Yet that brings up another reason why daytime soaps are fading. Most primetime dramas now have continuing storylines, which used to be mostly a soap-opera thing.

You no longer need daytime dramas to get your fix of large casts and complex, never-ending, incomprehensible plots.

When the last soap opera's bubble finally bursts, it won't matter. Everything is a soap opera now.

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