Soap Operas: All Washed Up?

Article excerpt

Derided for melodrama and outlandish plots, daytime soap operas have dwindled. But their influence and offspring are turning up in prime time.

Soap operas, that staple of the daytime television schedule, have taken it on the chin lately. Two titans of the genre - "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," ended impressive runs in the past year. "World," which went dark Sept. 17, wrapped 54 years of fictional history for the folks of Oakdale, Ill. And "Light," which began as a radio show in the 1930s, spanned nearly three-quarters of a century by the time it was dropped a year ago. These departures leave only six daytime "soaps" on the three broadcast TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), down from nearly two dozen at the height of demand for the daily serials.

This pullback has led to speculation that the long-running format, often derided for its reliance on outrageous plot twists, too many evil twins, and relentless gossiping, may have run its natural course. The daily, quick serialized story, born and sponsored on radio by soap companies primarily to sell laundry products to housewives at home during the day, has evolved in lock step with the changing lives of that target female audience, says sociologist Lee Harrington from Miami University. "Serialized storytelling has been around for thousands of years but this particular, endless world of people, who could almost be your real neighbors they feel so temporal and all present, is disappearing," she says, as women have moved into the workplace and out of the home during the day.

The handwriting began appearing on the wall as prime-time storytellers began to adapt the techniques of the daily soap to weekly evening dramas, which were predominantly episodic and plot- driven, says media expert Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. Seminal shows from "Hill Street Blues" through "The Sopranos" owe a debt to the character-heavy, serialized storytelling techniques of the soap opera genre, he adds.

"The daytime soaps really gave birth to the great narrative elements we now see in the highly developed prime-time dramas," he points out.

These prime-time shows have incorporated the focus on character and emotion that endeared the soap operas to women, says Villanova University's Susan Mackey-Kallis. But, she adds, just as women's interests have expanded beyond the home to incorporate careers and public lives, "their taste in entertainment has expanded to include more interweaving of character with traditional plot-driven stories."

Longtime fan and co-editor of the upcoming book "The Survival of Soap Opera," Sam Ford bridles at the suggestion that soap operas are losing their appeal. He points out that even today, the daily soaps still draw weekly audience totals that compare with top-rated weekly shows such as "American Idol." As for artistry, he points out that "World" aired live until 1975 (Walter Cronkite cut into the broadcast the day John F. Kennedy was shot).

"This was a form of minitheater," Mr. Ford says, noting that a number of prominent actors got their starts on soaps, including James Earl Jones, Meg Ryan, Martin Sheen, and Dana Delaney. But as soaps have scrambled to remain relevant in the face of increasing competition from the Internet and cable, he acknowledges many have lost their way creatively, "focusing on preposterous plots and extravagant location shooting. …