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In the Wake of ABC Soap Opera Cancellation, Is the Death of Soap Opera an Inevitability?

Yesterday, ABC Daytime made the announcement that they were ending two of their three long-running soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live, in favor of a cooking show and a "lifestyle transformation" show most people will be surprised to see last beyond a couple of years. Meanwhile, AMC and OLTL were a part of the daytime line-up for for more than 40 years each.

Don't get me wrong: it's not lost on soap opera fans or people in the soap opera industry that these shows drew a fraction of the audience they once did. When I put together the book The Survival of Soap Opera with UC-Berkeley professor Abigail De Kosnik and Miami University professor C. Lee Harrington, we were unfortunately all too aware of the declining state of what was once considered the stable revenue generator of the broadcast television model: the consistently popular daytime staples that helped fund primetime experimentation.

So how did we get from an era with more than a dozen popular and profitable soaps to April 14, 2011, the day that ABC announced the cancellation of two of the most heralded soaps in history, the two programs on the air created by soaps genius Agnes Nixon, just on the heels of the back-to-back cancellation of Guiding Light and As the World Turns, the two shows created by soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips?

If you were to ask many people in the soap opera industry, you get the list that many have cited in writing several times in the past: women went to work; cable offered a proliferation of viewing choices; the Internet and video games and the VCR and the DVD player and the DVR and so many other inventions offered all sorts of new ways to entertain one's self with media; or the really particular criticism that O.J. Simpson did it, because soap opera ratings fell in the mid-1990s when they were preempted by O.J.'s trial, never to recover.

Of course, there's no debating that's somewhat true. On the other hand, ratings for all broadcast television fell from what they once were. Soap opera ratings have consistently declined since the 1970s, some of which is just inevitable due to societal changes and changes in media consumption in general. The decline for soap opera ratings, though, has been so much more severe than other genres. And, with the DVR and online video and so many other facets to tell stories through, one has to wonder why the soap opera can't thrive by finding a way to escape from daytime altogether...

But, beyond all the external reasons we can point to that make the soap opera decline sound like the natural progression of television, I can't help but feel that some degree of the blame that soap operas are going off the air come from the decision that the television industry has made that soap operas are a genre of the past.

From CBS head Les Moonves saying that "their day is over" and "only the special soaps will survive" to ABC's decision to pull the plug on two soaps in one day to NBC perpetually keeping its one remaining daytime serial drama, Days of Our Lives, on the fence, it seems that decision-makers decided some time ago that they are just riding out the last bit of life in the genre (other than whatever the "special soaps" are.

And, despite the fact that there are many hard-working people on the network side and the production/creative side who believe and are passionate about soaps, it's clear that this logic of inevitability has reverberated throughout the industry, to the point that all have accepted this mentality that the way things are is the way they shall be. That should be evident, for instance, when Christopher Goutman at As the World Turns said that he believed fans just didn't have the appetite to watch daytime serialized drama any longer. After all, when the head of a show believes no one wants to watch his show, is there any way he's going to produce compelling content? (More on that here.) Yesterday, fans got notice that the story worlds of Pine Valley and Llanview are nearing an end. As opposed to the world of comic books, or pro wrestling, or sports franchises—where different media formats come and go, but the core narrative and the characters and the backstory lives on—soap operas are nothing without their network TV slot. With the network TV time goes the whole narrative. Decades of creative development. Thousands of characters. Lost and locked away from further storytelling.

Many may say it's because the fans abandoned the genre. The story you often hear from fans is that it's because the shows lost their way and their interest. As soaps tried to battle over the dwindling daytime audience as if "soap opera fans" were all fans of the genre more than fans of the show, little thought was put into a sustained effort to bring lapsed fans back. Sure, there were gimmicks and character returns and the like designed to try and bring some fans back into the fold, but all were quick stop-gap measures to bring ratings up next month rather than a sustained long-term plan to build the brand of All My Children or One Life to Live back up. And how could you program looking at one of these shows as a brand, when they are renewed only a year at a time and pressured to bring ratings up immediately, focusing on quick stunts and gimmicks rather than a plan to lure fans back into the fold, make them feel confident about the long-term direction and quality of a show, and start to recruit others back as well?

In the end, soap fans feel as jaded as the industry folks. Some shows change direction so often that they often felt burned tuning back in, lest everything fall apart again. And, as you see show after show go off the air, many fans become increasingly willing to part ways with their show on their own terms, rather than watch their favorite show gasping for their last breaths. And people are especially unwilling to invest in a new show once "their story" goes off the air, lest they have to go through that again, in a genre where the investment is supposed to be in constantly delayed gratification

The sad thing is that it seems the media, the industry, and fans alike have decided that this point that the cancellation of the four shows that remain on the air (The Young and the Restless; The Bold and the Beautiful; Days of Our Lives; and General Hospital) is inevitable, and of course that will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too few are talking about collaborative strategies for all who care about soaps—fans, industry professionals, advertisers, etc.—to come up with a collaborative plan to move beyond a narrow focus on young adult women and create new models targeted at the Boomer audiences who watch these shows. Too few are talking about ways to give these shows the chance to make a five-year plan rather than a five-month plan. Too few are talking about ways to value the multigenerational audience model which helped soaps survive, where these shows were passed down from grandmothers and mothers to daughters and granddaughters. Too few are talking about the fathers and sons who also configure into the soap opera model, as well. Too few are talking about potential future lives for soaps on cable. And too few are talking about the fact that, when soap operas were at their peak, they were live, with sets that looked more like plays than like a primetime television show. What would happen if one of these shows moved to a shoestring production budget, or scaled back the number of days a week they aired or the length of an episode instead of getting cancelled?

One thing is clear: if the television ecosystem (advertisers, networks, and producers alike) keep doing what they are doing in how they support the four shows that remain, it does seem likely that the cutting will continue. Would any of the strategies above save these four shows? There's no guarantee. But it's a pretty sure bet that, if everyone who produces soaps have accepted the genre is on its way out, it's going to be. And, in the process, we will all lose a uniquely U.S. storytelling creation that cannot be replicated in primetime complex drama, in the telenovela model, or elsewhere...

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communciations, a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Ford was previously the MIT Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.