Soap operas: All washed up?

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

Cast of the long-running ‘Days of Our Lives’ includes (from left) Nadia Bjorlin, Arianne Zucker, James Scott, and Joseph Mascoto. The show is NBC’s last remaining soap opera.

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."

While low ratings led to the cancellation of "World" on CBS, which will fill the hour slot with a new talk show, the genre still has a place on the schedule. Just after the announcement, CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler told reporters in January, "We're looking at daytime through a whole new prism. We are looking at it perhaps as it once was, which was a pretty diverse day … where you had talk, you had soap, you had game."

And while NBC – which has only a single remaining soap opera, "Days of Our Lives" – cut the soap's budget in half two years ago, the team behind the show says it has ridden the reversal back to its creative roots. An episode which previously cost some $300,000 to produce now comes in for half that amount through cost-cutting measures. No more exotic locales, couture clothing, and extravagant set decorations, says Greg Meng, executive in charge of production for "Days of Our Lives." "We've gone back to delivering a good story, well told, with compelling characters without all those extras," he adds.

The competition helping to marginalize the broadcast TV soaps may also be an important part of the genre's future, says Marti Resteghini, vice president of network programming for Internet outlet KoldCast TV. "We're seeing a big influx of former soap actors and production people looking for new outlets," she says, pointing to such KoldCast projects as "Desire and Deceit," from former soap actor Dick DeCoit, and a teen soap, "Miss Behave." [Editor's note: The original version misstated the names of the programs.]

Susan Bernhardt's 18-year-old daughter, Jillian, who stars in the teen show, also worked on "Days of Our Lives." When Ms. Bernhardt began work on the first script more than two years ago, she says Web soaps were clocking in at around two minutes per episode. But now, she says, the demand is for episodes up to 10 minutes long. "It's funny," she says with a laugh, "because when the soaps began on radio all those years ago, the episodes were ­really short, too. So it's funny how things come full circle."

An agent who also represents actors, Bernhardt says she sees more and more performers from the daytime world looking to write, produce, and perform in the online arena. "They just see what's coming and they want to be part of it," she adds.

Mr. DeCoit, whose new police show, "Crime and Consequences," will soon join "Deceit and Desire," says that while there is little money in the online projects at the moment, the possibility of the kind of endless worlds so unique to the daytime soap opera is part of the attraction of the Internet.

"Anything is possible," he says. "It's all just beginning to emerge."

And in a final piece of technological and creative symmetry, adds Bernhardt, the upstart Web soaps have something else in common with their predecessors – branded entertainment sponsors. "Misbehave" is brimming with product placement, from Lulu, which provides the wardrobe and shoes, to makeup and hair products. "That's how the first soaps were launched, so it's just fitting that this next generation follows the same mold."

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