Rinse, Wash, Revive: Are soap operas poised for a comeback?

Soap fans rejoice! After years of declining ratings and cancellations, the remaining four daytime soap operas seem to have found steady ground. All four—CBS’s “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” ABC’s “General Hospital,” and NBC’s “Days of our Lives”—have increased their ratings from year to year. Two of the four, “Days of our Lives” and “General Hospital,” had the bleakest of futures ahead of them this time two to three years ago, with both networks ha dropping soap operas from their lineups for a number of years.

In less than a decade, NBC dropped “Another World” (1999), “Sunset Beach” (2000), and “Passions” (2006), among others. ABC cancelled “Port Charles” (2003) and, in 2011, infamously cancelled two flagship shows: “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” on the same day! CBS cancelled fewer shows in the last decade, but they were two of the longest running shows in television history: “The Guiding Light” (2009), and “As the World Turns” (2010).

There’s nothing wrong with cancelling a soap opera; however, what made these cancellations so frustrating for fans was a lack of viable replacements. Just about all the replacements on all the networks were talk shows and game shows. Again, this is nothing new, but in the previous decades, there was room for soap operas, talk shows, court shows, and game shows. There were a slew of daytime soaps cancelled in the 1980’s, but others were created: “The Bold and the Beautiful” (1987), “Santa Barbara” (1984-1993), “Loving” (1983-1995), and “Generations” (1989-1991), just to name a few.

When ratings for all soaps began to steeply decline in the mid-1990s, executives, writers, and producers became frantic. They threw long-time veterans to the wind and brought on young and beautiful actors and actresses who had no ties to characters currently on the canvas. Whatever the reason for the drop (the OJ Simpson trial, women becoming more active in the workforce, additional channels on cable and network, the expansion of the Internet, too many new unimportant characters, etc.), the changes did not help attract new viewers. Ratings for soaps kept dropping until they began leaving the air. The execs at CBS, ABC, and NBC all came up with the same excuse—reason—for cancelling these shows: they’re too expensive, people don’t want to watch them, and talk shows and reality shows are more popular.

So what has people tuning in again? There’s a good amount of speculation, but I believe soaps have been going back to their roots: taking chances with bold storylines, finding a way to incorporate veteran and new characters, and tying new characters into the families of veteran characters; and, especially important, the writers are trying to bring back a sense of humor, intellect, passion, and love. That hasn’t been around for quite some time.

For soap fans it’s about inter-generational storytelling. It’s one of the places on TV where women in their 50’s and beyond can still carry a storyline, much like Jeanne Cooper, who was a front-burner character on “The Young and the Restless” for forty years. Catherine Chancellor was definitely one of the reasons why that show has been at the top for so long (it’s been the number one soap opera since 1988). The great thing about “The Young and the Restless” is that even when the numbers began to fall, they managed to keep the focus on many of their veteran cast members. Could it be the reason for “General Hospital’s” rise in ratings? In the last two years, characters that have not been seen in the fictional town of Port Charles for twenty years have returned with riveting storylines of their own. As of late, the Quartermaines, once one of the core families of the show, have been given more airtime (but still not enough).

New characters must come on. That’s the only way to keep a soap opera going. What soap writers, producers, and executives need to remember is:

1.) Soap viewers are intelligent; they always have been. As long as there are strong characters and compelling storylines, viewers will tune in. Will there ever be a time when thirty million people watch a soap (like they did when Luke and Laura married on “General Hospital” in 1981)? Probably not. However, a decline in viewership should not mean that writers then dumb down characters, or producers feel obliged to cheapen the look and feel of a show. It will not keep older viewers watching, and it surely will not attract new viewers.

2.) We value our veteran entertainers. Even those of us who weren’t around to witness the height of Luke and Laura (“General Hospital”), Nikki and Victor (“The Young and the Restless,” and Erica and all of her husbands (“All My Children”), know who these people are. You need them to ground your show. They can also teach up and coming actors and actresses a few things. It’s not that the younger set isn’t talented, they just need help honing in their skills, just like the veterans needed help when they were in the same position. There should be a passing of the torch from one generation to the next on a soap opera, but it needs to be handled carefully.

Susan Lucci played Erica Kane on One Life to Live(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Susan Lucci played Erica Kane on One Life to Live (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

3.) Read Douglass Marland’s How Not To Wreck A Show. It should be a mantra that the remaining four TV soaps live by if they want to stick around for a few more years. If ratings continue to rise, there may be hope that a new soap opera could end up on network television, the first time since 1999’s “Passions.”

Thanks for reading and feel free to share your opinions!