Death of the Soaps

This is not the topic I’d planned on posting next. In fact, I tend not to let most people know my guilty secret: I love my soaps. One of my first memories of my mom is being in the cool basement with her as she was ironing, watching General Hospital. It was companionable, though I couldn’t understand most of it. That was not a bad thing–I remember trying to sort it out, and asking my mom questions like, “Why did he say that?” “Why did she do that?” I had two younger brothers and really enjoyed the chance to be one-on-one with my mom, and to listen as she let me in on what made people tick.

I’m saddened by this week’s news that ABC is canceling both All My Children and One Life to Live, though I don’t watch them. And I’m increasingly annoyed by the coverage it’s gotten in the press. The phrase they use over and over is “a dying genre”. It actually is not a dying genre. It’s a genre that’s being killed off by corporate decision-makers. It is not just the soaps–it’s scripted television that is being killed off. And that’s why I decided to blog about it.

It’s old news that reality-based television is much cheaper to produce than carefully-crafted dramas and comedies.  Audiences are splintering with all of the new possibilities for viewing and spending time in general, and that’s making it look like people aren’t watching the soaps anymore. But millions of faithful viewers were still watching those shows. Millions more watch those shows from time-to-time, if not faithfully. It’s not that there isn’t an audience for them anymore, much as the commentators are talking about changing lifestyles. It’s about the $$.

If you care about writing and writers, you should care about this at least a little. The more scripted television gets pushed off the air by the bean-counters, the less likely it is for the younger generation to be exposed to scripted television. It’s already happening–the TV show I hear kids talking about at the library is Jersey Shore. You may feel there isn’t a huge difference between a scripted soap and Jersey Shore, but I think story shaped by writing instead of by editing the real-life behavior of people is very different. Kids are always sorting out what is real and what is not, and the highly-edited reality shows are not going to give them a true picture in any way. They also aren’t developing an attention span for more complex shows, and their tastes are being shaped accordingly. The market for all scripted television will continue to shrink.

Recently I caught a little bit of that classic soap, Ryan’s Hope. Mary Ryan’s future husband, reporter Jack Fenelli, has brought a Mother’s Day present to his future mother-in-law. It’s an old book of Irish history he found in a used bookstore. He’s reading it aloud gleefully, with its description of the childish, loud Irish men because he finds it very like his future father-in-law, Johnny Ryan. He doesn’t notice what the audience sees, which is the Ryan family becoming increasingly furious, until the usually gentle-spoken Maeve shouts at him to stop and then lets him have it with a quick synopsis of the real Irish history. A great scene.

But the next one is even better, when Johnny Ryan arrives home and finds everyone in a fuss. His initial reaction is to go out and punch Jack, but instead he gets a grip on himself and goes out and puts his arm around Jack’s shoulder. Jack smiles cautiously, and Johnny smiles too and says that because his daughter loves Jack, “Whenever I see you, I will smile and say hello, Jack, and how are you, Jack? And I won’t mean it.  I will shake your hand, and ask you how your work is going.  And I won’t mean it.  I’ll call you boyo and I will put my arm around your shoulders. And you will know, and I will know, that I don’t mean it.”

That is just my memory of the scene, so I can’t do it justice, but it is a beautifully composed set of scenes, written with thoughtfulness and psychological depth. There continue to be some very fine writers working on the soaps, and some of them will now be out of work, along with the ones from the soaps that have also gone. The one I think of as MY soap, Y&R, continues, as I hope it will for a long time. Most of you reading this probably don’t have any respect for soaps and it doesn’t bother you that they’re being pushed off of television. But if you love writing, you should care. And maybe even speak up.

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1 Response to Death of the Soaps

  1. Janice E. Bojda says:

    I’m sad to hear it. I began my love of soaps at my mom’s side, too, with General Hospital, All My Children and One Life to Live being the core of my young viewing. By the time I was seven I was a Dark Shadows addict and was a fan until that was cancelled.

    I went to college at a time when many a college classmate raced home to the dorms for lunch to catch a favorite soap. My undergrad days were at the height of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura days and all the ABC soaps were quite popular.

    Yes, scripted television is in danger and it is a shame. Soaps have long been a training ground for many young actors and actresses in addition to providing work for writers. Like a good novel, a well written drama or comedy can provide the same satisfaction and understanding of the human condition.

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