In terms of popularity, it is accepted as gospel that daytime soap operas commanded their largest audiences in the go-go 1980's, highlighted by the 30 million odd viewers who tuned into Luke & Laura's now legendary first wedding on General Hospital. Less well known among today's fans is that the true heydey of soaps was the early 1970's when the three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — were the only game around. They could have aired cheaper game shows all day long (in fact, game shows had their own morning and afternoon blocks of programming) but instead broadcast an average of 18 soap operas. Let me repeat that: 18 daytime dramas.
Want to know the Nielsen ratings that a few of today's soaps were averaging in soap-to-soap comparisons during the 1969-1970 season when there were 19 soaps? Days of Our Lives was pulling an 8.8, One Life to Live was pulling in a 6.7, while General Hospital was at an 8.5. Compared to the numbers soaps pull today, those ratings look glorious but as hard as it may seem to believe, all of them were in the middle of the pack.
So what was the number one soap? As the World Turns with a 13.6. For a little perspective, ATWT at one time commanded more viewers than every single show with the exception of CSI, which aired this past Thursday in primetime, currently the most watched night in television. Such was the confidence and profitability of the genre that the three broadcast networks filled the airwaves with soaps. Where does that leave us now? The easy answer is that ABC, CBS, and NBC are trying to stumble and bumble out of the soap opera busines with the same grace and gentility as The Three Stooges in a pie fight.
It didn't and still doesn't have to be that way. If you listened to the recent Daytime Confidential podcast Guiding Light is Canceled, you might have been surprised to discover the unanimous consensus that the main factor which led to GL's axing was not wholly dependent on fan dissatisfaction with the current production model. The biggest factor we cited was story or, to be more precise, the lack of it. By that we meant that if well written, well constructed stories had been in place at GL, many viewers would have likely overlooked or been more forgiving of the huge flaws in GL's new production model and would have allowed more time for those kinks to have been worked out. In other words, don't take the reports at face value that the reason GL lost 18-25% of viewers was because of their horror at the production model alone; had GL actually been telling compelling stories then as they are doing now, a lot of those viewers might have stayed.
Others might not agree, but I subscribe to that point of view. In my book, story is king and a multitude of soapy sins from bad acting (po' Molly Burnett) to janky production design (I'm drowning in brown and beige, All My Children) can be forgiven if the narrative is strong enough. History tells us that without strong, focused storytelling, returning veterans, favorite characters, or big name stars will not a ratings rise guarantee nor rescue of a troubled show make. Bringing back this character or that actress, or a particular nostalgic family is very popular among fans, yet it rarely works out if the underlying story doesn't support their returns, if at all. Even when compelling stories are there, it is no guarantee of ratings success, as One Life to Live could attest for months before its recent gains.
Take the return of Paolo Seganti as Damian Grimaldi on ATWT, a perfect example of mangling a returning favorite. On the one hand, Damian has built-in story as Luke's estranged biological father, Lily's former husband and Holden's (Jon Hensley) greatest rival for Lily's affections. Seganti has blistering heat with the luminous Noelle Beck, has better father-son chemistry now with Van Hansis (Luke) than the two did the first time around and Noah's (Jake Silbermann) determination to give Damian benefit of the doubt is intriguing. Given all of these characters' histories and Damian's Machiavellian machinations, the drama should be natural and free flowing. While all of this is actually playing out on screen to one degree or another, the show decided to overstuff matters with mysterious stalkings, random stabbings, vaguely orchestrated cyber-terrorism, and the Doublemint Twins Zac & Zoe (Nicholas Galbraith, Melinda Sullivan) ostensibly to add intrigue, but it just comes off as busy work.
Busy work also best describes the misguided efforts of The Bold and the Beautiful's ongoing attempts to transform itself into a telenovela/Footballers Wives hybrid, whatever GH does between sweeps with its endless chemistry tests and All My Children's furious tap dancing to find firm post-CGI tornado footing. On the other hand, The Young & the Restless (which I have been checking out) and OLTL are advancing their respective narratives with all deliberate speed. Moreover, few regular viewers can deny that as soon as Guiding Light started telling actual stories, the show morphed from a turgid hot mess to a four alarm inferno even as the CBS fire department personnel were sharpening their axes.
There we have it, kind of the point of this piece: the entire current daytime soap genre summed up in roughly two paragraphs. After September 18, when GL broadcasts its final episode on CBS, the number of daytime soaps on broadcast television will be reduced to seven shows — the seven dwarfs, an unthinkable prospect not that long ago. That is why CBS's removal of GL from its schedule is important to every daytime soap viewer, even those who never saw fictional Springfield, Illinois in their lives.
Consider this: should Guiding Light manage to wind up on another network, be broadcast through another medium or go off the air permanently, the unofficial network death watch immediately begins for the very next soap that will become lowest on the ratings totem pole. In some circles it has already started for ATWT, given its one year renewal, which means another show after ATWT could just as easily fall not too long afterward. Could it be OLTL or AMC? How long does DAYS have left on its last 18 month extension again? What timetable do we have before the seven dwarfs become six, or five or four?
I still have hope for the genre, which will be different much sooner rather than a distant later, from how we know it now. They won't be known as "daytime soaps," at least by any definition that we currently have of them today. In fact, we are seeing the accelerated emergence of Internet soaps, like Life in General and Imaginary Bitches, and I wouldn't be the surprised if there is, or will be, a soap specifically created for Twitter. Unfortunately, there are many fans who want to cling to the idea that daytime soaps should never change, to be broadcast every weekday from 12:30-4PM Eastern Time and they will be clinging to that idea even when the 15th hour of Today and The New Improved Ultra Deluxe $25,000 Pyramid fills up the screen. I reject the very notion that we shouldn't embrace change, because it should be lost on no one at this point that change is here whether we like it or not.
The title of this entry is not a broad insult or attack aimed at the seven soaps that will soon be remaining on the air after Guiding Light leaves CBS's airwaves this fall. What I mean to convey is the diminished nature of the very idea of daytime soaps on broadcast network television as a whole. Should Guiding Light, As the World Turns or another of the remaining soaps that I watch and love end up on a cable network or the Internet, I will follow them. My loyalty is to the shows, not a time slot or, increasingly, a network.