Why Are U.K. Soaps Like EastEnders Thriving, While American Soaps Are Being Flushed Down The Loo?





It's a question we've asked often on the Daytime Confidential iTunes podcast and here on the companion blog. Why are soaps around the world doing so well, yet U.S. soaps have become an endangered species?  BBC America blogger Kevin Wicks helps answer that question and many more in a revealing chat with BBC's Controller of Continuing Drama John Yorke. Wicks spoke to Yorke for the mega popular blog Anglophenia.  Check out a few snippets of the conversation below:

On competition from reality TV:

 

 Unless shows can attract a mass audience reality TV will kill them. We've seen something very similar here in the UK where Dream Team, Brookside, Family Affairs, and Grange Hill have all [been canceled]. 

On the benefit of U.K. soaps airing in primetime:

Our primetime soaps are much more resilient. Partly there are more people available to watch, but also they reach a wider demographic, so at their best they still offer something for everybody. All TV audiences have dropped here from a high of maybe 15 years ago, and some like HeartBeat and The Bill have been lost, but the survivors work well because they're properly funded and — most of the time — are actually pretty good.

On the importance of diversity:

I strongly believe that diversity is a gift to drama and we champion it endlessly. Every new ethnic, religious, or sexual group allows you the possibility of telling old stories in a new way, and viewers do seem to actually love characters irrespective of their backgrounds. The biggest story on British TV last year was a Muslim wedding [on EastEnders], in which the groom was unmasked as gay. I'm very proud of that, but it also demonstrates that we shouldn't be scared of going into new worlds and telling stories in those worlds confidently!

Here's hoping the executives in charge of the four sudsers that will still be on the air after January 2012 hop across the pond to spend a little time shadowing execs like Yorke. It sounds like they could learn an awful lot.  For more of the interview, visit Anglophenia.

Photo credit: BBC 

27 Responses

  1. Avatar of Cyberologist
    Cyberologist

    Interesting reading I myself have asked this same question but I didn’t realize they’ve had so many soaps cancelled too; I don’t think American Execs really want them to survive. Cheaper programming is available..I am not a huge reality TV fan. I just think its too many of them and I got bored.

  2. Avatar of lannes314
    lannes314

    This is great. ABC, you want to reinvent daytime? Then show us something that hasn’t been done before. And if that means focusing beyond straight, white, Christian America, go to it! Interest would grow, the shows would thrive, and maybe, just maybe, more and more viewers would understand that it’s not a gay story or an ethnic story but just another love story, just another family story.

  3. Avatar of harlee490
    harlee490

    :bigsmile: LOL I just came from reading the article right before DC had posted it and it is very interesting article which like you said Jamey our EP’s for the remaining soaps need to take a look and study. Granted we are based on ad revenue unlike in UK and maybe that is part of capitalism here in US. Diversity is a big key, because look how long our soaps took to fully have gay characters on canvas as continuing characters just one example. US advertisers has a youth obession instead of giving a multi-generational market to market to all viewers regardless of age. 12-17 demographic ages need to go to parents for purchasing products. The perfect demographic for purchasing power is 21-54, they have the disposable income like myself.

  4. Avatar of TV Gord
    TV Gord

    Something else to consider is the difference in bottom-line costs. Soap stars in the UK make significantly less than those in America.

    Another thing to consider is that Eastenders, for instance, doesn’t have to concern itself with advertisers. It’s on the BBC, which doesn’t have commercials. It is financed by taxpayers through a television licence fee. As we all know, it’s a VERY different reality in America, where broadcasters have to deliver viewers to advertisers, and they don’t really care what shows are on between the commercials, as long as it pulls in those viewers.

  5. Avatar of jdimera
    jdimera

    u.s. soaps are too conservative and afraid to try new things, and that’s why they are dying. if you look at most the soaps here, there is hardly any racial/religious/sexual diversity. it’s pathetic!

  6. Avatar of fmhall18
    fmhall18

    I think this is a very good and true assessment of the issue. In the past between the late 1960s and early 2000s the ABC soaps, especially the Agnes Nixon soaps, were very modern and contemporary. The ABC soaps talked about issues like racism, interracial dating, women’s rights, abortion, homosexuality, politics, and many other issues. What I think led to the downfall of the ABC soaps is that stopped talking about issues within the American society and they started focusing on only certain characters. I think that the NBC and CBS soaps were always fairly conservative. The only soap that was controversial on NBC was Passions. Passions was a train wreck, but it also dealt with taboo issues like witchcraft, homosexuality, and the Catholic Church. The CBS has always been conservative mainly because most of their soaps were Procter and Gamble soaps. Procter and Gamble soaps never really dealt with social issues until As the World Turns and Guiding Light’s final years on the air. The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful is fairly conservative. So I think the writer’s assessment is correct.

  7. Avatar of goyankees
    goyankees

    First, please let me start off by saying…I love this Country.

    But, with that said….we are a bunch of moronic imbacles.

    Have you ever looked at the TV? Like, REALLY LOOKED at what’s on our TV sets? We all know how Reality Shows have hogged the airwaves for nearly 2 decades. To say MOST of them are ridiculously stupid, is an understatement. But… ‘we’ still watch. (I do include myself in this! I do!)

    Daytime TV – NO, not the Daytime TV we continue to mourn over. The Springers, Maury, Wendy Williams, The TAWK (Side-eye at Leah…) It’s Low Budget, Low Brainwaves TV. I add the Talk in here as it’s not Original. GL/ATWT were stolen away because CBS couldn’t come up with something on their own. How sad is THAT?

    But you want an answer to the United States Daytime Soaps Withering away? We can use SOAPNOT as an example, as it’s part of the Mouse Family (I believe?). Remember when Soapnot was actually GOOD? We learned about the real actors and their lives? They even treated us to DALLAS and ‘Port Charles’?? Then, Fronz decided “oh! Hey, we’ll Stop airing GH every Thursday night and Steal from BRAVO and air…umm, Oh, how bout SOUTHERN BELLES?”

    Even the people we’re supposed to have faith in to keep our soaps on air bail, assuming we have no taste, and would rather watch this garbage.

    To Surmise, its not “us”. It’s the Network Execs total and utter incompetance.

    I take something back. WE are not imbacles. That honor goes to the Slithering, Cheating Snake known as Brian Fronz, head of ABC Daytime.

  8. Avatar of pumpkin
    pumpkin

    I find this interesting. I forget which board it was on that a poster from another country said they are watching ATWTs and didn’t realize it was cancelled here in states. I only post at two board but I honestly forget which one it was on. I found that interesting that the cancelled soaps from us are doing well overseas. (I still am hoping that somebody picks up OLTL–if they get complete rights it can go overseas also) I hate to lose that one show. I just find it has something for everyone.

  9. Avatar of keanna
    keanna

    Great article as always, Jamey!!! I agree totally, the U.K. soaps are willing to go the extra mile with their storylines, reinvent themselves, use their vets and newbies, have interacial couples, and diversity in general. The American soaps are for the most part stuck in yesterday, and I’m afraid that has been their Achilles heel, and eventually their undoing.

  10. Avatar of ConqueringBlue
    ConqueringBlue

    I think the major problem with Daytime soaps here in the US is what was mentioned here:

    “I strongly believe that diversity is a gift to drama and we champion it endlessly. Every new ethnic, religious, or sexual group allows you the possibility of telling old stories in a new way, and viewers do seem to actually love characters irrespective of their backgrounds. The biggest story on British TV last year was a Muslim wedding [on EastEnders], in which the groom was unmasked as gay. I’m very proud of that, but it also demonstrates that we shouldn’t be scared of going into new worlds and telling stories in those worlds confidently!”

    Advertisers are constantly targetting the 18-49 year olds, yet Daytime execs refuse to acknowledge that younger people today have handled so many changes in their lifetime that they can handle all sorts of diversity. So they focus their stories on young, straight, white people, and in return they alienate the older soap fans, who want to see multi-generational storytelling, AND the younger people they claim to want to covet, who want to see people of all races, ethnicities, and sexualities. It’s no wonder they’re bleeding viewers, they’re really not pleasing anyone!

  11. Avatar of ConqueringBlue
    ConqueringBlue

    Oh, and I just want to add that I didn’t mean that younger people don’t want multi-generational storytelling, or that older soap fans don’t want to see stories revolving around people of all races and cultures, just that, by sticking to one set group of people, daytime tv in the US is driving away anyone who doesn’t want to watch stories about that one type of person. If that makes any sense LOL

  12. Avatar of Susan Hunter
    Susan Hunter

    I’m probably older than most of you. I remember the end of Lemay’s Another World and the NBC daytime lineup. I remember Billy and Greta on the Doctors. Julie getting her face burned on Days. The voices in Laura Horton’s head, etc.

    I was a teen in the 80s. I was glued to my set during the Ice Princesses and the Three Prisms and the Salem Strangler. I knew Savannah Wilder before she hooked up with Gene Simmons. I remember the premieres of Texas and Santa Barbara. I remember Tom and Margo’s adventures with Mr. Big and I remember the Dreaming Death.

    I loved every minute of it, ate it up with a spoon, but will be the first to admit that the 80s is where American soaps went wrong.

    All of those shows that started out as stories about scandalous small towns and the families who lived and loved in them, good and bad, turned into big cities with spies and a surprising influx of outrageously wealthy Texas oil men.

    Simple, but relatable, (heightened) dramatic stories of love and romance and conflicted emotions and morality turned into boardrooms and business deals and mustache twirlers trying to destroy the world only to be saved by a hero with perm (all the guys had perms for some reason *wink*) and his beautiful damsel who was always in distress. Soaps had long been about strong women, suddenly they were all in danger and needed rescuing.

    Good story is good story, but on a daytime soap opera what is the better story, the more relatable story?

    Luke and Laura trying to save the world from being frozen?

    Or

    A vindictive Rachel sending her rival baby clothes immediately after she’s lost her baby?

    Which story sets a foundation for the future?

    Eterna?

    Or

    Scheming Julie Olsen distracts David Martin, his baby falls and dies, Susan loses it, shoots him, goes on trial and sets up a rivalry that creates story that lasts for years.

    All I’m saying is that soaps did it best when they kept it simple and dramatic. Trashy small towns. Scheming bad girls, adulterous affairs, tortured lovers, wise old sages to dispense advice, unplanned pregnancies, shotgun weddings and big showy murder trials with big revelations.

    How is that not enjoyable? On what planet do people not want to watch that?

  13. Avatar of J Bernard Jones
    J Bernard Jones

    Economics.
    Differences in cultural tastes.
    New forms of competition for attention and eyebrows.
    Changing market conditions.
    Differences in corporate expectations.

    Things change.

  14. Avatar of gregger
    gregger

    The Soaps in the UK and the Spanish speaking channels rely on more of the old fashioned style of a soap. Tell the fans a story that’s interesting, featuring characters they care about, that relies on good old human emotions. There doesn’t need to be an underworld city, green screen work, or explosions where personnel actually get hurt. Good old fashioned story telling. In this nation look at HBO and Showtime, Six Feet Under was a soap, as was the Tudors, as was Rome, as was the L Word, and as was Queer as Folk. If a show is compelling you don’t need to jump the shark.

    In the twenty some years that I was employed by the US soaps I saw a drastic change in focus. When I started before the OJ trial debacle most of the US Soaps had five to six story lines active at one time. Two to three would be active in an episode the following day you’d have another two or three in that episode. All of the story lines would intersect either through one or more characters being in multiple story lines. It wasn’t the same crappy storyline every day like some Mouse House Soaps and the P&G Soaps fell into. We had loyal fan bases until it just got to the point of boredom due to bad writing, revolving door casting, and stupid special effects.

  15. Avatar of lfad
    lfad

    [quote]Simple, but relatable, (heightened) dramatic stories of love and romance and conflicted emotions and morality turned into boardrooms and business deals and mustache twirlers trying to destroy the world only to be saved by a hero with perm (all the guys had perms for some reason *wink*) and his beautiful damsel who was always in distress. Soaps had long been about strong women, suddenly they were all in danger and needed rescuing.[/quote]

    My mom started tuning out of soaps in the 1980s because of the over-the-top unbelievable BS. Hell, she still rants about Viki going to heaven, Eterna and the Ice Princess storylines. How do you lose a woman like my mom who used to run home after school to watch Edge of Night in the 50s and worked nights so she wouldn’t miss her afternoon stories in the 60s and 70s to the point that she cheered when she heard AMC and OLTL were cancelled?

    There are no soaps currently on in daytime in the US that’s appointment, I gotta drop everything TV (the much praised OLTL included). The execs need to take a hard look at what went wrong and maybe, as was mentioned, look at what storylines work overseas.

  16. Avatar of Dyllan
    Dyllan

    I don’t think you can really compare UK soaps to US soaps. There are differences between culture.

    While I do think diversity is greatly needed in daytime soaps and it would help tremendously, that’s not the key issue that is killing the genre. Passions had diversity and it was canceled. When Y&R was ran by LML, she promoted diversity and the show was still crap. Ugly Betty promoted diversity and the show failed. IMO, the main problem with daytime television is the storylines. No one can relate to them. They are so ridiculous and over-the-top that people just got sick of it. They hire the same writers who tanked another show. They need diversity in the writing and production staff, IMO.

    I think American soaps needs to look more towards the Spanish soaps. I believe culturally America has more in common with them and they have great success.

  17. Avatar of Restless Vixen
    Restless Vixen

    [quote]Simple, but relatable, (heightened) dramatic stories of love and romance and conflicted emotions and morality turned into boardrooms and business deals and mustache twirlers trying to destroy the world only to be saved by a hero with perm (all the guys had perms for some reason *wink*) and his beautiful damsel who was always in distress. Soaps had long been about strong women, suddenly they were all in danger and needed rescuing.[/quote]

    [quote]Good story is good story, but on a daytime soap opera what is the better story, the more relatable story?[/quote]

    [quote]All I’m saying is that soaps did it best when they kept it simple and dramatic.[/quote]

    Spot on Susan Hunter! The best stories on US daytime soaps are often the simplest ones. And that’s what they do in the UK – Eastenders and Coronation Street each have a relatively simple premise that spans different demographics. It’s the characters on those shows that keep things interesting, not fantastical storytelling. Daytime dramas did themselve a big disservice when they tried to mimic film genres: namely science fiction (freezing the town, clones, a bunch of crazy DiMera mess on Days), crime procedurals (how many DNA mishaps have happened on Y&R? In the last 6 years especially), and crime or espionage mystery/thrillers. Maybe they could do that mess when they had bigger budgets, but I’ve never thought those gimmicks sold nearly as well as the more classic plots and characters.

  18. Avatar of thepariah
    thepariah

    The UK and Australian soaps are definitely better. They’re more realistic, move more quickly and shoot exteriors as well as interiors.

    The remaining US soaps should snatch up some of the writers from overseas to bring their soaps into the 21st century!

  19. Avatar of sodsince16
    sodsince16

    I started watching Eastenders when it came on PBS in early 1990′s. At the time the story was slow moving and it was difficult to translate constantly while trying to keep up with the story.

    Then came..

    The iconic episode of Den and Angie’s divorce. Just two actors on one small set talking about their relationship for a half hour. It was watched by 30 million people and it began a tradition of UK soaps having a special episode for Christmas.

    Today it’s easy to catch up on net. The BBC has an Eastenders channel on Youtube. I recommend any of the Eastenders Revealed episodes that cover recent stories. They are really entertaining and (again) could be repeated here in the US. I dare anyone to watch the final scene of the 4/15/11 episode and not get hooked – the best baby switch ever!

    This year in addition to Eastenders, I’ve started following Emmerdale which I think Jamey would love. It’s filled with stories about class differences as well as young love and a few supercouples. The classic soap bitches have been featured: Linda Thornton (OLTL), Amanda Donahoe (LA Law), and Stephanie Powers. It reminds me of Falcon Crest and it is really epic for a soap.

  20. Avatar of Luke
    Luke

    I love many of the points made here. I wish I were more familiar with soaps from overseas so I could contribute something meaningful about them.

    As far as the issue with our soaps, I have to agree that the lack in diversifying on and off screen and just the move to shock and awe type of writing (that includes the stupid sweeps stunts and laying the drama on too thick) is what killed the drama. Yes, the other things such as OJ, the further fracturing of television and economics played big parts. But I always equated daytime soaps to sports teams. When reality says the money isn’t there, you find ways to compensate in other areas. Frons and Co. refused to do so and that’s why this situation hurts more than anything. There was no real effort to improve in the areas they could have and that would have been beneficial

    Susan Hunter, I agree to a certain extent that in some respects, it would have served the show runners best to keep things simple. Personally, I find nothing wrong with doing outrageous story-lines. I don’t think you need to do realistic based stories all the time. The problem was never really the stories, but the fact that characters were constantly written out of character to facilitate the stories. I don’t mind someone trying to freeze the world, as long as someone doesn’t need to become a criminal overnight or made into an idiot for it to happen. And it doesn’t always have to be a relatable situation. But it can merely be relatable responses. I can’t say I know someone personally whose been murdered. But we can all certainly relate to feeling of a devastating lost. And those connections were lost in the midst of the next great sweeps stunt.

  21. Avatar of Restless Vixen
    Restless Vixen

    I hear you Luke. Sometimes the outrageous storylines can be entertaining, but I think they are profoundly overused now. They use to be used with short term villains or other characters while the bread and butter of a show was the more relatable stories Susan Hunter is referring to. For some reason, like you mention, showrunners use the outrageous stories all the time (especially during Sweeps) and bend the characters around these stories with actions/reactions that just don’t make sense. Plot has become more important that characters, and that’s just goes against, IMO, what make serial drama unique v/s more episodic television. One of the bonuses of having character history is building on that character’s past versus retconning a character beyond recognition to cobble together some rating’s grab du jour.

  22. Avatar of sodsince16
    sodsince16

    I actually have two other thoughts on the difference between UK and US soaps.

    1. Guns – US audiences may forget that guns are rare in other civilized countries. So, the stories have to be more inventive because everyone in town doesn’t own (or know how to shoot) a gun. Character’s have died through asphyxiation, falls from great heights, and one evil woman died when she fell backward onto a rake which pierced her throat.

    2. The relationships are more sophisticated – racial issues are rarely discussed between characters, however they do discuss sex, money and religion in ways that are rarely used in daytime.

Leave a Reply