I'm sure Bravo's Andy Cohen will catch a lot of shit from soap fans and pundits for stating the obvious — reality series like his Real Housewives franchise have replaced soap operas for a lot of people. In a segment on CBS This Morning promoting his new book The Andy Cohen Diaries, the diehard Susan Lucci stan was asked why his franchise was so successful. He responded:
"Well, I think the Housewives have replaced the modern soap opera, in a weird way, for a lot of people. You know, soap operas, scripted soap operas, there's only a couple on the air now and truth is stranger than fiction."
While I disagree with Cohen calling reality shows "truth"—they're all heavily scripted—I get where he is coming from. Anyone who read Cohen's first tome, Most Talkative: Stories From The Front Lines of Pop Culture, knows how much the guy loved his suds growing up. He was obsessed with All My Children and Lucci, so it would be silly for soap lovers to hate on him for being, well, real.
Cohen revealed in the pages of his former book how the battles of Erica Kane and her myriad of female rivals did in fact inspire him to help create a factory of docusoaps about glitzy housewives flipping tables and snatching weaves. And you know what? Good for him!
For 15 years, soap experts have been blaming reality shows for the decline of scripted soaps. I'm sorry, but I say lets put the blame where it actually belongs — on executive producers, writers and network executives who simply forgot daytime soap operas are supposed to provide escapism.
It isn't Cohen's fault, or that of Ryan Seacrest, that they managed to benchmark from the greats like Agnes Nixon and the late Bill Bell, while the people who inherited the daytime programs created by those soap legends have done everything they could to move away from their legacies.
On any given episode of The Real Housewives of Wherever, millions of obsessed, demographically-friendly viewers can live vicariously through the shamefully decadent lives of cat-fighting, botoxed glamazons. We used to have Lisa Miller (Eileen Fulton), Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), Jill Foster Abbott (Jess Walton) and Nikki Newman (Melody Thomas Scott) for that.
Today, AMC's Erica and As The World Turns' Lisa are up in Soap Heaven with their pals Viki (Erika Slezak) and Dorian (Robin Strasser) from One Life to Live. Meanwhile, Jill Foster Abbott, the man-hungry temptress who married her way into not one, but two multi-million dollar fortunes—while dripping in enough diamonds to impress Teresa Guidice—is helping protest against developers who want to shut down a coffee shop on The Young and the Restless. As for her frenemy Nikki Newman, well she's replaced chinchilla coats and diamonds with navy blue sweater sets from Kohl's.
I'm not saying soaps have forgotten themselves, simply because they are less glamorous and glitzy, but it is a big deal. Especially for a show like Y&R, where the Bells notoriously spared no expense in painting a beautiful, televised ambiance for the wanton fictional residents of Genoa City, Wisconsin.
Former Y&R producer and Bill Bell heir, Ed Scott would have never let Nikki be caught dead in the clothes she currently wears on the #1 soap in daytime. He'd also make damn sure every actress on that set combed her hair daily — whether they wanted to or not.
When you watch a Real Housewives installment, or decide to spend an hour of your life keeping up with any of the Kardashians, you get to partake in real estate and bling porn. Sure, I roll my eyes when Kim bemoans having to live at her mom's Calabasas estate, while her own mansion is completed (the horrors), but I still watch every chance I get.
Kim Kardashian is the new Erica Kane. America is obsessed with her every romance, product and scandal. I'm not saying it's right, but it is what it is. We used to watch Erica leave Pine Valley for intriguing modeling assignments in New York or Center City. Now we tune in to watch Kim marry her latest husband in a garishly decadent manner.
Instead of soap opera journalists, actors and diehard fans getting mad at reality TV, how about we spend a little time figuring out why these docusoaps are so successful? Many creators of serialized reality shows have roots in daytime soaps. The late Mary-Ellis Bunim was executive producer for Search For Tomorrow, As The World Turns, Loving and Santa Barbara before going on to co-create the juggernaut Real World/Road Rules franchise for MTV. Beloved former General Hospital showrunner Wendy Riche helped develop Laguna Beach, which gave birth to The Hills.
One of reality TV's most prolific showrunners, Dave Rupel (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Orange County, Jersey Belle) wrote scripts for Guiding Light and General Hospital. Tom Casiello, a former writer on such soaps as Another World, Days of Our Lives, As The World Turns and The Young and the Restless, translated his skill-set for scripting over-the-top melodrama into a lengthy stint working for the WWE. Ex-soap journalist Jonathan Reiner went on to produce for Project Runway, The Bachelorette, Gene Simmons' Family Jewels and more.
There's a reason so many millennial women are watching these programs. Reality television, specifically serialized docusoaps, are providing female viewers with the same kind of water cooler moments daytime soaps served up five-days-a-week for decades.
I'm not saying this doesn't happen any more on the four remaining daytime soaps. General Hospital offers up several ballsy dames (Nancy Lee Grahn, Laura Wright, Maura West, Finola Hughes, Vinessa Antoine, Michelle Stafford) who could give any reality star a run for her table flip. The Bold and the Beautiful is still every bit the glamorous, high-fashion, TV fairytale it was when Bell Sr. was alive.
But when was the last time a fan wanted to actually live vicariously through the lives of one of Genoa City's elite on Y&R, once the gold standard for daytime glitz and intrigue? In recent years, Nikki, Jill and Co. have been watered and/or dressed down so much they resemble someone you'd see shopping next to you at the mall, as opposed to the iconic, aspirational nail tech-turned-trophy wife, or stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold who made a billionaire put a ring on it half a dozen times.
TPTB at NBC's Days of Our Lives continue to slash the soap's budget so drastically, that mansion, corporation and penthouse sets on the 49-year-old serial now resemble the Evans family home on Good Times. Is it any wonder Eileen Davidson and Lisa Rinna signed on to be Real Housewives? If you can't beat 'em, benchmark from them.