“Derided by critics and disdained by social commentators from the 1930s to the 1990s, the soap opera is nevertheless the most effective and enduring broadcast advertising vehicle ever devised. It is also the most popular genre of television drama in the world today and probably in the history of world broadcasting: no other form of television fiction has attracted more viewers in more countries over a longer period of time.” –Robert Allen, Museum of Broadcast Communications
It has become painfully clear: the American soap opera is going the way of the dinosaur- dying a slow, painful, and to some, mysterious death. In 2002, there were eleven American daytime “soap operas” on the air and now, less than ten years later, only four “soaps” remain. What is happening to this “effective and enduring” medium? If, as Allen states above, “no other form of television fiction has attracted more viewers,” why is it disappearing from our televisions?
I invite you to join me in my attempt to try and tackle what is no doubt a multi-layered and complex issue. From the obvious to the ridiculous to what may seem outright mad reasoning, I think you will find here a number of ideas in this series of essays of which you will be able to relate. Perhaps there will even be something to give you an “ah-ha” moment. I am certain some of you will think my ideas are super obvious, and I apologize to those of you who feel perhaps I have wasted your time. Thank you for reading and commenting all the same- I am a fan of spirited (but polite) conversation, so feel free to share even if you disagree. It is the heart of the matter which counts, something that often takes more than one person to discover in full. On a certain level, these essays exist for those of us who either made our living in this now disappearing medium, or those that once loved and lost it as a fan. If you fit into either of these categories, welcome!
My investment in understanding the answer to the question, “what happened to the soap opera?” is both personal and professional. As some of you in the TV viewing public might be aware, over the last twenty-three years I worked as a full time contract player on two soaps, As the World Turns and All My Children. To the audience of All My Children, I was (and probably forever will be) “Dixie,” a clueless romantic who went on to fall in love with the town’s bad boy/local hero “Tad.” I am very proud my contribution to “Tad and Dixie” helped my co-star Michael E. Knight and me to make the list as one of the top soap opera “super couples” of all time. (Thanks Entertainment Weekly.com!)
However, All My Children was more than just a job to me. It was my home during some of the worst years of my life. I was a pretty stressed out teen- my father abandoned my family when I was twelve and five years later my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Making a living by pretending to be someone else provided an important escape for me at the time. Simultaneously, it allowed me to channel the enormity of my feelings onto a format that lauded melodrama, and my feelings were pretty darn humongous. As a result, I ended up working on All My Children over twelve years, winning a daytime Emmy only two years after I began the show. I left AMC in 2002 with the idea of going to college but was quickly lured back to play the role of bitchy businesswoman Rosanna Cabot on As the World Turns, culminating in a second Emmy- a proud moment for me. Approximately seventeen years of employment gave me a fairly solid base financially (economy notwithstanding) and the ritual of meaningful work served to comfort me emotionally. Long story short: I have spent a lot of time working to understand the medium of daytime soap operas.
I knew I was not alone in my need for the unique combination of consistency and fantasy soaps could provide. For years I was daily joined by millions of viewers who embraced my characters make-believe life: her romances and family drama (with touches of adventure on the side) were fodder for conversations around the water cooler, campus and the living room. The soap opera story structure was (and still is) a potent one: in 1995 the ratings for All My Children floated around 7.5, each point in that number representing 1% of the total number of television viewers for the year. In 1995, there were approximately 100 million TV viewers for both daytime and nighttime television, so for the mathematically disinclined (of which I am one) this means in 1995, All My Children (which had already been running for over thirty years) had an audience of approximately 7.5 million. That’s a lot of people, even in today’s world of 115.9 million television viewers. So what happened?
Part One: NEILSON.
The decline of the Neilson ratings number for American soap operas usually tops the list of reasons as to why they are disappearing and for good reason. According to the Washington Post, in 2005, “General Hospital averaged 3.4 million viewers, less than a third of the 11.8 million who typically tuned in during the year of the Luke and Laura wedding (a popular event marking a record ratings high in 1981.) The Young and the Restless saw its ratings share drop from 10.3 million during the 1991-92 season to 5.3 million in 2005, while All My Children tumbled from 8.2 million to 3.1 million during the same period, according to Nielsen. Today, the Young and the Restless is earning a 3.4 share of the viewing audience, a record low. That said- in the Neilson equation (which considers the overall number of viewers) they still pull 4.5 million viewers.
Unfortunately that number is not high enough for the networks or their advertisers. They want to bring back “the good ol’ days.” I can’t tell you how many times in my daytime years I heard an executive reference the “Luke and Laura” phenomenon and how their latest new idea was going to bring back the magic “eleven million.” It was almost a chant, a mantra formulated to elevate those who signed the check. Now I consider myself a practical woman. I am aware I must consider this soap opera dilemma from the point of view of what might be called in economics class a “business conundrum.” Certainly a company must grow and expand or the shareholders question its value and their investment in the aforementioned business. This is why there are board meetings and charts and graphs and sales pitches- all to hold the interest of the original investor, aka the person who holds the purse strings. Once upon a time, this investor could be counted on to employ within themselves a certain amount of flexibility and patience with their wavering product. A compelling argument might’ve even been, “For goodness sake, even plants take a certain amount of time to grow!” But times have changed, and oh boy have they.
The sad fact is, no one seems to want to ride out tough times anymore, which leaves us in a tough corporate environment- an environment that cannot call on loyalty or even quality as a factor used to convince shareholders or investors to stay put. To illustrate: there are some in the business sector who deride the government bailout of the most American of businesses- the auto industry. This is, in my opinion, a painful example of the current business ethos. A certain sector (I’m not saying ALL, mind you) of the business class has somehow lost its connection to our shared humanity. Greed and “slash-and-burn” tactics are rewarded while the very foundation of a business (or town) is left to rot and ruin. I’m not saying life is easy and if we all just hugged each other at the end of the day everyone would have enough to eat. However it seems no one wants to hear we cannot have what we once did, that the past is in the past and we must look at who we are now to make positive choices about how to proceed- how, in my opinion, adults deal with life. Conversely, many of the corporations of America are behaving like impatient, indulged, greedy children caring very little about those they wound in their wake. In psychological circles this kind of behavior is often defined as sociopathic… but lets not call one another names. Let’s just agree it’s poor behavior and get back to the topic at hand.
The Neilson rating, which is an outmoded, outdated way of judging the worth of a television show, is still considered viable despite huge technical errors and the invention of the DVR. There are several arguments for its lack of viability, the main one being the chance for basic human error. It’s a reasonable possibility some Neilson families (those who fill out the report of viewing habits) may err deliberately or simply make a mistake. Let us also consider these families are only a tiny percentage of the actual viewing public. If you think about it, the Neilson scores are basically a poll. Watch any news program for a half an hour and you are going to hear at least one poll that makes you shake your head and wonder, “Who the heck did they talk to around here?” Another factor is how easily these scores can be manipulated to create the desired effect- numbers can be skewed depending on what market you are looking at.
In short, the Neilson’s are basically a flawed polling factory. As far as I know, there have been no other companies whose polling efforts have even been able to compete with it. This is an important point. It is interesting to note how the Neilson scores are used by the networks to make a case to cancel programs that had existed for decades (yes, the soaps.) I wonder about this. I am hesitant to say lest I be labeled a conspiracy theorist (of which I am one, okay, lets be honest) that this relationship smells dicey. It is a relationship easily misused to benefit an individual preference. Whose preference is a question I will leave up to you. I wouldn’t mind working as an actor again one of these days.
My bottom line: TV is not a democracy.
Look for Part Two: Demographics, coming soon! Whoop whoop!