Why Online TV Couldn’t Save ABC Soaps

RIP One Life To Live. It’s official: the 11th hour online deal that would have saved beloved soaps One Life To Live and All My Children from the cancellation has fallen through.

ABC  announced earlier  this year that AMC and OLTL would be replaced by daytime lifestyle shows, “The Chew” and “The Revolution”. (I’ve seen The Chew  and it’s pretty grating, imagine “The View” with C -level Food Network hosts).

Expectedly, the fan outcry was swift and passionate after the announcement, but a ray of light emerged when indie production company Prospect Park acquired the rights to both shows, with plans to reincarnate the soaps as web-based series. Unfortunately hefty production costs and union squabbles derailed the plans, so in January, One Life to Live fans will say the same goodbyes that All My Children fans did in September. (Hopefully with a much more satisfying ending than AMC)

Admittedly, I haven’t followed daytime soaps in several years, but  I grew up watching the ABC soaps at my grandmother’s knee, and I was a One Life To Live CRAZY FAN when I was in high school  so I followed the Prospect Park story with interest. I was skeptical about the Prospect Park deal, mostly because it was hard for me to imagine how Prospect Park could successfully recreate a genre as expansive as soaps for an online audience. With decades of history, huge casts and 45 minutes of story, Prospect Park would have  had to make drastic changes to the format to bring the shows online. Clearly the shows would have been shorter, the casts smaller and the sets/costumes less lavish.  I figured that veteran stars would likely not make the cut in favor of less expensive younger talent. Would the soaps even look like the ones fans followed and loved for years?

I still think online TV is the future of entertainment; I think the resurrection of Arrested Development on Netflix will mean good things for producers with great pilot ideas that are too” niche” or “risky” for traditional TV and even cable, but daytime soaps as a genre may not be able to find new life here. It’s not that hardcore soap fans wouldn’t have followed the shows to the web; I have no doubt they would have. If anything, the shows would have been able to take advantage of Facebook and Twitter’s 30+ and female skewing demographics to keep fans engaged.

But the rich history and intertwining relationships of soaps, the slow burn of daily storytelling that makes soaps what they are, I’m not sure if Prospect Park would have been able to pull it off, and if they did, I’m not sure how long. I think they would have been a shadow of what soap fans have been enjoying for decades, and not financially sustainable. Still, it’s sad to see all of those years of storytelling history fade away. Much like comics, soap opera lore was something passed down through generations and to know that there will be a point where the names “Pine Valley” and Llanview” will have no pop culture resonance is a pity.

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Is this the final death knell for soaps? Or has the genre just gone international?

Flames of Desire -- Korean makjang Drama

With the recent cancellation of All My Children and One Live to Live, after Guiding Light and As the World Turns, many are calling the death of the American soap.

I think more than the end of these specific dramas, especially those that have watched the same drama with the generations before, people are saddened that the community aspects that soaps brought to the lives of many (especially women) will be gone. Many learned about the canon/fanon divide not from Star Wars / Star Trek, but from learning the histories of characters from older sisters, grandmothers, or family friends. Or were able to share the commonality of experiences, such as Megan’s week-long death scene on OLTL, with others. Sam Ford (friend of TLF) and others wrote about the commonality of fandom experiences of soap fans in the book, The Survival of Soap Operas (University of Mississippi 2010) .

He also has an article in Fast Company where he gets to the heart of how once soaps are gone — they are gone for good:

As opposed to the world of comic books, or pro wrestling, or sports franchises–where different media formats come and go, but the core narrative and the characters and the backstory lives on–soap operas are nothing without their network TV slot. With the network TV time goes the whole narrative. Decades of creative development. Thousands of characters. Lost and locked away from further storytelling.

Most of those that I know that at one point watched soaps have indeed given up on them. But not because of the reasons listed in many of the “death of soaps” articles — the lack of time, the inability to dedicate oneself to a long-running storyline, or Facebook games. Many of the one-time fans would

have continued, but the storylines became less relateable and less based in already established canon and character development — some of the super-ridiculous plots (even for a soap) included on All My Children having Erica’s thought-to-be-aborted fetus coming back as an adult and on One Live to Live having a rape victim and the rapist become co-grandparents. Or as one former soap fan said “I just couldn’t handle any more sexual assault storylines as plot devices. ”

But internationally, dramas that look very similar to American soaps are doing very well. Telenovas are very popular (though I admit I’m not very familiar with them).  Korean dramas have the potential to take over much of the same role than American soaps serve, but with time-shifting!

While there are many different subtypes of Korean dramas, there are definitely over-the-top romance dramas. And doesn’t this sound like a soap?

These dramas typically involve conflicts such as single and marital relationships, money bargaining, relationships between in-laws (usually between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law), and often complicated love triangles while the female hero usually falls in love with the main character who may treat her badly since the beginning, instead of the one who always cares for her.

Unlike American soaps, Korean dramas range usually from a dozen to 200 episodes — and while there can be extensions, the overall plot is planned out beforehand. Melodramas, similar to American soaps, are a popular genre, called makjang.

According to Dramabeans, makjang is

a stylistic, tonal, or narrative element in dramas that chooses to play up outrageous storylines to keep viewers hooked despite how ridiculous the stories become (adultery, revenge, rape, birth secrets, fatal illnesses, and flirting with incest possibilities are some makjang favorites). Shows can be part of a makjang class of dramas (Wife’s Temptation is a makjang series), or they can have makjang tendencies (Mary Stayed Out All Night went makjang toward the end). Generally considered a negative thing (“Gah, how makjang can you get?”), unless a drama intentionally embraces the style (such as Baker King Kim Tak-gu or Flames of Desire).

In an upcoming post, I’ll write more about an overview of Korean dramas — and how there is likely a Korean drama for everyone, ranging from Flames of Desire for the melodrama/makjang fan (overview of first episode with spoilers) to Sign for the CSI fan to Coffee Prince for the romance-through-secret-cross-dressing fan!

Guest Post: Sam Ford: Worlds Without End?

The soap opera was once defined in part as providing worlds without end, as some have put it: fictional worlds that carry on daily for years, decades even. While characters and actors would come and go, the shows often centered on the same community, and sometimes even the same character. Much as with a sports franchise, there was an idea that the soap opera was a media tradition that grandmother and mother would pass on to daughter and granddaughter, and the multiple generation of characters on the show mirrored the generations of (largely female) viewers who not only commonly watch but likewise discuss and debate what they see.

Certainly, this is what has set the soap opera apart from the telenovela, its counterpart devised south of the border which shares the frequent (often daily) airing but focuses on a finite story rather than a “world without end.” Nowhere else on television will you find a phenomenon like 91-year-old Helen Wagner of As the World Turns fame. Her character, Nancy Hughes, spoke the first line on ATWT when the show debuted in 1956, and she was seen as recently as last week, dishing out advice to her family and friends. Some viewers of ATWT have followed Wagner’s Nancy for more than five decades. Further, Nancy is joined by a whole host of characters that have been played by the same actor for years. Don Hastings and Eileen Fulton are soon set to celebrate 50 years in their respective roles as Bob Hughes and Lisa Miller on the show, and they are joined by actors who joined the show in the late 1960s, the 1970s, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In short, anyone who grew up watching ATWT can likely tune in today and see an actor who “started” during their initial viewership of the show.

But these “worlds without end” aren’t as definite as they used to be. There once were scores of soap operas on the air. Now there are seven. Another World was cancelled in 1999 after decades on the air. Its Procter & Gamble sister show, and the longest-running soap opera in history–Guiding Light–went off the air this year after 72 years. Rumors have circulated in the past year about the impending cancellation of ATWT, One Life to Live, and Days of Our Lives, and ABC recently moved All My Children’s production from New York to Los Angeles in part as a cost-saving measure. All seven U.S. soaps remaining on the air have seen significant ratings declines in the past few decades.

At the moment, the seven U.S. soaps remain on the air, and these shows still have millions of passionate viewers who tune in daily to watch characters they’ve been viewing for decades. The question remains: are soap operas still relevant to U.S. audiences? Where has the industry gone wrong, if some elements of the decline should not just be seen as the inevitable drop in viewership in a media landscape of multitude rather than a limited number of broadcast television channels? Are there strategies that soap operas might engage in to not only stay relevant but perhaps re-invigorate the genre?

These are questions I’ve been tackling with UC-Berkeley’s Abigail De Kosnik, Miami University’s C. Lee Harrington, and a host of scholars, industry representatives, fans, and critics, as part of a book that will be published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi called The Survival of the Soap Opera. We believe that the strength of the soap opera, and it’s continued viability, lies with capitalizing on these shows’ rich histories, continuing to experiment with new forms of production and distribution, and finding new ways to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and define success through that deep engagement.

Given The Learned Fangirl”s deep commitment to fan studies, we’d love to hear from any readers who have a history with soaps. Feel free to drop a comment here or shoot me an email at samford@mit.edu. I’m curious what you think! Do soap operas have a future? If not, what will the legacy of the U.S. soap opera be, if its ratings decline and eventual extinction is deemed inevitable? Is the trend toward deep serialization, ensemble casts, and interpersonal relationships we see in primetime television today directly or indirectly attributable to the soap opera? These are questions we’re looking to tackle in our collection, and we’re excited to hear what you think.

[Editor’s Note: Sam Ford is Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and MIT Research Affiliate. We were so pleased to have such a fan of wrestling and soaps moderate our fan-related panel at MIT5! ]