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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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! ]