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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Like Sands Through The Hourglass, So Are The Soaps Of Our Lives

It really is quite interesting the memories that can dwell so deeply inside a person's subconscious. Memories that were insignificant at the time that they occurred, but are suddenly brought back to the surface because of a particular event that happens.

I'd like to tell you a little story about my childhood and my family if you don't mind.

Years and years ago when my mother was a child, her family bought their very first television set. It was the first half of 1956. My mother had just turned ten years old the previous November. The television that my grandparents had bought for the family was nothing fancy. One of those black and white models with the rounded screen that looked no bigger than a standard computer monitor. At most, they could only get one or two channels, as that was all that they had back in 1956.

Still, it was a proud moment for my mom's family. With television becoming more and more popular every passing day, the fact that they had a television set gave them some security that things were looking up for them. My family never really had a whole lot of disposable income (on both sides of my family), so getting a television set was a big deal.

Almost immediately, my mother and my grandmother started watching daytime television whenever possible. Of course, my mother has school to attend at the time, so her daytime television viewing was limited, but my grandmother was a loyal fan of daytime television.

There's a reason why I wanted to be absolutely specific about the exact time when my grandparents got their first television set. In 1956 a brand new show debuted on CBS during the daytime television time slot that both my grandmother and mother used to watch religiously for years.

The program was a soap opera called As The World Turns. It debuted on television on April 2, 1956, and my grandmother watched the very first episode. It certainly wasn't the very first soap opera. Other soap operas such as Search For Tomorrow and The Guiding Light had been on the air for years (and in the case of The Guiding Light decades) before As The World Turns came along, but during the 1950s and 1960s, several more would be added to the daytime schedules of all three major networks.

Soap operas proved to be a very popular form of entertainment, especially towards a female audience (which made sense, given that most women during the 1950s stayed home during the daytime hours). During the 1950s, almost all of these soap operas were broadcast on television, but prior to this, many of them were broadcast on the radio. Many of these programs were sponsored and/or produced by companies that made soap products, such as Colgate-Palmolive, Lever Brothers, and Procter & Gamble (which explains why these programs were called soap operas).

Soap operas were an interesting show format. Unlike most prime time drama serials, which only lasted from September to May and aired a maximum of 25 episodes a season, soap operas ran consistently. Five days a week from Monday to Friday, a new episode would be produced with all new material. The shows were either centered around a couple of feuding families or a location in a community, and detailed the twists and turns that fell upon the people who starred in the series. Each day's events would flow into the next, with Friday episodes traditionally airing a 'cliffhanger' episode that would keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the following Monday, when the cliffhanger would (hopefully) be resolved.

In most cases, soap operas dealt with love and romance between couples, and certainly every daytime serial had a couple that people could root for or wanted to root for. These couples were often known as 'supercouples', and many of them immediately became fan favourites. Some well known soap opera supercouples included Victor and Nikki from The Young and the Restless, Josh and Reva from Guiding Light, Lily and Holden from As The World Turns, and Angie and Jesse from All My Children.

Perhaps one of the biggest supercouples of the entire daytime television genre was that of Luke and Laura, from General Hospital. Fans really seemed to gravitate towards the couple, even though when the couple got together, it wasn't under the greatest of circumstances (a drunken Luke had raped Laura). Regardless, the chemistry that the two had with each other seemed to register to viewers. The wedding between Luke and Laura aired on November 17, 1981, which also included a cameo from the late Elizabeth Taylor. That wedding ended up scoring huge ratings. An average of thirty million viewers tuned in to watch Luke and Laura say 'I Do', and to this day remains the highest rated episode of a soap opera ever.  Watch it below if you like.

Other topics that soap operas dealt with were fraud, affairs, crime, murder, and natural disasters. And just because a character was killed off didn't mean that they stayed dead. If you were to look at every soap opera that aired over the last thirty years, you'd be hard pressed to find one where they DIDN'T have a character come back to life after being declared dead. It was just one of the many tricks and trades that soap operas used. The storylines didn't have to make sense, or even be physically or medically possible. As long as the writing of the characters made sense, it could snow in the middle of August and viewers would buy it the characters made it believable.

For several decades, the American soap opera proved to be a very powerful force. With millions of viewers tuning in to see their 'stories' every weekday, advertisers cashed in by airing their commercials during each episode. Back in 1976, Time magazine described American daytime television as being 'television's richest market'. Because of the loyalty of fans who tuned in each day, added with the expansion of many daytime serials expanding from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, made daytime television more profitable to invest in than prime time series.

But that was during the 1970s. Something happened along the way that changed the course of daytime television into what it is today.

Just take a look at this. Twenty years ago for the 1991/1992 season, there were no less than eleven soap operas on the air.

CBS had The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, As The World Turns and Guiding Light.

ABC had Loving, All My Children, One Life To Live, and General Hospital.

NBC had Days Of Our Lives, Santa Barbara, and Another World.

As of September 22, 2011, only six remain. By the weekend, only five will continue airing. By early 2012, we'll only have four left.

Tomorrow marks the last airdate of the 41-year-old soap opera, All My Children. One Life To Live is slated to go off the air a few months later, in January 2012. While deals have been made to bring both All My Children and One Life To Live online so viewers can still watch, it could take months for such projects to be greenlighted. By January 2012, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, Days Of Our Lives, and General Hospital will be the only soap operas still airing on television.

What happened? Well, lots of things.

I told you the story earlier about how my grandmother and mother grew up watching the soap opera As The World Turns. For many, many years, As The World Turns was their all-time favourite of all the soap operas. My grandmother watched the show religiously until she passed away in 1991. My mother was one of those viewers that watched As The World Turns from the beginning of the program to the very end, with the show going off the air in September 2010. To a lesser extent, my older sister watched soap operas as well, only my sister's favourite show during her teen years was Guiding Light (which went off the air in September 2009).

That's how many people got hooked on soap operas. It became a form of entertainment that mothers and daughters could watch together. In fact, a reported 30% of soap opera viewers are male, so some mothers and sons used to watch the 'stories' together.

(CONFESSION TIME: I got addicted to the soap opera 'Loving' when I was 11 and sick with the flu one week, and I still catch the odd episode of The Young and the Restless thanks to some college roommates getting me hooked on it.)

This was commonplace for about the first three decades of soap opera production. By the mid-1980s, however, more women started to head back to the workforce, and therefore were not home often enough to devote time to watching soap operas as much as they used to. Newer generations of viewers found it harder to keep up with the storylines, and the trials and tribulations of all of the different characters in the show.

The recent trend of creating reality programs such as Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians could also be to blame for the decline of soap opera viewership. With reality shows having a production cost much lower than that of daytime soap operas, some viewers turned to these shows to satisfy their need for dramatic programming. Add to that the rise of cable channels and more choices of programming for people to choose from, and this was another factor behind the decline of modern day soap operas.

Certainly these are all factors that have eroded the ratings for daytime dramas, but I thought I would ask another source about why they thought soaps were fast becoming a lost genre.

I asked my mother. Would you like to know what she said?

She said that while she remained loyal to As The World Turns until the day it was cancelled, she did say that the last two years of the show were a bit unwatchable. She said that the writing of such programs went downhill considerably and that the quality of the storylines was not as good as it had been. The stories jumped all over the place, and stories were more plot-based than character-based. Once I heard her opinion, it caused me to have an opinion of my own.

I always have said myself that some of the best stories I have read were character driven. In a lot of cases, especially for soap operas that were around in the 1970s, many of these shows relied on casting strong lead characters rather than plot devices. Characters were developed in such a way that the audience could either love them, hate them, or love to hate them. The more the audience reacted to a soap opera character, the better.

Certainly there have been some memorable characters on soap operas over the years. One of which comes from the soap opera that will be ending its run on network television.

Although my family hardly ever watched ABC soap operas (they were mostly a CBS soap opera family), they have heard of Susan Lucci. She played Erica Kane on the soap opera All My Children since the show's debut in 1970, and to say that her character hadn't been through a lot would be an understatement. With her having more marriages than Elizabeth Taylor, having two daughters with their own emotional baggage, and even going up against a giant bear, she definitely has that character appeal that soap viewers loved.

And, no, I'm not kidding about the bear. Here's proof.

As it turned out, Susan Lucci's professional career was a bit of a soap opera in itself. Her work was always considered to be some of the best in the genre, and it was enough for her to be nominated for the Daytime Emmy award for Best Actress. She kept getting nominated and nominated, but yet she never won.

That is until 1999, when Susan Lucci's nineteenth nomination proved to be the one that won her the award. The standing ovation that she received as she went to collect her award seemed to last forever, and you could see the joy in her eyes as she finally accepted her long-awaited award.

Regardless of whether Susan Lucci continues with the web-format of All My Children or not (last reports state she will not), she has made enough of a name for herself that people couldn't possibly forget her or the character she played.

One could also say the same about Kim Zimmer, who played Reva Shayne for two separate stints on Guiding Light.  Reva was one of those people who were thought to be dead, but came back to life.  Twice.  She went through people trying to kill her, being a princess of an island nation, and she was even cloned!  But mostly she was known as being the real vamp of the show, and as this scene from 1984 shows, viewers could find something to identify with in this real 'tart with a heart' character.

Loud.  Brash.  Easy.  Those were all words to describe Reva.  Yet, in that scene she was still that insecure young woman who wanted desperately to be loved and respected for who she was and not for what favours she could do.  She was a character that many probably wouldn't care for on the streets, but resonated a deep chord in viewers, who could maybe identify with the frustrations she was going through.  Characters who could instill such powerful emotions in viewers made for great television.

It's easy to dismiss a soap opera as being mindless fluff filled with romance and love scenes, but it was more than that. With over 200 new episodes filmed each year, the writers were challenged with coming up with new material every day, and actors had to memorize dozens of pages of dialogue a week. 

Many famous actors and actresses got their big breaks on soap operas. Certainly, you have big named actors and actresses who have starred on soaps. Ryan Phillipe was on One Life To Live, and both Meg Ryan and Julianne Moore starred on As The World Turns (Moore actually returned to the show just before it went off the air).

Other actors and actresses who have made it big since their soap days include Kelly Ripa, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mark Consuelos, Eva LaRue, Michael Weatherly, Allison Janney, Marg Helgenberger, Eva Longoria, Morgan Fairchild, Taye Diggs, and the late Christopher Reeve, just to name a few.

Some already established actors and actresses have made cameo appearances or have had recurring roles in soap operas recently. I already mentioned Elizabeth Taylor as having made a cameo appearance on General Hospital, but recently, James Franco has shot a couple of appearances on that same show. Betty White appeared on a few episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful a couple of years ago. The Young and the Restless have had many guest stars playing themselves appearing on the show over their 38-year history. After doing some research, I know that Jewel, Katy Perry, and Il Divo have all appeared as guests on the show.

I think that while soap operas have struggled in recent years, there is still an audience for them. The Young and the Restless have been number one in the ratings since the late 1980s, and The Bold and the Beautiful is the most syndicated soap opera shown today, with the program airing in 42 countries alone. Still, with more soaps shutting down production year by year, the road back will be an incredibly rocky one.

A soap opera in itself, really. 

And as we bid farewell to All My Children from network television, at least for fans of that show, and the other ones that were cancelled, the memories will live on even if the genre is currently on life-support.

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