Daytime drama is dying! …Earlier this year, CBS cancelled the longest-running series in broadcast history, Guiding Light (which debuted over 70 years ago, on radio), and earlier this week, announced the cancellation of the 54-year-old As the World Turns (ATWT). This is considered a “big deal” by soap opera types b/c ATWT is the last remaining show produced by Procter and Gamble, who helped give “soap operas” their name by advertising their household cleaning products to housewives during the shows they sponsored. When ATWT goes off the air, there will only be 6 soap operas remaining across all three major networks (it used to be at least nine, if not 12), and the ones still kicking have all had their budgets radically slashed (it is much cheaper to produce the tenth hour of The Today Show) and seem constantly threatened with cancellation. Folks who follow the genre say it’s been in steady decline for a decade or longer, but lately it seems to be hemmoraging.
So you are probably wondering why on Earth I’m here on Big Other talking about (what many consider to be) the lowest of lowbrow culture.
Confession time: I’ve been attracted (sometimes shamefully and sometimes shamelessly) to soap operas specifically and serialized storytelling more generally for most of my life. I’ve watched various soaps off and on for years. In third grade, my favorite show was the nighttime drama Sisters, because I loved listening to women like Sela Ward and Swoosie Kurtz argue passionately, get drunk, screw one another’s ex-husbands, fire off shotguns at weddings and weep over their childrens’ leukemia. I grossly overused the expression “to be continued” in stories I handed into my second grade teacher. In middle school, I wrote several “episodes” of my own soap about two warring families who ran competing resorts in the Poconos. Also in middle school, I enjoyed novels by Charles Dickens. My senior year of high school, I gulped down Armistead Maupin’s absurd and escapist Tales of the City series. At Sarah Lawrence College, I produced and aired, on the campus radio station, the pilot episode (I think I failed all my classes that semester simply on account of all the time I spent on that single episode… so it ended up being too much work to continue past a pilot) of a soap called Liberal Art about the tangled lives and dastardly manipulations of a group of students at a small liberal arts college near NYC. The tagline was “Liberal Art: where artists is just another word for bitch.”
Soaps are infamous for their outlandish plot twists — spouses back from the dead, babies stolen and switched at birth, men drugged into sleeping with dastardly women — but most longtime soap viewers will tell you the bedrock of soap opera storytelling, like much good fiction, is characters, and stories derived from characters. In fact, some argue the erosion of strong, character-driven storytelling is one of the primary causes for daytime soap operas’ declining ratings. And as much as soaps revel in heteronormative couplings, those same couplings are also constantly, constantly threatened… nearly every storyline is about trying to stabilize relationships and families that will never, ever be stable (esp. because barring cancellation these shows are never over), which is hi! kind of delicious.
Anyway, what I actually want to talk about here is what the demise of daytime soaps means, if anything, in terms of the role fiction and narrative play in our culture. Cheap news shows and reality programs replacing fictional programs doesn’t seem that dissimilar from craptastic memoirs replacing novels on bookstore shelves. (I am not making an argument here, just suggesting possibilities to ignite a discussion).
A lively conversation recently took place on a Fictionaut discussion board about serialized storytelling online. Participants in this conversation wondered — will folks read serialized pieces? How many folks followed Big Other contributor Shya Scanlon’s serialized novel Forecast 42 from blog to website to blog? How about Grant Bailie’s serialized novel at Necessary Fiction? What about this Rick Moody-Electric Literature twitter dustup?
Some argued they didn’t think contemporary readers had the attention span to follow extended stories. Which reminded me: Although daytime soaps may be going the way of the dodo birds from Mauritania in my favorite digression from Gravity’s Rainbow, nighttime soaps seem to be enjoying a Renaissance of sorts. Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty (derived from a Spanish-language telenovela), revivals of Melrose Place and 90210. Even those crappy Jerry Bruckheimer police procedurals seem to be including more connective tissue, more evolving relationships between characters, across episodes. The biggest difference between nighttime soaps and daytime soaps (aside from production values) is, I believe, pacing. While on a daytime soaps, two characters will stand around a country club for an entire week having the exact. same. conversation, entire social worlds rise and fall during a single episode of Gossip Girl.
Do contemporary readers and viewers truly have considerably less patience? I understand many of us are inundated with information, but I’m hesitant to latch onto such big sweeping, unresearched statements about cultural norms and practices. I worry that, “contemporary readers have less patience” is the kind of discourse (and I apologize for the jargon term, but in this case I think “discourse” truly is the best word, b/c what is happening here is the production of an entire body of knowledge, purely through public conversation and its framing, about contemporary viewers and readers and their inclinations and behavior) that very quickly creates the reality it claims to describe, regardless of its initial accuracy. …Are “today’s” readers too trigger-happy for serialized storytelling? What do y’all think?
(An aside: For folks interested in tasty, soaps-oriented cultural criticism, Becca Thomas and Mallory Harlen’s Serial Drama is quite crackly and totally hilarious.)