An Intro To Modern Soap Opera History
Television In Transition
The average American doesn’t watch television like they once did, that is, if they even watch TV at all. The days of viewers reliably tuning in to the networks during primetime from Labor Day through Memorial Day are a thing of the past.
However, the media conglomerates that owned the networks eventually became resigned to this reality. So they developed a backup plan. The companies began creating shows to air across the dozens of cable outlets in their corporate portfolios, each tailored to a niche audience.
By placing their bets on the prolific business of pumping out shorter seasons of marquee cable series each year, the media giants presumed to understand the changing habits of the audience. It was a gamble that paid off- until it didn’t.
Soaps Still Standing
The audience of 2022 is that of the cord-cutting, cable package dumping, smart phone-attached, perpetually online variety. These viewers watch whatever, whenever, wherever, and however they want.
With this shift away from conventional television, what of the most outdated of them all daytime soap operas? The relic of a genre long synonymous with the decline of the major networks? Surely the four remaining soaps should be in the last days of their lives. Right? Wrong. They may not be as young and restless, but by today’s standards, they’re practically thriving.
No More ’Tomorrow’
The industry had the demise of the daytime drama pegged as early as 1986 when NBC announced the cancellation of the longest-running soap on television at the time, Search For Tomorrow. Despite its longevity, many in the industry saw the cancellation coming. ‘SFT’ already was canceled once before by CBS four years earlier before moving to NBC, whom many agreed would be better off without it.
Indeed, the networks were correct that soaps were in a vulnerable position at the time. Viewership had begun to slip across the board for the soaps, an unavoidable result of its target audience of women joining the workforce at a higher rate with each passing year. While the ‘death of the genre stories’ began to make their rounds, the Big Three networks seemed committed to modernizing the daytime drama.
A Few ‘Bold’ Moves
CBS, whose second-youngest soap opera, ‘Young & The Restless,’ was on the cusp of unseating the number one soap (ABC’s ‘General Hospital’), sought to replicate its success with a similar soap; called ‘Bold & The Beautiful.’ The fate of future attempts at the genre seemed to hinge on the show’s premiere in 1987. The half-hour soap opera eventually rose to number two behind Y&R, giving CBS the highest-rated lineup in daytime television- a title it has enjoyed uninterrupted ever since.
NBC and ABC saw their rival’s success as reason enough to make further attempts at launching a new soap opera. Over the next twelve years, the two networks would invest over a hundred million dollars to produce a total of five new soap operas. Each of these new soap operas was a mix of both new and old, each groundbreaking and familiar in their own right.
’Generations’ Ahead of Its Time
One soap sought to bring not just diversity to daytime but went even a step further- equity. NBC had found success in primetime by embracing programming with predominately Black casts. ‘The Cosby Show’, ’227’, ’Amen’ and ‘Different World’ were all huge hits with audiences- and not just people of color. Hoping to extend its success beyond primetime, NBC launched ’Generations’ with the intent of being the first ’integrated’ soap. The traditional dynamic of the genre was not groundbreaking- but featuring characters of color as the prominent centers of storylines-a place usually reserved for their white counterparts. NBC pulled no punches in casting, going so far as to lure Debbi Morgan fresh off her Emmy win for ’All My Children’ away from the top-rated ABC soap. The series would be credited with launching the career of Victoria Rowell, Kristoff St. John and Vivica A. Fox.
‘The City’ Rises From ’Loving’ Ashes
ABC’s lineup was thriving among young women in more metropolitan areas of the country- save for one series. While ’Loving’ did rank first in New York and Los Angeles, it long launguished in the bottom spot among the soap’s nationwide. ABC would take the opportunity to violently drag ‘Loving’ from traditional small town soap to an edgy urban soap- a daytime ‘Melrose Place’. The method of transforming the show was perhaps the most daring move in soap opera history and arguably one of the genre’s best executed murder mysteries ever. When the dust settled, ’The City’ rose from the ashes just as ABC had demanded complete with a look and feel that felt anything but traditional. Completing the transition into something as large as life in the Big Apple was Morgan Fairchild, a primetime starlet at the center of it all.
‘Spelling’ Goes To Daytime with ‘Sunset’
The third soap opera would raise the stakes with the most prolific producer of all time at the helm, Aaron Spelling. The man whose brand of nighttime soap operas helped put the Big Three Networks’ competitor, FOX, on the map while pulling in record numbers of young female viewers was hired by NBC in 1996. While unaccustomed to the rigors of daytime television production, Spelling had a vision for what the series would bring to NBC. The sexy sun-soaked final product, ’Sunset Beach’, made a splash in January 1997 hoping to blend well with top-rated ’Days of Our Lives’.
ABC Sets Sail for Another ’Port
With an iconic setting that was the birthplace of a popular culture phenomenom, ‘General Hospital’ had been ripe for a spin-off for years. With executive producer Wendy Riche at the helm ABC pulled out all the stops for ’Port Charles’. A two hour premiere in primetime, a cast of young doctors in the vein of ’ER’, fan-favorites from ‘GH’ Scott Baldwin and Lucy Coe and a the promise of constant crossovers between the two series- the ingredients for success were undeniable. In time, the show would become something completely different from not only its parent show- but unlike anything ever seen before in American daytime television.
Wild ‘Passions’ Breaks Mold
The final attempt at a new daytime drama would become an oddity, an icon and irrefutably the most audacious daytime drama in television history. After he took ’Days Of Our Lives’ to hell and then all the way to number 2, James E. Reilly had earned a reputation for himself. When NBC ordered a new soap from controversial and larger-than-life soap writer- even the most imaginitive viewers could not have forseen ’Passions’. The series literally broke the mold in so many ways: a racially diverse group of core families, popularity with girls 12 to 17, fast-pacing, mind blowing twists and turns, a 400 year old witch and her fiendish-yet lovable imp. The soap transcended and upended the genre- and nothing has been seen or attempted on television in such a manner ever since.
In recent year soaps have been derided for playing it too safe, watering down the genre in the process. Even at their most progressive, many cannot help but feel as though the genre is out of touch with modern audiences. All five of the last soaps can be accused on many things but all of them tried to do something different.
And All five series eventually went down in flames, some lasting longer than others, some remaining true to their identity and others nearly unrecognizable by the final episode. Each one arguably had every tool it needed to succeeded or was doomed from the start- depending on how the story is told or who you heard it from.
More to come
As modern television struggles with its current identity and an uncertain future, the soaps continue to battle their own existential crisis. The industry that believed that a dying medium like soaps should be put out of its misery when it fails year in and year out, seems hesitant to accept its own mortality. Oddly enough, the soaps best hope is to exist as they have- and in the process may outlast television itself.
Another eight soap operas ended in the last thirty-five years. A total of 265 years of story between them, their history older than the United States. Some of television’s most memorable, shocking, bizarre and often truer to life moments could be seen during their runs. Join me in deep dives in the weeks and months to come:
- Search For Tomorrow
- Ryan’s Hope
- Santa Barbara
- The City
- Another World
- Sunset Beach
- Port Charles
- Guiding Light
- As the World Turns
- All My Children
- One Life To Live