Saturday, April 16, 2011

It's More Than the End of an Era; It's the End of a Dream

Secret confessions time...

When I was in high school, I had a dream. I told everyone I wanted to be a lawyer, and I set myself on that path with the certainty that would be my life. (Funny how paths take their turns.) Deep down inside, though, I wanted to be a writer. Not just any writer, mind you. I didn't really have dreams of books on shelves or anything like that. No, what I wanted to be was a soap opera writer. From a young age, I had been completely fascinated by soap operas. I loved the idea of telling this ongoing story that really had no real end. One chapter would close and another would begin immediately. I studied soap operas the way some people study nuclear physics. For a good portion of my teen years, I could tell you exactly what was happening on every soap opera on the air. (Thank you, Soap Opera Digest!) When summer came, I would decide who had the most promising summer stories lined up and would go with that show...and easily switch if the promise failed to come true. I had my favorite couples, my most loathed villains, and I was devoted to them all in ways that are maybe a little embarrassing to admit now that I look back. Like the day I played hookie from school so I could find out the test results of Kimberly Brady's paternity test on Days of Our Lives. Or telling the dean of my college I needed to leave because Megan Gordon Harrison was dying of lupus on One Life to Live. (Before Megan, I didn't even know what lupus was.) I had visions of getting on staff for a soap opera, toiling away at it for a couple years, and then branching out and starting my own soap opera. The chance to create characters and essentially usher them through an action-packed life was more incredible than I could even fathom.

As I've gotten older, my soap opera obsession has waned significantly. With the kind of work schedule I have, keeping track of the soaps has become harder. I've tried DVRing one or two, but it's hard to even find that hour every day and weekends aren't much better to try to play catch up. On breaks, yes, I will occasionally find myself tuning in to see what my old friends are up to.

Unfortunately, a lot of those old friends are now gone. CBS has cut its soap opera output in half, cancelling both Guiding Light and As the World Turns in the past couple years. Those were hard losses since those were the soaps that started it all for me, thanks to Mom and Grandma who were avid CBS soap fans. Thursday, ABC announced what seemed to me the unthinkable -- that it was cancelling both All My Children and One Life to Live. I said to my sis as we were driving home that afternoon, "The thought of a world without Erica Kane just seems wrong to me." After all, neither my sister nor I have EVER lived in an Erica Kane-less world. (Susan Lucci started playing the role in 1970. I was born in 1971, my sister in 1970.)

As of January 2012, there will only be four soap operas left on the air -- General Hospital, Young and the Restless, Bold and the Beautiful, and Days of Our Lives. That's it. There will likely be no new soaps to join them...ever. While all four shows have received extended renewals lately or verbal guarantees of long lives, one has to wonder how long the four can hold on in the face of what is clearly a shifting demographic trend in daytime television.

The fact is that daytime television is a dying breed. More and more people are out of the house during the day, and the people that are home have hundreds of channels offering whatever their hearts desire. The networks are no longer the only game in town, and soaps have suffered accordingly. Factor in, too, the fact that it is hard to stick with a genre that depends so crucially on loyalty and perseverance. It is a daily commitment to be a true soap fan -- five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That is hardcore. Add to that the fact that soaps take a leisurely approach to storytelling. Some stories play out over years, and when you have actors who have been on for decades, imagine the dedication to keep up with your favorite character. Americans just don't have that sort of dedication anymore. We are a fast food, MTV culture. We want our storytelling quick and easy, and that's something that the soap operas just can't give us anymore.

My hope is that soaps are able to stay afloat, that the four titans left standing are able to go on for decades more, and that this grand storytelling tradition doesn't die. Keep hope (and Hope) alive.

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