Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tune In Next Week

Two of the giants have been killed: All My Children and One Life To Live have gotten the axe.

This is only a few months after other long-running programs, such as Guiding Light and As The World Turns, also got canceled. There are several reasons why soap operas are dropping like flies, and they are all pretty obvious: changes in women's daytime viewing habits being the main one.

Of course, the crooked finger of accusation points straight at the usual suspects: the plethora of television stations and the popularity of reality television. At this point, with audiences dwindling and one of the few shows that has always targeted a broad but specific demographic, cable television rather than networks would seen the natural home.

Still, once shouldn't cry over the demise of the soap opera. We should celebrate the vast influence it's had over our television culture.

For decades, dramas and sitcoms were notoriously self-contained. TV executives were perpetually worried about confusing viewers--the networks, especially, treated the television watchers like slack-jawed window-lickers for years--and so every episode had to begin and conclude on its own. Sure, there was the usual cliffhanger episode, but this was a gimmick, and exceptions like Peyton Place. However, they didn't want to product a show that people wouldn't watch because they missed an earlier episode. Also--and probably more significant--selling shows in syndication, which is much more lucrative but also much more likely to watch scattershotly*, necessitated self-encompassed shows.

Of course, this didn't last. Prime-time television soon filled up with its own soap operas, like Dallas and Falcon Crest. But these were still straight-up soap operas, just fine-tuned for higher production values and subject matter pushed beyond bored housewives. Regular programming still held on to the same self-contained storylines. Season-long story arcs existed, and in some cases were the norm, but by and large the old model stuck.

And yet, today, we see that it's no longer the case, Many shows--not a majority, but certainly a significant number--use soap-opera-like elements on a regular basis. Shows like The Office clearly show this, and others like Friday Night Lights and Grey's Anatomy are slightly changed versions of the formula used in Dallas.

Soap operas may be dying and dead, but it's clear they've fundamentally changed television. And while most people will never admit to watching a soap opera, guess what--you are.

*I swear this is a legitimate word.

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