Here’s a link to a great article by All My Children’s Cady McClain about the decline of soap operas on American television. Alert readers will know that this is a topic that I broach with some frequency because, in all incarnations of my life, I have been and continue to be a storyteller. And one of the best ways to connect with your audience and tell important stories is using the serial format.
I have a lot to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for another day. Read Cady’s piece. She’s bang on; absolutely bang on.
Finally, below I am reposting a piece I did for Salon back in 2010 when As The World Turns was going off the air. It touches on some similar themes and also Cady and I quote from one of the same sources, Robert Allen, who wrote the terrific book, Speaking of Soap Operas, back in the 80s! All great minds…..?
P.S. In re-reading the piece below, it occurs to me that I’ve used the Schemering quote in more recent pieces. I should research more deeply. Still — it’s a great quote!
LOSING OUR STORIES
On Friday, September 17, 2010, the soap opera As The World Turns goes off the air after a run of 54 years. A significant event? Yes, I think it is.
“We are a narrative species,” wrote Roger Rosenblatt in Time a decade ago. “We exist by storytelling — by relating our situations — and the test of our evolution may lie in getting the story right.”
I have always found true profundity in that quote and I have gone back to it hundreds of times because all of us relate to students, to colleagues, to friends, acquaintances and strangers, by telling our stories. And I often wonder if a generation gap is not widening because our outlets for teaching young people how to develop, expand and express their own stories have severely diminished in recent decades.
By way of example, we seem to be reaching the bitter end of serialized storytelling, something which can be dated back more than 500 years to Persian storytellers. Serial fiction became wildly popular in the 19th century with Charles Dickens, most famously, and other authors who published stories in magazines by installment. In the U.S., serialized stories began to be broadcast daily on radio in the 1930s. Derisively called soap operas, as most were sponsored by household products manufacturers and featured overly dramatic plots, they fast became the chief escapist fare for an audience of millions; most of whom were women.
If not the originator of the idea, certainly the most prolific purveyor of soap opera was Irna Phillips, an iron-willed, opinionated genius who acted-out her stories for a secretary to transcribe in lieu of literally putting pen to paper.
When Phillips created As The World Turns in 1956, it fast became the number one drama in America and stayed at that top spot for more than two decades. In writing about the program, Robert LaGuardia called Phillips “ahead of her time. … Irna saw daytime drama in terms of time and character, rather than story. She understood something that only loyal soap fans truly know: that people want to become involved with the lives of other people. … Story to Irna was simply a vehicle; it was from the moment-to-moment emotions of her characters, expressed to each other in quiet scenes, that viewers derived true vicarious pleasure.”
Soap operas exploded thanks to the advent of television and at the height of their reach some 30 years ago, daytime dramas reached a staggering 50 million viewers a week and raked in more than $700 million in profit annually. The size of the soap audience, argued essayist Robert C. Allen, made the programs “a significant cultural phenomenon.”
In the often laconic pacing of daily serials, audiences get to know characters on a level more intimate than in episodic storytelling and their emotional investment in those characters intensifies. The late Christopher Schemering, a journalist devoted to daytime drama, once noted that “as characterizations grow and the narrative stretches out over months and years and becomes more complex and ambiguous, one’s involvement deepens, forcing one to come to terms with the quirks of human nature, the darker sides of fundamentally good people. And thus there is the possibility of the viewer experiencing something new or complex or feeling some way he has never felt before.”
Theatre practitioners often say that the purpose of the art form is to illuminate the human condition and, arguably, soap opera’s true calling may be exactly the same.
While many soaps have been derided over the years for outlandish plots, poor writing and occasional injections of science fiction or utter madness, As The World Turns remained relevant, said Schemering, because it told “powerful stories slowly and surely. The show was old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.” LaGuardia called it the “most historically important soap opera in modern times.”
In its early years, the show introduced what is believed to be the first illegitimate child on television and though the show was never considered cutting-edge like the early days of All My Children — where a young Erica Kane had television’s first legal abortion — the show did not shirk from the exploration of social issues. Over the years, alcoholism, cancer, adoption, racism, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other issues have been mined for stories.
In the early 1990s on As The World Turns, the rape of police detective Margo Hughes was allowed to play out in real time. The character, who had to wait six months before she could take a test to determine if she had contracted HIV/AIDS from her rapist, was allowed to explore her own emotions, those of her husband, family and colleagues, and the impact her rape had on everyone in her life in a way that mirrored what happens in the real world. Nearly 20 years after this story first aired, actress Ellen Dolan says that it remains a touchstone for long-time viewers.
Luke’s Coming Out
The show has also, in recent years, been lauded for its long-term treatment of Luke Snyder’s homosexuality and its sensitive portrayal of young gay men. When the teenager came out to friends and family, he was met with both acceptance and derision, often from surprising or unexpected sources, but the character was allowed to hold to his own truth and the story showed the long-term positive effects of that truth-telling on members of the community.
And while soaps can be innovative and forward thinking, they can also be prudish. When the character of Luke fell in love with Noah Mayer, a young man with a completely different, harsher and occasionally frightening coming out story, the two finally shared daytime’s first gay male kiss — nearly a decade into the 21st century.
A gripping story such as Margo’s rape showed millions of women how one woman, married with children, reacted to such an unspeakable act and how it impacted her life. Luke and Noah’s story was written with intense courage and deep feeling and showed how one town accepted and embraced people who may have been different. Both stories allowed viewers, some of whom may not have had other avenues in which to explore them, new and potentially empowering ways to confront difference and prejudice and violence in their own lives.
A Real American Drama
Nearly 50 years ago, playwright William Inge said that while people may sneer at soap operas, they have “a basis for a truer, more meaningful drama. … I feel that in soap opera we have the roots for a native American drama.” Inge may have been right, but he could not have foretold the societal shifts that have occurred over the last three decades that has pushed the soap opera onto a cultural endangered species list.
Soap opera viewership is down a staggering 30 million weekly viewers since the mid-1980s and the number of dramas on the air has shrunk by more than half as well. The news from the Nielsen ratings continue to show a continuing sharp decline across all daytime dramatic programs in women viewers 18-49, the bread and butter demographic for soaps. In an era when working outside of the home is the norm rather than the exception for both genders, when DVR’s have released viewing from time constraints and online video has even freed it from TV sets, the soap audience has dwindled and is increasingly split between older viewers and teenagers; neither is a group that excites daytime’s traditional advertisers.
“There are two universal human needs or motives,” a colleague of mine wrote recently, “the need to know and the need to belong.”
That’s as important, I believe, as Rosenblatt’s assertion that “[w]e exist by storytelling.”
If Rosenblatt is correct, what becomes of a society that loses its stories? What happens to people who forget who they are or where they came from or who their ancestors were or how they deal with fellow citizens in a crisis? How do we write our history if we have no stories to tell? If there is a primal need for knowledge and belonging — and I fervently believe that there is — how can we satisfy that need if no one tells us our own story? How do we move forward if we cannot add to the narrative? How do we entertain each other without a collective act of imagining? How do we continue to educate future generations if we have no stories to bind us together?
You may be thinking this is all well and good, but when you get right down to it, it’s just a soap opera; it’s just a television show. Does it really matter? I think it does. And I think that any story that can be told without a break for more than 50 years, such as As The World Turns, deserves to be celebrated and its passing deserves to be mourned.
There are still people who need experiential outlets and serial drama may be an important and overlooked one to help people deal with their personal issues and to teach them to tell their own stories in a meaningful way.
What happens to those folks when we can no longer “tune in tomorrow?”