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Soap Operas on the ropes

Why the daytime dramas are taking a bath in the ratings

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It might be a crisis too messy to be stitched up at General Hospital, too complex to be solved by The Young and the Restless, too troubling to be soothed by a lot of Loving: The daily soap opera is in danger of being all washed up. Once the province of TV’s raciest stuff, the high-strung, overheated network dramas that have dominated daytime for 30 years are now being outsobbed and outsexed by a glut of syndicated talk shows that are cheaper and easier to produce. In other words, the Bold and the Beautiful are being hung out to dry by the Loud and the Tasteless.

In the past decade, the networks have canceled seven soaps and launched only one successful one, CBS’ The Bold and the Beautiful. That brings the nets’ soap total to 10, and there are no plans for more. By contrast, 19 daytime talk shows are in the race, and most have entered in the last two years. Ratings underscore the soap distress: In 1969, before cable eroded network audiences, every one of the top 10 daytime soaps got higher ratings than today’s top sudser, CBS’ The Young and the Restless. In a mere five years, the soaps’ collective ratings have sunk 14 percent (mirroring the earlier decline of game shows). Even Y&R draws 1.5 million fewer households than daytime’s No. 1 program, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

”We talk about this often and we’re worried about it,” says Felicia Behr, executive producer of ABC’s All My Children, the No. 2 soap. ”We’re all hoping this is going to turn around. We don’t want to see this culture die out.”

Symptoms of the soaps’ slippage are most serious at NBC, which is down from its six-soap count of 22 years ago to two—and even those may be abandoned. ”The problem with soap operas is that if one slips, a replacement takes forever to build an audience,” says NBC’s new president of daytime programming (and, note, talk-show developer), John Rohrbeck. ”Stations just don’t have the patience, especially given that a soap costs two to three times as much to produce as a talk show (which typically costs $200,000 per week).” Last month his flagship station in New York City bumped the low-rated Another World into the deadly noon slot and moved its talk shows to earlier times to compete with the ABC and CBS soaps.

Born on radio in the ’30s and transplanted to TV in the late ’40s as somber confessionals set to organ music, soaps attained their greatest popularity in the early ’80s with a potent mix of steamy sex and provocative, issue-oriented plots. A decade later, those story lines seem almost quaint compared with the relentlessly sensational topics that feed the hydra-headed talk industry spawned by Oprah, Phil, and Sally. The soaps’ hoariest plot clichés—amnesia and evil twins, say—now pop up regularly as subjects du jour on the chat shows (see box below).

”People used to watch soap operas partly so they could say ‘See, my life isn’t so bad,”’ says talk host Maury Povich. ”Now they can watch real people with problems.”

Even network execs admit soaps have not kept pace with changing times. Their two reigning queens, Susan Lucci of All My Children and Deidre Hall of NBC’s Days of Our Lives, are well into their 40s, and no younger successors have emerged. The talk world, on the other hand, recently welcomed such newcomers as actress Ricki Lake, sociologist Bertice Berry, and motivational speaker Les Brown. Tentatively planning to join the fold are Suzanne Somers, Lucie Arnaz, and Alan Thicke.

Despite the current boom, though, talkers aren’t always invincible. After just two weeks, Dallas’ CBS affiliate abruptly banished King World’s The Les Brown Show from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. because of poor ratings. ”These talk shows won’t all last,” predicts Lynn Leahey, editor in chief of Soap Opera Digest, who obviously has a vested interest. ”Soap operas are great dramas that draw you in for years. How many times will people want to watch gay transvestite parents losing their children?”

Fair question. Like some of its characters, the soap genre, though presumed dead by many, could still turn out to be alive in the battle for daytime’s $1 billion-plus ad revenues. Forty percent of American women, not counting those who tape, are watching at least one soap a week. On Oct. 29, attempting to recapture the glow of soapdom’s golden era, ABC’s General Hospital will bring back Luke and Laura (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis), whose November 1981 wedding drew the highest ratings (30 million viewers) ever for a daytime drama. ”We’re looking to re-create history,” admits executive producer Wendy Riche. ”But we’re not looking to capture lightning in a bottle twice. We’re % just looking to bring old friends back.”

Those once-friendly viewers ”will come back to us,” predicts Pat Fili- Krushel, ABC’s president of daytime programming. ”Our shows are in good shape and we’re committed to them. Talk shows have made inroads, but I think we can coexist very nicely together.”

In fact, a symbiotic relationship—call it Talk Soap—might be the soaps’ greatest chance for survival. Talk-show producers have discovered that booking soap stars brings major ratings. In turn, soap publicists find daytime talk shows a bonanza for their stars, few of whom have the name power to get on the early-morning or late-night shows.

Such cross-pollination is blurring the lines between soap and talk. This month, Brent Jasmer (The Bold and the Beautiful) appeared on Geraldo to talk about his search for his birth mother. Without his knowledge, the show’s producers had found her and staged the meeting for the cameras. Furious, Jasmer—who had wanted a private reunion—threatened to sue.

It sounds like the perfect plotline for a soap. Or the topic of another talk show.

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