Soap Operas: Can They Survive?

04/08/2011 12:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

"All My Children" is hanging on for dear life.

After moving the entire production from New York to Los Angeles to save money, publicly cutting the paycheck of its most well-known star, and eliminating long-time cast members, the show still remains on the chopping block. What's a classic show to do?

Bobbie Eakes, a cast member on the show, has been feverishly tweeting polls and petitions directed at ABC executives. "AMC is not being cancelled! But now is a great time to let the network know you'd like to keep it that way," she tweeted, adding a smiley emoticon for good measure.

If ABC followed through with its cancellation, "All My Children" would join a long line of recent soap opera casualties. "Guiding Light," which premiered on CBS in 1952 after fifteen years on the radio, was cancelled in 2009, and "As the World Turns" followed in September 2010, airing the last episode of its 54-year run. More tellingly: not a single daytime soap has been created in the last twelve years and only six are currently running. In comparison, 19 soaps graced the airwaves in 1970.

"Networks are looking to get out of the soap opera business," said Abigail De Kosnik, co-editor of The Survival of the Soap Opera , putting things bluntly. "Tristan Rogers of 'General Hospital' said that soaps will be gone from the airwaves in five years or fewer."

So what happened? How did the format that Time magazine once called "television's richest market" find itself on the verge of extinction?

Experts have come up with plenty of explanations, and the first is simply sociological. "The old model of soap opera was built around an ideal viewer who no longer exists: the bored housewife," said De Kosnik. "But since the 1950s, women have entered the workplace in droves. There are stay-at-home moms, but they are wealthier, and they regard their ability to dedicate themselves to their family's domestic concerns to be a privilege, even a marker of status."

Essentially, the idea of "escaping" to a sudser on a daily basis doesn't hold the dramatic appeal for women that it once did, and those still in need of their escapism are getting their guilty pleasures elsewhere. For every daytime soap's botched exorcism, sizzling resurrection, or Luke and Laura-attempting-to-save-the-world-from-carbonic-snow, we now have enough reality-based interventions, live-rat-hoarders, and episodes of "Jersey Shore" saved on our DVR to last a lifetime.

Those shows are cheaper to make. Daytime reality shows, game shows, and talk shows all generate far greater returns than soap operas do -- and they are much easier to syndicate. It seems impossible to watch a soap opera in reruns, perhaps aired out of order. How do you keep track of who is divorcing and having sex with and killing whom? This might explain why SOAPNet, the cable network for soaps-in-syndication, recently announced it would become "Disney Jr." in 2012, specializing in early education and pre-school programming and proving, once and for all, that Mickey Mouse is far more powerful than Tabitha the 300-year-old witch.

Furthermore, daytime soaps no longer attract the coveted 18-34 demographic in large numbers, making them far less appealing to advertisers. Whereas "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura storyline once lured college students, teens, and even pre-teens to the genre, nowadays you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman under 25 who admits to following a daytime soap with any of the same steadfast devotion as older generations did. Young viewers are more likely to tune in to any number of weekly primetime series like "Gossip Girl" or "Vampire Diaries."

So the question remains: do soaps throw in the towel, or do they try to revamp? Can a medium that started in the 1930s during the Great Depression find a new audience today in the Great Recession? The median age of the average daytime soap viewer currently stands around the mid-50s. Sam Ford, a writer and co-founder of the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT, argues that networks should use this knowledge of their demographic appeal to their advantage.

"If soaps are to stay alive, it will require a complete shift in the mindsets of the institutions involved," Ford says. "Most regular shows age with their demographic and then go off the air, but soap operas aim to stay on the air for many years. So rather than taking a primetime mentality of reaching the youngest, hippest audiences, soap operas should focus on hanging on to their multi-generational appeal."

Ford advocates targeting daytime soaps specifically to boomers. They're the ones who watched Luke and Laura in droves during the 1970s, and they're also joining social media outlets faster than any other age group. "Daytime soaps are built around sharing stories. If the boomers are on Facebook playing Farmville, why can't they be keeping up with soap operas?"

Perhaps daytime soaps could also take a hint from the unwavering success of the Spanish language telenovelas. The four major Spanish-language broadcasters took in over $3 billion in ad revenue just last year. The Telemundo network has garnered attention recently for "La Reina del Sur" (Queen of the South), a show about the rise of a female drug-trafficker, which in its second week trumped all the English-language networks among viewers ages 18-34 within the 10pm hour. Univision's telenovela programming, meanwhile, is still its most successful venture by far.

"In the early stages, we were trying to be what everybody else was," Don Browne, President of Telemundo Communications, told the Hollywood Reporter: "But we realized there's an appetite for contemporary, smart content that speaks in a real way to Hispanics in this country."

And apparently the networks are listening. ABC is developing a telenovela of their own-- a US version of the Argentinian telenovela "Los Roldán" with producer Salma Hayek. (But who knows if they'll have the cajones to make it as gritty and unwavering as its Spanish-speaking counterpart?)

In the past, the daytime soaps that tried to shake up their age-old formats have failed. "Passions," the NBC soap that ran from 1999 to 2007, tried the supernatural thing, and "Port Charles" had a sexy vampire or two. "Guiding Light's" executive producer, Ellen Wheeler, attempted to turn that program into a dramatized reality show, complete with shaky handheld cameras, more realistic, city-centric sets, and lower budget. The result? Fans rebelled and the show was soon cancelled.

Indeed, the daytime soap opera may not last much longer, but the networks have to decide how much preserving the format actually matters to them. Otherwise they can start from scratch, learn from the telenovelas and reach out to other demographics and ethnicities. The networks could also take a look at Showtime's period serials like "The Tudors" and "The Borgias" for inspiration. As their success proves, there's still an appetite for unique serial programming.

Perhaps the key is more obvious: We clone James Franco six times and add one of them to each remaining soap opera. As the ratings for his absurd General Hospital appearances illustrate, America will watch this guy do just about anything.

So what do you think, ABC? Isn't it about time we saw a telenovela starring James Franco featuring characters breaking the fourth wall to discuss real-life issues a la "The View"?

That show would have everything.