I don't know what bothers me more about ABC's announcement last week that it had canceled All My Children and One Life to Live, two of its three long-running soap operas: The arrogance inherent in the action of announcing both cancellations at once, the apparent failure of a major global entertainment content company to explore innovative alternatives to those cancellations, the decision to terminate two established franchises at the same time that ABC's affiliates and audience must also process the departures of daytime icons Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin, the fact that hundreds of people (many of whom were encouraged just a year and a half ago to uproot their lives in New York City and relocate to Los Angeles when ABC moved AMC from coast to coast) are losing their jobs as our economy further deteriorates, or the grim realization that, once One Life to Live ceases production, there will be no soap operas produced in New York. What a staggering blow to the acting community in that great city. (Imagine the outsize publicity a basic cable network would enjoy next year if one were to take advantage of this latest broadcast bungle and begin producing a daily soap opera or two in Manhattan!)
Adding salt to all of those wounds: ABC is going to replace AMC and OLTL with a cooking show and a weight-loss show. I won't pass judgment on those programs until I see them, but the concepts, to put it mildly, suggest a creative bankruptcy on the part of the network, in that television is already overflowing with variations of both in daytime and primetime on broadcast and cable. Also, there are countless segments every week on local and national news and entertainment programs exploring both subjects.
I'm the first to acknowledge that the daytime drama writing pool has been allowed to stagnate in recent years. But that didn't mean ABC (or any network) had to cancel its shows. It simply meant that new writers had to be found and that ABC (which owns its soaps) had to take better care of the characters on its shows as different writers and producers came and went along the way.
As for the all too convenient excuse of low ratings, I'm not buying it. Ratings for daytime and primetime programming are, at best, inaccurate. Further, there are many other compelling reasons to keep programs alive beyond numbers, accurate or otherwise. If there weren't, most of NBC's primetime shows would have been canceled years ago, most basic cable networks would run only movies around the clock, and The CW would likely have been terminated during its infancy!
The recent cancellations over at CBS of Guiding Light and As the World Turns were similarly depressing to anyone who ever enjoyed watching daytime drama (or, in the case of GL, listening to it on the radio way back when). The difference, however, is that GL and ATWT were often described as shows belonging to older generations. It was common to hear them described as "my grandmother's soaps" or "the soaps my mother used to watch when she did her ironing." Not so AMC and OLTL. They came into being during the youth-quake of the seventies and, in tandem with General Hospital, brought millions of teenagers, college students and young adults of both sexes to daytime. (At the time, some 25 percent of the audience for GH was comprised of men.) Women continued to dominate daytime, but young people made all three of these shows cultural phenomena never before experienced in the day-part.
Given their rich recent histories and, with talented producers and writers at their helms, the proven popularity of these shows with audiences of all ages, it is truly startling that ABC decided to dump them, let alone within a few months of each other. Daily soap operas are the only form of television entertainment exclusive to broadcast networks, and thus of particular interest to advertisers, so I can't help but wonder why ABC didn't do what it did with GH back in 1977, when that series was low-rated and marked for cancellation. ABC executives at the time acknowledged that they had nothing to lose and turned GH over to the legendary executive producer Gloria Monty. She was free to do (within reason) whatever she wanted with it for six months. If she pumped new life into it and began to grow its audience the show wouldn't be canceled. If not, it would end. Monty briskly and breathtakingly transformed GH into a sleek, contemporary serial unlike anything else on daytime television. The record-breaking Luke and Laura story grew out of that. The rest is history.
If they were so close to death, didn't AMC and OLTL deserve the same chance; the same dynamic, innovative approach to their possible salvation?
There must have been other things ABC could have tried. Perhaps it could have cut each show to 30 minutes (like CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful), in the process reducing the casts and crews of both but not eliminating everyone's jobs. What a great, fast-paced hour of daytime television that would have made! Or, each show could have remained one hour long and run in weekly cycles in the same time period: One week of AMC, followed by one week of OLTL, then another week of AMC, etc. Digitally empowered viewers would have no trouble keeping up. On-screen explanations and promos would take care of everybody else.
Another thought, if a cancellation simply had to occur: Why not first kill AMC (in recent years the least compelling of ABC's three soaps) and see if its disenfranchised viewers migrated to OLTL? This could have been further encouraged by guest or recurring appearances on OLTL by certain performers/characters from AMC. Susan Lucci of AMC is arguably the most popular actress in the history of daytime drama. (She even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) Don't tell me that the opportunity to see La Lucci (as Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Roy Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick Montgomery ) mix it up with Erika Slezak (as Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks) and Robin Strasser (as Dorian Cramer Lord Callison Santi Vickers Hayes Laurence Vickers) wouldn't be welcomed by the daytime audience.
Finally, if I may be permitted to think way out of the box, why couldn't ABC have tried turning these beloved franchises (both household names) into a once-a-week primetime shows? Imagine a two-hour soap block on Friday nights, replacing whatever it is ABC runs on Friday nights. Next month ABC and the other broadcast networks will unveil to advertisers and journalists dozens of costly new primetime shows for next season. As always, most of them will fail. I think it's safe to say that primetime versions of AMC and OLTL would fare better in the ratings than many of the season's inevitable frosh-bombs.
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