Most people dismiss soap operas for their unbelievable story lines and exaggerated, some would say silly, drama.
Why, then, is the nation transfixed by Tiger Woods' personal drama?
Are celebrity soap operas replacing daytime television soap operas?
After Tiger hit a fire hydrant full of women over Thanksgiving weekend, the world was treated to daily updates on this breaking "news" story.
At first Tiger was in the hospital, then he wasn't. Later it was a domestic dispute over an affair, then it was two affairs, then twelve, then too many to count. Vague statements on Tiger's website copped to "transgressions," further whetting the public's appetite for this salacious story of good guy gone bad.
Tiger cowered and took an indefinite leave of absence from golf. Sponsors - including Accenture, Gillette (owned by Procter and Gamble, the company that helped cerate soap operas in 1933) and Tag Heuer - abandoned their tarnished golden boy amid rumors of porn stars, unprotected sex, prescription drug abuse and ties to a shady doctor. The only thing missing from this soapy story was a bout of amnesia or an evil twin to pin the blame on.
As the media frenzy fed on itself, titillating Tiger tidbits moved beyond blogs and supermarket tabloids to infiltrate network news programs. It followed a path previously blazed by the never-ending celebrity dramas of Jon and Kate, Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, and the granddaddy of all modern media spectacles, the OJ Simpson trial.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines soap opera as "a serial drama performed originally on a daytime radio or television program and chiefly characterized by tangled interpersonal situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment." Sound familiar?
What's next for the Tiger serial? Since he allegedly played a dozen holes without prophylactic protection, might an illegitimate Tiger cub surface so we can watch our fallen hero grapple with a child he never knew? Reality has superseded fiction.
Now comes word his wife is planning to file for divorce. How much money will she get? And why do we even care?
We care because we feel an emotional connection to Tiger. Sports fans watched him grow into a man before their very eyes. Anyone with even a peripheral knowledge of golf felt his pain when his father died of prostate cancer in 2006, and felt his triumph when he overcame injury to win the 2008 US Open on one leg. We care because we like to see ourselves reflected in our celebrity heroes, as evidenced by those infamous "I am Tiger Woods" Nike ads.
The public's attachment to Tiger is not unlike what soap fans feel for their favorite characters. If you see them on your screen often enough, you feel like you know them. Our fandom makes them ours.
How we react to a character's victories and failures speaks to our relationship with them. We either relish in their downfall and kick them while they're down, or we embrace them and root for their comeback. Does anyone doubt that when Tiger returns to golf, if he plays as well as he has in the past, his character will become even bigger and more mythical?
While our celebrity-obsessed culture's attention is focused on the foibles of imperfect idols, real soaps are dying. In 2009, both the venerable 72-year-old Guiding Light and 54-year-old As the World Turns were canceled.
During their heyday in the 70's and 80's, soaps reigned supreme. Nearly 20 soaps were broadcast every day across the three networks. Now it's down to six, and that number is likely to decrease. Ratings are at an all-time low, counting just a few million viewers per day. CBS president Les Moonves, speaking about soaps, told CNBC last week, "They've had long and distinguished runs and their days are over."
Soap operas feature heroes and villains every bit as compelling as the ripped-from-the-headlines dramas that consume our attention. With these celebrity soaps dominating the airwaves, it seems almost certain daytime television soap operas are destined to continue their slow march to oblivion.
What do you think? Have celebrity soaps replaced the classic daytime television soap?
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