So how did we — and by “we,” I mean soaps and soap fans — get to the point at which we are today? How did it come to be that a cultural force, though derided by many for sure, occupies such dire straits? One of the many metaphors that came to my mind as I researched and wrote about this problem was soaps as a whole as a sturdy, old but thriving, tree. Over the years, leaves (individual soaps) would fall off in the natural course of life as new ones would come forth, well-nurtured from the inside and well-protected from assault from the outside.
The grandmother of soap operas is Irna Phillips, who left behind teaching Chicago schoolchildren and her Orthodox Jewish upbringing in 1930 to pursue her dream of acting. Despite her procuring of a position hosting a local radio program, her superiors soon asked her perform a different duty: to write the script for a show that would be broadcast in installments, an aural progeny of the 19th century serial novel and the newspaper comic format. Ron Simon writes in his book, Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera:
Phillips melded several key elements in her work — the structure of the serial, the homey philosophy of the woman’s program, and aspects of her own lonely, introspective life — to create one of the most resilient genres of broadcasting — the soap opera. (16)
Phillips named the first fifteen-minute-increment serial she wrote Painted Dreams and based it on a soap opera theme that endures to this day: a core group of related characters navigating the peaks and valleys of everyday life. Her next radio serial creation, The Guiding Light, would eventually transition to television and continue being produced for a total of sixty-four years.
Another element of Phillips’ vision for her serials, the writing of stories and scenes conducive to product placement, garnered her sponsorship from Proctor and Gamble (P&G), who continued to produce soap operas into the twenty-first century, eventually abandoning them. P&G’s early underwriting of daytime serials led to the mainstream media’s pejoratively naming them “soap operas”, as said corporation manufactured household cleaners and regularly advertised them during daytime serials. Phillips would eventually mentor two later soap opera writing giants, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell, creators of six soap operas between them.
The second half of the titular epithet “soap opera,” eventually appropriated by the soap opera industry and thus stripped of its nasty tone, came about due to what critics perceived of as the melodramatic nature of daytime serial plots. One could easily argue, however, that the literary canon is rife with “overwrought” storytelling. One could also argue that the original, almost exclusively female audience of early daytime serials and its feminine narratives — essentially, character-based ones as opposed to masculine, plot-based ones — made it an easy target for scorn.
Frank and Anne Hummert were a married couple who wrote for early radio serials like Irna Phillips. But the Hummerts rejected the Phillips model and created stories based on fantasy. Few, if any, listeners lived lives like those lived by Hummert characters, but their serials too drew in viewers, perhaps for different reasons. Soap operas later incorporated the Hummert model into their stories and characters. Hence on the four soaps extant today, at least one of the core families around which stories revolve has seemingly unlimited wealth: the Forresters on The Bold and the Beautiful, the DiMeras on Days of our Lives, the Quartermaines on General Hospital, and the Abbots on The Young and the Restless.
The soap industry would eventually become a juggernaut of cultural significance and generator of billions of dollars in revenue. Soaps would come and go, but many remained on the canvas consistently even after the nearly-year-long event that many soap scholars and analysts mark as the death knell for soaps (Ford 154): the OJ Simpson trial.
In 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance, Ron Goldman, were found lying in oceans of their own blood outside Brown Simpson’s home, having been stabbed dozens of times. Football Hall-of-Famer OJ Simpson went on trial for their murders in January 1995. The trial lasted for almost six months and Simpson was acquitted in what many said was a gross miscarriage of justice but others saw as a rightful vindication of an African-American man framed by a racist white police officer and a law enforcement culture severely biased against African-American men. Scholars and network and industry analysts called the trial the beginning of the end for soaps for several reasons. First, the three networks that aired the bulk of daytime programming preempted that programming to televise the trial, which caused many soap viewers to tune out and never tune back in. Second, with none of the humanity, heart, or sanguine representation of the human experience that soap operas show us, the trial contained enough blurrily facsimiled soap-like characteristics of fictional drama to draw in millions of viewers everyday: high drama in both the televised trial and the history shared by those involved, but drama that was lurid and salacious not poignant and meaningful, as in soaps; a colorful cast of interrelated characters, whose lives and relations seem random and upsettingly tragic, not ones whose existences affirm the human experience and that people let into hearts over time and thus build bonds with, as in soaps; and a “story” that aired for 134 consecutive weekdays, but whose “characters” seemed exhausted and anxious at the end of the daytime programming time slot, so with the same kind of regularity of soaps’ airing but not peopled by characters who were strong and looking forward to facing the challenges to come in their lives when the story picked up, as in soaps.
Finally, networks saw that they could put on videotape people who were not professional actors with unions and other career-related safeguards and expectations, structure what they recorded into a loosely dramatic format, and air those recordings on television for much less than the cost of producing a daytime drama, and that people would watch it. They saw that they didn’t have invest in high-paid, union-protected actors; crews of experts in their fields; or lavish sets to gain significant market share of audiences. Hence, reality TV, which many believe has damaged the appetite and audience for scripted television with its cheap-to-produce knock-off version of it.
Networks began to turn away from scripted television, including in daytime. Daytime actually began to feature mostly lifestyle, talk, and legal shows, but still the appeal of reality TV, cheap-to-produce fare that audiences would eat up, was the cause. In 2009 the soap cancellations began with Guiding Light, then Another World and As the World Turns, and most recently All My Children and One Life to Live (momentarily resurrected online only to be canceled again).
We soaps fans now bear the responsibility to resurrect the canceled soap opera voice and prevent further cancellations. TTIF is here to help you do that. Go to the “Your Turn” section and the see the weekly Wednesday blog posts for exercises to pique your love of soaps and suggest activist tasks that will bring back canceled soaps and stop the canceling of the four currently left on the air.