The Future Of Soaps Is Now
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
And Then There Were Four - How Do We Keep Daytime Alive?
With only four soaps — DAYS OF OUR LIVES, YOUNG AND RESTLESS, BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL and GENERAL HOSPITAL — left on the daytime docket in 2012, the future of soaps is on the minds of fans and industry professionals alike. Can soaps still thrive — and, if so, how?
"If Johnny Carson had Leno's numbers, he wouldn't have been on the air," sighs Walt Willey (ex-Jackson, ALL MY CHILDREN). "But it's a different world. Soaps can't be the cash cow for sports and news anymore."
Since they aren't ringing up change on the network registers, soaps need to effect changes from within to stay current. "The problem with storytelling today is that the story is told too fast and ends too fast: Moments are not played out and delineated the way they used to be," observes veteran Executive Producer Paul Rauch, whose credits include five now-defunct series: ANOTHER WORLD, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, GUIDING LIGHT, SANTA BARBARA and TEXAS. "Now, it's about event to event to event, and nothing is germinated properly because of the feeling that you need to cut away every couple of minutes. I think that ruins what the pace should be in daytime."
"I think these shows are too heavy: [they have] too many people, and they are weighted down." offers soap talent manager Michael Bruno, who handles many soap actors, including Y&R's Debbi Morgan (Harmony), Stephen Nichols (Tucker), and DAYS OF OUR LIVES's Lauren Koslow (Kate). "They also need to let the head writers write and commit to story and tell one, as opposed to starting and stopping writing." Bruno thinks that there's also a dated feel to soaps that needs to be dealt with. "They're not really cool or hip anymore. It's an unfortunate time, but something drastic needs to happen or they all will be gone within two years."
Andrea Evans (Tina, OLTL; Tawny, B&B) also believes that a new approach could breathe life into daytime. "I'm not an expert by any means, but I do think that [soaps] could have life in them, if they're written well," she opines. "Yes, the budgets are not what they once were, but look at soaps in other countries: Some are so low-budget, but taps are really popular. Look at B&B
it's so popular in places like Italy Ind South Africa. [Executive Producer/ I lead Writer] Brad Bell was a genius for appealing to the international market."
Fellow B&B-er Ian Buchanan (ex- lames; Ian, DAYS), who himself has been on canceled soaps like PORT CHARLES and AMC, agrees. "I'm not sure that people really have evolved from a need or a passion for good storytelling and literature," he asserts. "Sitting around a campfire and telling stories, I think, is a very important part of life. I think there is still a great need for it, and if it's done properly, it has a place and a life. I like what they're doing at DAYS," he says, noting the show's high-profile reset. "It's doing a soap, and it's very well-done. The stories are great. So I don't understand this feeling that, 'Well, the audience doesn't really care [for daytime soap] anymore.' I don't really agree with it. I think a lot of the decisions [to ax shows] were made because of money."
Though Prospect Park's much-talked-about online intentions and the myriad Web soaps have shown that the Internet could give the genre new life, Willey points out that there's a learning curve. "What [Prospect Park] didn't take into account is all the education that they were going to have to do. The demographic that is for sure going to go there [to watch their shows online] are
my age, and, yeah. I've been doing nothing but streaming Netflix and being cable-less for years, but I am not the usual demo."
Indeed. The elusive "demo" is part of the challenge that daytime faces. "The problem back in the '90s was that all of a sudden, 'demographics' became the byword," explains Rauch. "People used to look at household ratings, and household ratings were what we went by. Then, all of a sudden, it became demographics, and then it became the 18-49 demographics. That was when all the shows began trying all these new young characters on the air. Everybody started looking the same from show to show, and all of the stories
were the same: 18-year-old girl gets pregnant, 18-year-old gets kidnapped, and 18-year-olds go on the run. And virtually none of them could act. I think the shows themselves are responsible for their own demise: half-ass storytelling and not much thought given to innovation."
But innovation in an endangered soap climate is a daunting task all around. "I have talked to crew members who have been with the show 30-odd years, and I feel for them," sighs David Gregory (Ford, OLTL). "This is something that has been a part of their lives [for a very long time]." From a young actor's standpoint, "it's an exciting time, it's bittersweet — scary, but it's a good kind of scary. Sixty years ago, they were talking about I [the transition of] radio to television. It's going to be interesting to see how it pans out."
Things are certainly poised to become more competitive for actors, with fewer open jobs. "As each soap goes, it is like the lifeboats from the Titanic: Only two or three people from the sinking soap will end up on the remaining ones," explains Bruno. "When you have a role for anyone over 28, the shows have huge names from other shows with huge fan bases. They have the pick of the litter. They also can play that game of lowballing in the negotiation, because they can turn around and say, 'If he/she doesn't want to do it, we have another 10 big stars waiting for the call!' "
In terms of the overall outlook for daytime, everyone is waiting. "I don't know if there is a future for the traditional hour long, network soaps," admits Russell Todd, who played AW's Jamie from 1990-93. "But if they go online, they'd have to restructure, because Webisodes are generally much shorter. Then again, soaps were only 15 minutes at first. I think there could be a 'future' in soap reruns, like DVD packages and things like that. I'd love to see AW on DVD. I still have fans coming up to me, and I left the show almost 20 years ago, so the loyalty is still there!"
In the meantime, viewer loyalty is still firmly tied to the four soaps left on the air — though the fate of GH, as the lone ABC soap, is certainly in question. "It's got a date stamp on it," acknowledges Willey. "They may be able to keep it up and running, but I can't believe that any more people are watching that in real time than were watching [AMC and OLTL] in real time." Still, Willey maintains that soaps are "a viable entertainment genre, — the most prolific entertainment genre the world over, in fact."
So, what's the bottom line? Says Y&R Co-Head Writer Scott Hamner, "I think that, for Y&R, it's about staying true to our core characters and keeping the focus on family and relationships, which have characterized our show from the beginning and is ultimately what people tune in for. What soaps have to remember is that history begets story."
By Mala Bhattacharjee