It's been a sad few years for soap opera fans. All My Children will go dark in September of this year as will One Life to Live just a few months later in January of 2012. And in 2009 and 2010 we saw the end of Guiding Light and As The World Turns. The soap opera fan base is a passionate one. Fans are running twitter, email, and letter writing campaigns in an effort to save their favorite shows.
Soaps are sometimes referred to as a woman's genre, a phrase that can sound just as dismissive as descriptive. Soap operas are not perfect, be it in their storytelling or their portrayal of women. But, there's something unique about them, something this passionate fanbase wants to hang onto. I can't speak for all fans but, for me, it's part escapism and part nostalgia. Many viewers grew up watching soaps, often with our mothers or grandmothers. The characters onscreen grew to feel like part of our own families. In addition soaps boast a large number of female characters in a variety of roles, something that's difficult to find in many other TV shows. Also rare is the focus on family relationships and friendships, some developed over years and decades and many of them female centric. I must admit too to a love of the more ridiculous elements. I’m a sucker for a good evil twin or baby switch storyline.
There are many theories as to why ratings fell and soaps are dying out now including fewer women being home during the day and more to channels choose from. Those are valid but the decline in viewers cannot be blamed solely on outside forces. I believe another part of the puzzle is that, somewhere along the line, networks lost respect for the genre’s viewers. Rumor has it that Brian Frons, President of ABC Daytime, said that daytime viewers needed to be "trained like dogs." Given the way the soap audience skews female, that sounds frustratingly like, 'women have no idea what they want so we'll decide for them.' The problem with acting on an assumption like that is, when you’re wrong, you lose viewers/
I spent some time recently watching early nineties episodes of Another World. Compared to the soap operas of today, those old episodes felt more thoughtful. Even when characters did something dramatic or unexpected, it was done in a way that felt true to that character. Careful storytelling like that acknowledges the viewers and their investment in the show. Today’s soaps tend to throw couples together and to favor shocking moments and action instead of building the characters and relationships that, in the past, gave those big moments meaning. With that change, soaps lost some of their magic.
Fortunately, that magic is living on in new formats. After Guiding Light ended, star Crystal Chappell started her own web series, Venice. On Guiding Light Chappell's character was part of a lesbian romance. Having been part of that fandom, I can attest to how important it was to a great number of women to see a relationship that reflected their own portrayed on daytime. The relationship, while groundbreaking in many ways, was held back by a genre that either could not or would not evolve far enough to give fans what they wanted. Heterosexual couples kissed and had sex scenes while Olivia and Natalia held hands and gave each other meaningful looks. In Venice, Chappell and Jessica Leccia play Gina and Ani. The pairing has love scenes, romantic triangles, and all the great soapy stuff that's traditionally been saved for heterosexual couples on daytime.
Chappell was inspired to start Venice by listening to her fans. She's quoted as saying "And obviously [Venice] came from the feedback that I got from the Otalia fans. They were so completely passionate and vocal and specific about what it is that they liked about that story. And the underlying message was… there’s a need for this. (After Ellen, September 2009)” Chappell saw that women in her audience needed to see their lives reflected on screen and she delivered. Venice has reaped the benefits of listening to its audience, winning several awards including 2010 Outstanding Soap Opera from Canadian TV Guide. First season subscription earnings even made enough money to fully support season 2 of the show.
Michael O’Leary, Beth Chamberlin, and Scott Bryce, also veterans of the soaps, started Steamboat. Steamboat is a web series about a troubled soap. It’s a love letter to soaps and their fans. It not only acknowledges the ridiculous elements of the genre but celebrates them, inviting fans along for the party. Steamboat was rewarded for this approach with positive fan response and several awards including Best Supporting Actress for Beth Chamberlin at the Indie Intertube Awards.
Both series have elements of what is so lovable about soaps: the drama, the love triangles, and lovable and often outrageous characters. The difference is that these shows are made entirely by people who love the genre and respect its viewers. One fan said on Steamboat's Facebook page, "We want just what you have been giving us, quality and humor." Without the interference of network executives who think they know what's best for their audience, or worse that the audience can be trained to enjoy whatever is thrown at them, people are making quality shows that viewers enjoy and want more of.
Maybe this is how soaps will live on, in new formats with people at the helm who care about and listen to their audiences. That's not such a bad thing. I admire the do-it-yourself spirit of the women and men behind these projects. I just can't help but think, if some of the higher ups at ABC had the insight and the respect for their audience necessary to listen to their audience and deliver a consistent quality product, maybe One Life to Live and All My Children would have lived on.
Piece written by Elizabeth Fisher
Image is from www.electricferret.com