Are daytime dramas (referred to as soap operas) a thing of the past? Are they relevant today? To be honest, I haven’t watched a daytime drama for any length of time since 2001 or 2002. Saying that, I need to give you a little background.
y mom watched soaps. My grandmother watched soaps. The difference was my mom and grandmother didn’t want the “children” anywhere near them. My first remembrance of daytime drama came when Nancy Carr of “Edge of Night” saved her daughter’s life and died. I had accidentally found the two of them crying over it.” As I grew up (and had a boring television science class), our class discovered a relatively new daytime drama (yeah, we cheated) and started watching when the teacher went to the lounge. “All My Children” was something we could identify with. Philip Brent, the poor boy, was going to war. We all cried (even the boys) as he said goodbye. We got caught (of course) and it was back to boring science. Same scenario happened when Phillip returned only it was a state church youth meeting. They thought we needed a rest period (during “All My Children”). Let’s just say, the rest period got voted down the first night and the television in the lounges became very popular.
I honestly left soaps when I got into the working force. I didn’t have time or energy to spend on them. When we got a VCR, we recorded One Life to Live (it was filming in my home state) and General Hospital. Little did I know that I would change jobs to a university and a former professor (now best friend) and I would start a study of social issues and soap operas. The first paper, for a Women’s Studies conference, dealt with consequences of rape using One Life to Live and General Hospital. We didn’t stop there. I had friends who watched or knew people at various other soaps who helped us compile a listing of all the rapes on all daytime. Let’s just say, I never knew that Days of Our Lives fans could be so vicious until during that presentation. The sheer number on Days caused a riot with the fans in denial. I stayed in soap research presenting at National and Regional Popular Culture Conferences until ABC soaps decided to go mob and return stories to the 1960s. Since then, I’ve watched discussions from the sidelines as I saw the soaps declined.
So what do I mean. Let’s look at the rise and fall of soaps at ten year increments from 1962 to the present. I’m not going to list the show’s name unless they air now and only shares are listed. In 1962, twelve soap operas aired on CBS, ABC, and NBC. The ratings went from 12.0 to 3.4. Interesting enough,, no soaps from then remain. “General Hospital” debuted in 1963. So, let’s jump ten years. In 1972, there were 16 soap operas airing on the three major networks with “The Young and the Restless” having the lowest rating of 5.0. A large number of shows still had respectable ratings with “General Hospital” having a 9.7. Ten years pass and 1982 saw the numbers of shows and viewers drop. Now only 14 shows air on the networks with General Hospital (9.8) having the best ratings. Ten more years to 1992 saw soaps decline to only 11 network shows with “The Young and Restless” at the top (8.4). Another ten years to 2002 and we have only 9 shows with “The Young and the Restless” on top (4.7). Another ten years to 2012 and “oh no!” We’re down to four shows (the ones airing now) and viewership down again to 3.6. In 2022, we only have four remaing and the viewership is still out on the shows.
So why the decrease. During the 1990s Popular Culture meetings, this trend was discussed. While many women were entering the work force, the findings were that students (18-21) had stopped watching. This took a chunk of fans away. Only ABC was admitting situations in the world with cancer, AIDS, and crime. And with the advent of cable, there were many other options developing.
To me, the real reason is more simple than that. I watched the shows (with commercials and certain characters fast forwarded) on ABC. Up until the 2000s, that network daytime dramas (“All My Children,” “One LIfe to Live,” and “General Hospital”) were more reflective of what I was seeing in the world. It spoke to issues that affected real people in the real world. Yes, I know that there is a group of people who do watch soaps today for the affairs, romance, and intrigue. But to me baby swapping, husband stealing, and scheming to take over the same businesses could be seen in prime time. And, in prime time, implications were shown.
In the 2000’s, the daytime dramas started to disappear from the screens. The explanation was that viewership was down (which it was) and that local channels wanted the time back to do their own programming. I think that, with my generation, the loyal viewers (who watched Philip Brent march to war while his mom protested) were tired of the same old, same old. And this thought continued in the younger generation at the college where I worked. The younger generation didn’t have time for viewing daytime drama. Too many older fans had grown tired of waiting six months for something to happens. In fact one student told me that if they wanted the soap drama, they’d go watch “The Real World” or “The Real Housewives of (insert city of choice here)” on cable.
As I left viewing the shows, I stated my view to “Soap Opera Digest” in an 2001/2002 article. I was tired of how women were portrayed. I was tired of women having to turn to the men to ask their opinion on business dealings or money issues. I was tired of love affairs and baby swapping. I wanted a mystery (which no longer was done). And most of all, I didn’t want to see stories repeated as they did with the “devil came to Salem” (which they repeated this year).
While networks hint of a “Port Charles” spin off and other new daytime dramas, I’m banking on Mark Counselos (“Riverdale”) and Kelly Ripa to shake things up. They’re working on a project called “Pine Valley” with Agnes Nixon (who created the original show, “All My Children”). Mark played Hiram Lodge on “Riverdale” and saw what the younger generation wants. If there is a hope for the “soap opera” of old, it will have to be changing stories and a current view.