Soap Operas: Home or away?
Published 13/05/2011 | 05:00
As two more daytime US dramas are cancelled, we ask what is it that Fair City has over its American counterparts in the battle of the soaps
Wouldn't Fair City's Carrigstown be better if it were built on top of a mystical underground city? Wouldn't Dot Cotton from EastEnders be cooler if she had an evil twin or clone? And why couldn't Roy from Coronation Street find some Aztec gold near his cafe?
Actually, those are terrible ideas. Because while Irish and British soap operas are thriving, their American cousins, who have used such plots, are in terminal decline.
This week it was announced that two more US daytime dramas have been cancelled: All My Children and One Life to Live. This comes two years after time was called on Guiding Light (the oldest of the bunch -- it started as a radio show back in 1937) and As the World Turns.
Only sporadically available on this side of the world (CBS Drama is currently airing old episodes of Guiding Light), daytime soaps were a big phenomenon in America. Once there were 18 of them. Now there are just four (General Hospital, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives).
"Where the soap opera was once a building block in any TV network schedule," bemoaned Tim Brooks, a former NBC executive, "the daytime drama is an artifact of the past."
In the 1930s, 'soap operas' were radio shows used to shill new products to housewives (often soaps, hence the name). By the 1940s half of the women in America listened in, so it was only natural that they would make the jump to television. By the 1970s they began dipping their toes into more contentious issues: cancer, abortion, race.
Veteran writer Agnes Nixon recently recalled getting permission to write about uterine cancer for Guiding Light. "You can do it," said the network "but don't say uterus, don't say cancer."
The soaps were, in their own way, trying to grapple with social change, and by 1977 50 million people were watching them. It was all very different from 'soaps' on this side of the Atlantic.
"I think the fact they're both called 'soaps' is slightly deceptive," says Kevin McGee, former script editor with Fair City. "They're so different. The tradition we work with comes from the whole kitchen sink/John Osborne thing; when they started Coronation Street they were very consciously writing in the northern realist tradition.
"I would imagine that the tradition the American soaps are coming from is the big melodramatic woman's picture tradition -- the films of Douglas Sirk and things like that.
"We have some kind of remit for social realism and they . . . they don't."
Indeed, by the 1980s realism was nowhere to be seen on daytime television in the US. The repertoire of plots had expanded from stories about extra-marital affairs and secret family members to subplots about vampires, angels and even secret mystical cities.
"The silliest might have been when Reva had a clone named Dolly on Guiding Light," says Lynn Leahey, editor of the US magazine Soap Opera Digest. "Passions had a witch, Tabitha, whose sidekick Timmy was a doll she brought to life. Most were more grounded than that, they just had a lot of marriages, divorces and back-from-the-deads."
'Back-from-the deads', or the surprise return of deceased characters, are a no-no in Irish and UK soaps (a notable exception being the return of Dirty Den in EastEnders) but they're a staple plot twist in the US. One writer once distinguished between characters who were 'dead' (ie would probably return), and those who were 'dead-dead-dead-dead' (ie those riddled with bullets or autopsied on screen).
"I think One Life to Live is the worst name ever for an American soap," says Kevin McGee. "The minimum requirement on American soaps is that you have three lives to live."
In the end, however, it wasn't silliness which led to the demise of the genre. Fans blame economic pragmatism (reality telly is cheaper to make), the lure of slicker, more self-aware shows like Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, and the growing popularity of social networking sites.
Kevin McGee is sceptical about the latter. "I think if anything we've found social networking to be good for soaps," he says. "It's quite a big thing at the moment for people to watch the soaps with their laptops on their knees having the conversation about the show while it's happening.
"There's a very lively Fair City thread on boards.ie and things like that keep people plugged into the show.
"I think the main issue for the US soaps is really that they're on during the day-time and they have notions about their audience that are a bit outdated."
Lynn Leahey agrees that the main culprit is demographic change.
"Once upon a time, lots of women were home in the afternoon," she explains. "And they would take a break from housework to watch 'their stories'. Over the last 20 years, women have streamed into the work place."
Of course, we might be proclaiming the death of the daytime soap too early. In the spirit of the genre, it might itself do a 'back-from-the-dead' -- possibly re-formatted for a new age.
"People could easily watch soaps in 15-minute snippets on handheld devices," says Leahey. "I think they could come roaring back. Soaps started as very simple, 15-minute shows on radio, and should go back in that direction."