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Friday, April 15, 2011

No Joy In Soapland

There is no joy in Soapland today. Two more of the once highly revered daytime serials have been cancelled. All My Children and One Life to Live, as I am certain everyone has heard, have both finally been unplugged from the life support systems... and if you listen closely enough you may just hear the dismal sound of the heart monitor flatlining in the distance. It goes without saying that daytime soap operas are a dying breed. Like Westerns before it, soaps are an undeniable American invention, and yet they are fast losing the power they once had to entertain audiences. I have said this before and I will say it again, "If you no longer relate to or understand your audience... if you are no longer a part of your audience, the audience will inevitably disconnect and move on."

This has little to do with the fact that Americans no longer find continual storytelling interesting forms of entertainment. Indeed, most of primetime television has adopted continual storytelling as part of their narrative arcs. Ever since the CBS primetime soap Dallas became a ratings smash during the eighties, televisions series have used narrative arcs as forms of storytelling, borrowing directly from a genre that has used continual storytelling with far greater efficiency. Now, shows like Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Breaking Bad and many others are using this storytelling form with greater depth. But there IS a major difference: the writers understand the audience. They "get" the fact that viewers are much smarter and far more savvy than network execs like ABC's Brian Frons (a man who should have been fired 8 years ago) does.

Soap opera stories are now so predictable and telegraphed that they insult the intelligence of the audience. I'm not making any great revelations here. Everyone in the soap industry is fully aware of its problems, but they refuse to let go of the past as much as they refuse to hire new producers, directors (who actually... wait for it... DIRECT). The soap genre has been comprised of an incestuous group of executives, producers and writers that are NEVER fired... they are merely recycled.

Producers and writers with a reputation for unraveling and practically killing shows, simply move to another soap opera. Trust me, this DOES NOT happen in primetime or film. If a writer joins a primetime show and the ratings dip... the writer is fired and more than often, they move to a lower rung. If a film producer and director puts a major studio into the red with a huge flop... the producer and the director are fired. Writers such as Irna Phillips, the dean of all soaps, Agnes Nixon, Harding LeMay, Douglas Marland, Henry Slesar and others once had enormous control over storyline directions. And while many of these writers were still beholden to network executive dictations, they were still given freedom to determine storyline and casting decisions.

That all changed during the late 1970s when executive producer Gloria Monty singlehandedly saved the ABC serial General Hospital from cancellation by modernizing story pacing and by bringing cinematic conventions to daytime. Afterwards, the executive producer became the "visionary" of daytime. Though writers continued to exercise some control over storylines during the 1980s, by the '90s and '00s that medium became largely the visions of executive producers as the same writers were shuffled from one soap to the next, creating a schizophrenic identity for each soap from which none has ever quite recovered. In the case of ABC soaps, each show is now under the micromanagement control of the head of daytime, again, Brian Frons, whose vision for the shows blurs out any distinction in favor of bland homogeneity with pretty people.  

Decisions regarding storylines, casting, production, etc. are now determined by whether they'll appeal to younger demographics under the misguided notion that younger viewers are only interested in watching stories and characters that vainly reflect their own realities. This means that older, veteran characters much beloved by longtime fans are now being shoved to the backburner or written off entirely to make way for younger actors, many of whom were cast for their good looks and not for their acting skills. These various decisions have dumbed down the medium and earned it the stereotypical reputation that non-soap viewers have regarded it over the years.

Bad writing and wildly implausible storylines now rule the day as executive producers attempt their desperate bids to goose up anemic ratings. Their efforts end up resulting in what online fans are now speculating is the self-fulfilling prophesies of the networks to do away with soap operas entirely.

But the Powers That Be's over-reliance on out-dated focus polls, the archaic Nielsen Ratings... and the misguided conventional wisdom of what they "believe" that fans want, in the long run, is what's destroying the creativity of the medium. Now soaps are merely written in a paint-by-numbers fashion, with the same stories being repeated over and over again to increasing fan dissatisfaction. In the end, it is the vision and control of the executive suits and producers who are to blame for the genre's sad state of affairs.

The one show that took a major risk which "could have" paid off in the long run was the now defunct Guiding Light. By introducing the viewers to Olivia and Natalia, two women who eventually fall in love, GL brought a much more "diverse" audience to the table. Actress Crystal Chappell gave us some incredibly heartbreaking performances in a deeply affecting, topical and brilliant storyline. But, as we all know, Procter and Gamble was far too conservative to allow some fascinating "reality" to wash over its viewers. It was a mistake of epic proportions as the storyline was reaching audiences as far away as Bangkok and New Zealand via the internet.

Television executive Tim Brooks was recently quoted as saying, “We are seeing the end of a genre..." I for one am convinced his statement rings all too true for what once was a groundbreaking part of the television landscape. As I said in one of my previous notes: I can't find much optimism about the near future of Daytime Soap Operas. If you take a moment and listen to the lyrics of Mr. Mister's, "Broken Wings" (Bo & Hope's adventure song) perhaps the Powers That Be will somehow "get it"... that the broken wings are the perfect metaphor for daytime soaps... and someone needs to wake up [AS IN RIGHT NOW], "Take these broken wings and learn to fly again..." but that, my fellow soap opera friends... would require nothing short of a divine intervention.. a miracle. I am in no way discouraging anyone from writing letters to ABC, shutting down the email systems and all of the faxes. Brian Frons, who I have had the absolute displeasure of talking with... is not an executive that connects with the audience. He sees this as "good business practice" and refuses to believe that perhaps the audience is much more "in touch" with the REAL world and what they want than he is

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