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In Defense of Soap Operas

Even lowbrow drama may have a more human voice than highbrow reality TV.

by
S. T. Karnick

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May 7, 2011 - 12:00 am
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I’m no devotee of soap operas, and I never have been, but I’m rather saddened to hear that ABC has canceled two of its remaining three daytime dramas, All My Children and One Life to Live. Only General Hospital survived this latest purge, and it seems only a matter of time before it too is jettisoned. The other networks have been canceling their soaps as well.

This is a shame, I think, because despite their cheap production values, often-salacious content, and largely superficial treatment of their topics, the daytime dramas brought something important to their audiences: a real concern for the choices individuals make and the continual tension between liberty and order in a relatively free society.

Declining audiences were of course cited as the reason for the cancellations. According to ABC, the average daily viewership of All My Children dropped from about 3.2 million in 2006 to approximately 2.4 million today. That’s a 25 percent decline in a half-decade. (Of course, the networks’ news shows have had similarly precipitous audience declines over the years, but they continue to pollute the airwaves.)

One Life to Live has been on the air since 1968, and All My Children since 1970. Reuters reports: ”An average of 6.5 million people regularly watched daytime dramas in 1991, compared to about 1.3 million last year, according to Nielsen figures.” That number, however, is rather deceptive. So many of the shows have been canceled in recent years that the total audience would naturally decline by a great amount.

However, the reality is that daytime dramas no longer sustain a sufficient audience to make them profitable for the network, and thus they must go. The Reuters story quotes an ABC executive as saying the shows no longer appeal to audiences as they once did:

“Viewers are looking for different types of programing these days,” said Brian Frons, president of daytime programming at ABC, adding they wanted “informative, authentic and fun shows that are relatable, offer a wide variety of opinions and focus on ‘real life’ takeaways.”

And what “informative, authentic, and fun” shows will replace them? Reuters quotes the network as follows:

ABC said the new shows would be “Chew,” which focuses on food “from every angle,” and make-over series “The Revolution,” with fashion mentor Tim Gunn.

These replacements do not seem likely to elevate the national discourse, to say the least. Daytime dramas were never very sophisticated or intelligent, to be sure, and some people would find their pursuit of racy, sexually charged story lines to be morally suspect (I would recommend applying my critical precept that depiction does not imply advocacy). Yet they had one thing going for them that I truly believe made them edifying to at least a small degree: they were indeed dramas. Fiction exercises the mind in ways nonfiction does not, and the exploration of personal relationships, even when not done on the deepest level, is a valuable endeavor.

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