Daytime dramas the latest casualty of evolving TV landscape
The Emmy for guest roles in series has been described as the place where actors begin and end their careers. The same is largely true of daytime soaps, which explains why ABC’s decision to eliminate two longrunning serials wounds much deeper than the disappearance of evil twins and women married so often their hyphenated names would cross this entire page.
In the genre’s infancy, women (and back then it was almost solely women) referred to serials as “my stories,” reflecting the bond such programs forged with their loyal viewers.
More recently, those relationships have been supplanted by fare that’s similar in tone but requires a much more minimal commitment, from daytime talk to reality TV. These iterations not only demand less of a viewer’s time in exchange for an emotional experience (no small matter as women filled the work force) but less financial investment from networks as well.
Daytime dramas, however, are just the latest casualty of an evolving TV landscape, which has witnessed other genres experience gradual deaths. The result has been a level of job-market upheaval for which people employed by such programs weren’t entirely prepared, even if they could see the iceberg’s tip growing larger.
Indeed, watching soap operas gradually fade out echoes what happened to the TV movie business, which lingers on as a shriveled version of the expansive role longform fare once occupied, sort of like a former slugger deprived of steroids.
In its heyday made-for-TV movies accounted for thousands of jobs, turning out 250 titles a year. Today, that figure has shrunk to the annual output of Hallmark Channel and Lifetime, whatever British co-productions grace PBS, direct-to-DVD movies making a pitstop on Syfy, and the handful of prestige projects HBO produces to ensure its continued Emmy domination.
Admittedly, very little in TV is a complete zero-sum game, and in terms of employment opportunities, the movie has been supplanted in part by a proliferation of made-for-cable dramas. Yet those gains are significantly offset — especially for above-the-line talent — by an increase in unscripted programming. It’s no accident ABC’s soaps will give way to a pair of talk franchises with built-in product-placement opportunities, “The Chew” (Gesundheit!) and “The Revolution” (feel free to start it without me).
Both the soap and TV movie must assume partial responsibility for their demise, especially the latter’s over-reliance at its peak on stale true crime and women-in-peril stories. That said, the principal culprit in these “telecides” hinges foremost on the ground shifting beneath them, fragmenting the audience to a point where daytime can no longer support a full scripted lineup and networks lack the promotional reach and wherewithal to market new movie titles every week.
Plots in serials like ABC’s soon-to-depart “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” tended to grind along so slowly a common joke was that a casual viewer could stay away for years and quickly catch up in a single afternoon.
Still, there was a certain knack to that, and the form’s near-extinction represents another slice out of the fraying cord that tethers us to TV’s history. If that smacks of hyperbole, by the way, think about the last time you sat down and enjoyed a variety show or TV western.
Very little in entertainment is truly new, and there’s probably a better and more ambitious assortment of serialized storytelling now than ever before. In addition, familiar genres do have a way of coming back, whether it’s the current crush of talent competitions or the western receiving a modern face-lift via FX’s “Justified.”
Even so, AFTRA called the cancellation of the two ABC shows “a devastating loss.”
They’re right about that. And this time, the daytime soap — like the telepic before it — finally appears to have run out of last-minute rescues or surprises.