Martha Thomases: Soap
But my prayers have been answered, and All My Children will soon be back, if only on the Internet. And while it won’t feel real to me unless they get back Erica Kane or Zach, I think this is a real win for those of us who like our entertainment niche.
Soap operas are not new. They were a staple of radio drama and easily made the transition to television. Usually, the focus would be on one or two families, and the drama that resulted when love, greed, hate and intrigue enmeshed them with each other and their neighbors.
Conventional wisdom maintained that this kind of entertainment was for women, especially housewives. They would watch “their stories” as they did the ironing or dusted. Every day, for 30 to 60 minutes (including commercials), they could vicariously experience the lives of beautiful people, with a cliffhanger at the end, ensuring a date with tomorrow’s show. When (white, middle-class) women went into the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s, it was assumed the genre would die.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the soap opera mutated. It invaded primetime, where shows like Dallas and Dynasty were monster hits. Soap elements – relationship dramas among the characters that couldn’t be solved with a laugh, a gunfight, or magic – invaded cop shows, doctor shows and more. Do you think you’d have The Sopranos without General Hospital? If so, you think wrong.
(My point is not that David Chase is a soap opera fan – although he may be – but that network executives wouldn’t have gone for the pilot without a profitable precedent.)
What ultimately drove the soaps off network television was the cost, and the continued segmentation of the audience. It’s expensive to have daily shows with big casts, big sets, and lots of writers. The talk shows that replaced the soaps are way cheaper, and product placement is much easier (although I will always remember with fondness the month that AMC had Campbell’s Soup as a sponsor, and therefore soup solved everything). They don’t get the same audience as the soaps, but they don’t need to.
The solution? The Internet. It’s taken a while for the producers to get it together with finances, and unions, but now it looks like they have.
It’s an interesting parallel to comics. Hollywood is making a ton of money from superheroes, but sales of floppies appeal to a much, much smaller audience. And, again, the Internet provides a way not only to grow the readership, but to level the playing field for those creators (and readers) who don’t want to limit themselves to one genre, or one business model.
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman