As the World Turns, Soap Operas Wane And Viewers Grieve
By Peter Applebome
New York Times
June 21, 1999
They will gather Friday afternoon at Blondie's Restaurant on West 79th Street to reminisce about Cecile and Peter's disastrous wedding, the time Lila gave birth in a stalled elevator at the Lumina Ball, about Frankie's murder and when Vicky, hovering between life and death, met Ryan in heaven.
Then at 2 P.M., they will tune to ANOTHER WORLD for the last time and say goodbye to Carl and Rachel, Joe and Paulina and Vicky and Jake, and after 35 years and 8,891 episodes, one of television's most venerable soap operas will be no more.
If it seems like the end of an era for the fiercely loyal and still-grieving fans of ANOTHER WORLD which will go out with a final wedding and sundry surprises, it increasingly feels like something close to that for America's soap operas. Buffeted by the entry of women into the workplace, the changing routines for the ones at home and competition from real-life soap operas ranging from JERRY SPRINGER to l'Affaire Lewinsky, soap opera audiences are declining.
The changes, which have been creeping up for more than a decade, are sending the industry into a sense of gloom and providing an illustrative commentary on some of the changes in American life and entertainment.
The signs of distress are abundant. Estimates are that the shows have lost a quarter of their audience over the last decade. Two of the five weeklies that follow the soaps have closed down. No successful new soap has been introduced over the last decade, and shows increasingly are resorting to guest appearances by the likes of Mr. Springer or outlandish gimmick plots to keep their audiences. The so-called prime-time soaps that flourished in the 1980's are almost all gone, and rumors are rampant about which of the remaining shows are most imperiled.
"The mood ranges from concern to panic, depending where they stand in the ratings," said Lynn Leahey, editor in chief of Soap Opera Digest. "The top shows are aware of the pattern, but they're not losing sleep over it. The others are worrying about their shows getting canceled."
ANOTHER WORLD which was first broadcast on May 4, 1964, was the top-rated soap opera during its heyday in the 1970's. It ranks as NBC's longest-running daytime drama. During its first year, the show, set in the fictional town of Bay City, Ill., set new standards for its time by taking on topics like abortion and illegitimate pregnancy. Fans, some of whom have united in a last-ditch effort to save the program, have viewed it as a show based on solid acting and socially attuned plots rather than mere romantic plot gimmicks.
It was the first soap to introduce celebrity guest stars like Liberace, the first to expand to a one-hour format, and it was an early nesting place for actors and actresses who later hit it big elsewhere, like Anne Heche, Morgan Freeman, Ray Liotta, Brad Pitt, Faith Ford and Kelsey Grammer.
But after it peaked in the 1970's, it had trouble regaining momentum. Producers tried gimmicks, like flying the cast off at great expense to film at exotic locations. Producers and writers came and went. And though the cast was constantly renewed ANOTHER WORLD was less lucky than some of the other older soaps in having some important actors in the cast die off, most notably Douglass Watson, who played Mac Cory, the beloved publishing magnate who was one of the show's dominant figures.
Susan Lee, senior vice president for daytime programming at NBC, said that ending the show was a painful decision but something had to go to make room for a new soap, PASSIONS. The choice came down to ANOTHER WORLD or an even lower rated show, SUNSET BEACH which, like PASSIONS, is hoping to attract a younger, more demographically desirable audience.
"It was an emotional decision for everyone," she said, "but the show had not performed for the affiliates for the past decade. It was like something that hung around, and it wasn't growing, wasn't moving and the affiliates kept saying, 'Why are we still carrying this program?' "
But Ms. Leahey of Soap Opera Digest said that the show had improved enormously over the last year since a new executive producer had come on board, and that it was an alarming sign in the industry when a franchise like ANOTHER WORLD was simply dropped.
"Expectations have been lowered, and justifiably so," said Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, the head of production for Procter & Gamble Productions, which once produced 13 soap operas and after Friday will be down to 2, AS THE WORLD TURNS, which has been on for 43 years, and GUIDING LIGHT, the oldest of them all, which has been on television for 47 years and began on radio 62 years ago.
Ms. Dwyer-Dobbin continued: "The glory days are gone because of choices in terms of life style and television viewing. We like to think there is room to grow from where we are, but more than anything I think we need to concentrate on maintaining the level we're at now."
Even for women not in the workplace, an hour of soap-opera viewing is often not an option.
"I'm a working mom, but of people I know in my neighborhood, many of the moms at home are never home," Ms. Leahey said. "They're driving the kids to music lessons or soccer games. It's very different from when I was young."
Not only does that reduce the potential audiences, but it breaks the intergenerational chain that has renewed the audiences for many soaps. For example, Elizabeth Walker is an organizer of the luncheon on Friday that is expected to draw about 50 fans of ANOTHER WORLD. She said she began watching the show in 1975 when she was 13 with her mother, who had been watching from the very first show.
There are fewer mothers around to pass the baton in the same way, she said. She added that networks were making a terrible mistake if they thought they could invent new soaps willy-nilly and jettison old ones.
"They have slapped all their longtime fans in the face," she said. "I know I'm not going to watch PASSIONS, and I know a lot of people feel the same way."
And even some actors on soaps say the overheated melodramas of the soaps are having trouble competing with the overheated melodramas of the news, that the travails of Vicky and Jake and Luke and Laura have a hard time being more dramatic than the travails of Bill and Monica or O.J. and Nicole. Indeed, the steepest ratings decline in the soap world came when the country was fixated on live coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial.
"Society's changed," said Tom Eplin, one of the stars of ANOTHER WORLD who is one of four characters who will go over to AS THE WORLD TURNS. (In that show, his character, Jake, and Vicky will help Tom Hughes as he tries to prove Emily Stewart innocent of murder and Lila and Cass will stop in Oakdale on the way to Hawaii for their honeymoon and be drawn into Eddie Silva's search for information abut his natural father.)
"During J.F.K.'s term, we didn't know as much about him as we do now, or about most politicians. It dulls the sword of drama a little bit. We see so much now, that the relationship of two people on television seems a lot less tantalizing. What we see in real life exceeds the drama of our shows."
Similarly, the ascendant daytime format is the blend of talk, drama, confession and theater seen on shows like JERRY SPRINGER and RIKKI LAKE.
There is competition from the Internet, so that teen-agers who might have become hooked on the soaps in the past now come home and log onto their favorite sites on the Web. Or teen-agers looking for episodic domestic drama may be more likely to plug into MTV's real-world soap opera, THE REAL WORLD, which follows the domestic lives and romantic entanglements of actual twentysomethings. And finally, soaps face the problems confronted by all network shows in a new cable universe full of hundreds of choices.
Still, the fundamental soap opera convention is that no reversal -- apparent death, doomed love, seeming ruin -- need be permanent, and the news for the soaps is not all bad. Two cable channels have announced all-soap formats to debut next year in the hope of rebroadcasting shows so more people can see them. USA Network is introducing a show, THE AVENUE, which is designed to be less like a conventional soap and more like a British serial -- with more realism and less melodrama -- with the goal of hooking viewers looking for different serial fare.
And Ms. Lee of NBC said that while the soap audience was down from its peak, it was not clear how far it was down. Unlike the 1970's, she said, Nielsen ratings are an inadequate gauge for who is watching soaps. More people now tape them and watch at night or watch in groups that cannot be registered, like the eight teachers and 80 students she cited who watch daily after school on a big-screen television at North Hollywood High School in California. "One of our problems is that we have no idea how big this audience is currently," she said. "That's a big problem because I have a business based on Nielsen numbers, even if I might fantasize I have a business three times bigger than the numbers show."
So, she said, even if the soaps may be reeling, they need not be reeling toward oblivion. In the hope of making new technology work for the format, NBC has set up a Web site and a town map on the Internet to help young people get hooked on PASSIONS, which debuts next month.
And just as the 50 or so women who will show up at Blondie's talk about the end of ANOTHER WORLD as something very close to a death in the family, Ms. Lee said women still crave the sense of intense, personal involvement that soaps provide.
"If soaps have a future, and I think they do, it is in the intimacy of the genre and the way it affects women viewers more than anything else on television, even the talk shows," she said. "We do focus groups on talk shows and soaps, and people see 'Jerry Springer' as entertainment, a circus. There's fantasy in the soaps, but there's a lot of reality, too. People see real people with real problems they can't see anyplace else."
Fans take ANOTHER WORLD so seriously that some are citing the show's history in a last-ditch effort to save it. The Committee to Save ANOTHER WORLD saying it represents 3,000 viewers, says it is preparing a 400-page document to send to NBC's corporate ownership and seeking a meeting with Jack Welch, chief executive of General Electric, owner of NBC.
"One thing we have learned from this 35-year experience with ANOTHER WORLD is that if you honestly believe in something you must fight for it," Charlotte Swank, chair of the group, said in a statement released via E-mail. "This show has been a leader in empowering women and men in the social turmoil of the last 35 years." Still, the group concedes it is highly unlikely NBC will continue the show.
And if most nonviewers would find it hard to see the decline of the soaps as a major cultural loss, Ms. Leahey said in its own way it did reflect the passing of something valuable.
"If people are deciding they'd rather spend that time working on homework with their kids, you'll get no argument from me," she said. "But soaps have filled a need in people's lives. It was a nice place to go, a nice, warm, cozy hour that was a little treat, like visiting an old friend. There are a lot worse habits you can have."
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