A lot of people in the daytime soap opera industry like to blame O.J. Simpson, the growing number of cable channels, women in the workplace, and many other factors for the decline in ratings over the years. While some of their points are valid, and you hear these excuses in most mainstream articles, there are also a number of intentional decisions made over the years that decimated soap casts, future storylines and viewer loyalty. Over the next week, We Love Soaps will reveal our 25 Biggest Blunders in Daytime Soap Opera History. This list was not easy to edit down to 25. Sadly there are many more we could have included. We will revisit this list from time to time to see how the rankings might change as perspectives do. For now, here are the first five blunders on our list.
25. Killing Jo's son on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW
On June 9, 1955, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW's Joanne (Mary Stuart) married Arthur Tate. A year later their son, Duncan Eric, was born. Stuart's real life pregnancy was written into her storyline and SEARCH filmed on location with her in the hospital. Her newborn son, Jeffrey, played Jo's baby on the soap.
A year later the writers decided the toddler would run out into the street and get hit by a car infuriating Stuart. It was the first of many battles she would have over the years trying to maintain the integrity of her popular soap character. She even threatened to quit the soap.
"It was my own child," she later told Afternoon TV. "It had been a complicated pregnancy for me, and playing the death of the child was just too horrible to even consider. The show's ratings had been dropping, and I knew they were killing the child just to have something dramatic to boost the ratings. I played those scenes all right, but I made them so horrifying that nobody could watch. Not even the make-up girl. She wouldn't even look at the monitor to see whether my make-up was right, it was too awful to watch. And nobody out in television-land watched either. In my own mind, I was remembering the morning my own father died. My mother just could never accept it. She'd walk around with a hopeful smile, in a daze, saying, "He's going to get better..." That's the way I played it. I destroyed them. It didn't help the ratings."
Duncan Eric could have been the center of future stories for the next 30 years on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW. The writers wasted this future legacy character for a quick ratings spike. We've seen this happen many times again in the future including the complete waste of Lisa's son, Chuckie, on AS THE WORLD TURNS. What is it with soaps and dead children?
24. The Messy Murder of THE EDGE OF NIGHT
In THE EDGE OF NIGHT's first 16 years on the air it never finished below sixth place in a season's ratings and was commonly near the top, just below CBS sister soap, AS THE WORLD TURNS. A series of terrible network and producer decisions would cause the ratings to sink.
It started in 1972 when CBS changed EDGE's timeslot from 3:30 to 2:30 p.m. ET. The mystery soap added some additional romantic storylines for its new time. The show immediately dropped in the ratings and dropped from 4th in the 1972-173 season to 10th the following year.
In 1975 CBS wanted to expand AS THE WORLD TURNS to an hour (see #23) but didn't have room on the schedule to keep EDGE. They also wanted to pit ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns against NBC's ANOTHER WORLD. This all led Procter & Gamble, who had a policy at the time of not allowing their shows to compete against each other on different networks, to propose moving the soap to ABC, the only network without a P&G show. CBS agree to delay the expansion of ATWT for two months to make this plan work (game show GIVE N' TAKE got axed in this process).
ABC aired a 90-minute EDGE OF NIHGT special on December 1, 1975, and even offered to air the show late nights a year later (the actors couldn't agree on residuals). But the network never really promoted the show properly over the years (it was the only soap they didn't own).
In 1983, after a 15 year run, head writer Henry Slesar was fired. This was the straw the really broke the camel's back. Any hope that EDGE could survive was gone. P&G decided to drop the show at the end of 1984 after 28 years as over 100 ABC affiliates were not airing the show at the time.
If EDGE had remained at 3:30 p.m. on CBS, how many more years would it have stayed on the air? What if it stayed on CBS and never moved to ABC? Could it still be on today? Sadly, we'll never know.
23. Expansion of soaps to 60 minutes
All six of the current daytime soap operas debuted as 30 minute dramas. Today only one remains a half-hour, THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
On January 7, 1974, HOW TO SURVIVE A MARRIAGE premiered with a 90-minute special. On May 3, 1974, NBC's ANOTHER WORLD aired a special one-hour episode in honor of its 10th Anniversary. Steve and Alice were married. It was a hit, and on January 6, 1975, the show expanded from 30 to 60 minutes full-time. Similarly, DAYS OF OUR LIVES aired a one hour special on November 20, 1974, and expanded to an hour on a regular basis on April 21, 1975 (HOW TO SURVIVE A MARRIAGE was canceled to make room for this expansion).
Betty Corday said at the time that the show would add three acts and expand the cast by at least 25%. This happened around daytime as ONE LIFE TO LIVE and GENERAL HOSPITAL expanded to 45 minutes and then an hour. ALL MY CHILDREN expanded to 60 minutes, and THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS did as well, in 1980. As the shows length grew, so did the cast and crew. Writing staffs doubled, and in some cases, the casts did as well. It was the beginning of the dilution of the stories, and each episode began to include more filler material. These bigger productions were more difficult to manage, which impacted their futures in many ways. As ratings declined, budget cuts were required, but shrinking the soaps back down to a manageable size was nearly an impossible task for most producers.
In November, 2009, Emmy winner Susan Flannery (Stephanie, B&B) shared in an exclusive interview with We Love Soaps what her thoughts were on the change to the hour format on DAYS OF OUR LIVES: "I said to them, 'I’m glad I’m leaving. It’s so rushed that you’re no longer in control of your performance. And that doesn’t make me happy.' So I did the first six weeks when the show launched for an hour. That’s the reason I agreed to do BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL [a half-hour show]. I like that form. That was Bill's favorite form too. He hated the hour. He thought they had to pad too much story."
On March 5, 1979, ANOTHER WORLD expanded to 90 minutes, broadcasting from 2:30-4:00 p.m. ET each day. It would remain an hour and a half until August 1980, when spinoff TEXAS premiered. Would the 30 minute versions of ANOTHER WORLD, GUIDING LIGHT or AS THE WORLD TURNS still be on the air today? We're not sure. But what we do know is this: no daytime soap opera that ever debuted at a full hour ever became a ratings sensation. And none of them are still on the air (TEXAS, SANTA BARBARA, SUNSET BEACH, PASSIONS).
22. Introduction of focus groups and the obsession with a younger demo
William Clay ‘Bill’ Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford, likes to remind the focus-group brigade that “My great-grandfather once said of the first car he ever built, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
By the same token, Apple's Jonathan Ive, the reclusive designer responsible for the iMac, iPod, and iPhone, rarely speaks publicly. But when he does, he almost always makes a point of saying firmly, “"We don't do focus groups." Ive explains that focus groups resulted in bland products designed not to offend anyone.
In the soap world, the introduction of focus groups in the 1980s changed the culture of storytelling and creativity. There was an increase in attempts to push borrowed, cliche ideas (“faster horses”) and a decrease in investment in risky or groundbreaking moments.
In a February 2010 interview with We Love Soaps, Daytime Emmy Award-winning ALL MY CHILDREN writer, Wisner Washam, detailed exactly how focus groups go wrong: "The trouble really started with a Vice President of Daytime named Jacqueline Smith, who brought in all these new procedures and focus sessions. We never had focus sessions before. They required us to go and waste a morning watching 12 ladies from the Bronx discuss who they liked and didn't like. Jackie took the opinions of those 12 women as almost words from the Mount. We were asked to write according to their opinions."
The networks also used the infamous Q Ratings to help determine who was popular, and where it all led was an obsession with youth and, more specifically, the younger demographic. Focus groups and Q ratings cannot measure the investment of longtime viewers. They can, however, demonstrate the obvious fact that some people find young pretty strangers more "watchable."
As the average age of the soap audience grew, producers' obsession with youth grew faster still. The situation was unsustainable. Young actors were frequently brought on just for the sake of having young actors. More and more hiring choices were motivated by looks instead of acting ability. Worst of all, the characters that kept us watching for decades started to lose airtime. Eventually, a counter-intuitive (and counterproductive) thing began to happen. Soaps were being changed to please people who were not watching, and the loyal, longtime, core audience began to be neglected.
21. Firing Wendy Riche from GENERAL HOSPITAL
There is a reason why GENERAL HOSPITAL received five Emmy wins for Outstanding Drama Series under Wendy Riche's run as executive producer, more than any other time in the show's history. Riche had a way of crafting Port Charles into a town that we wanted to visit day after day, week after week, year after year. Her groundbreaking, exciting, and socially relevant approach to storytelling between 1992-2000 is still beloved by fans every day, and referred to consistently on air. Under her gentle but firm guidance, head writer Claire Labine, and later Bob Guza, were able to spin fascinating and memorable stories, including Jason's accident, Stone's death, Robin's HIV diagnosis, Brenda & Sonny's first go-round, Lois & Ned's courtship, Maxie's heart transplant, Lily's death, Carly's introduction, Jax & Sonny's hatred, Lucky & Elizabeth's young romance, Nikolas saving Lulu's life as a baby, Monica's cancer, and so much more.
So why, at the height of her success, was the amazing Ms. Riche fired? Only the suits at ABC can ever explain that one. But one thing we know for sure, ousting Wendy Riche in her prime was a huge mistake, one the show has never recovered from. If the show is on the air 10-15 years from now, how many of the GH plots from the 2000s will have any impact on the characters and plot of the show?
** Read our exclusive interview with Emmy-winning producer Wendy Riche from 2010 here.
25 Biggest Blunders In Daytime Soap Opera History (20-16)
EDITOR'S NOTE: We want to hear from you. Rank your 25 Biggest Blunders in the Comments section of our Blunders posts and we will post a reader's list once we compile the results.