Thursday, December 11, 2008

What J. Bernard Jones Started (Part 3)

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. The original piece that served as inspiration is here.


Part 3. Hope? Despair? Both?

Let me start with full disclosure. I am ardent soap fan. In my life, I have been a regular viewer of Ryan's Hope, Loving, All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives (briefly), Search for Tomorrow (briefly), Bold and the Beautiful, and the Young and the Restless. Only the last two are still on my DVR (for a lot of reasons) and have really had my attention since the mid-late 1980s, but I have been ridiculously smitten with this genre since I remember watching TV.

In my dream world, Soapnet would show daytime programs all day long, including a healthy dose of classics. In my dream world, SOD or SOW would be more like "Vanity Fair"--deep, probing, long, analytical articles with perspective. (They would also have people in addition to Eric Braeden on the cover). In my dream world, too, Phoebe Tyler and Myrtle Fargate would both still be alive and sparring over Langley Wallingford. But sometimes, it is more adaptive to let go, and acknowledge reality.

I have been pretty consistent in the last little while, though, about my assumption that, on the current course (important caveat), daytime drama will soon end. I base that assumption (like many of us) on the exponentially shrinking numbers, coupled with the concomitant budget cuts and production decisions that then lead to impoverished content. This latter element, I believe, squanders the goodwill of long-time fans for shows that have been a long part of their lives.

I wish it were not so! In my last post, I tried (indirectly) to explain why it is so important to me to be clear-eyed about this genre. Anticipatory socialization. I have to get ready for the end. It is a defensive posture. Realizing that makes me seem like a Revelations-Armageddon fundamentalist, I apologize....but I really do fear for a Soaps Apocalypse.


So, one of the themes in Jones' blog post, if I may again paraphrase (badly) is that -- judged against what is happening across the broadcast networks (this week's NBC Jay Leno announcement being a perfect example), things may not be that bad for the soaps.

I don't agree. (I wish I did).

It used to be that daytime was profitable enough that it actually helped to subsidize primetime. One could imagine that these days, maybe turnabout would be fair play. The problem is that primetime is bankrupt. There is no money.

In industries throughout America, there are no longer sufficient reserves to "nurture" fledgling or foundering divisions. It is, sadly, time to cut out what can no longer be supported.

So, as the networks look at what costs to shed, they must remove unprofitable albatrosses. If the current economic climate--coupled with shrinking viewership--continue, there is simply no way to PAY for daytime. The hatchet-people will look at these five-day-a-week niche shows and say "uh uh...we can do talk shows".

Because I believe the networks are trying to get out of the broadcast business (by which I mean: abandon the local affiliates, and become cable-only outlets with reduced schedules, from which they retain a higher proportion of profits, and receive subsidization from cable licensing fees), there is a need for a smaller, cheaper footprint.

If you accept my premise that there is no money, there is actually a fate worse than cancellation. It is disembowelling these shows--cutting casts, cutting sets, cutting pay (thereby killing morale). We actually see this latter process happening right now...and it ain't pretty.

That said, I truly am hopeful and optimistic in the long run.


First, I think the Leno experiment really should beget a "Young and Restless" experiment. What I would do...and commit to for a 24-month to run the first-run Y&R episode on CBS every night at the start of primetime (e.g., 8 pm on the east coast). I would continue to broadcast it the next day at 11 am or 12:30 pm or whatever it is in the local market. But the premiere of each episode would be in primetime.

As I have blogged elsewhere, this and similar timeslots have been effective for soaps in other countries. It would have NO incremental cost for CBS. It could ONLY increase both live-views (good for ad dollars) and total viewership for Y&R. It would be a version of the Leno-move.

Of course, I know this will never happen...mostly because of the misogyny and anti-daytime stance of a lot of primetime programmers. They want "hip, edgy, youth-skewing". Okay. Because that is working so well for them....


So, let's take the more apocalyptic view. Every single daytime soap is dead by 2016.

I will mourn, to be sure.

But I think the serial format itself is fairly secure. It goes through peaks (Dallas, Dynasty, 90210 the first, the early seasons of Lost, Heroes, and 24) and it goes through valleys (the latter seasons of all of the above shows). It could be argued that HBO and Showtime's biggest successes have been with dramas with a serial structure. Even the big cable critical hits these days (say Mad Men, Breaking Bad) are dramatic serials.

They are also reinventions. Most of the shows I have mentioned above are not really melodramas, and they're not really female-focused. But that is okay. Those are thematic emphases that worked for the housewives of the 1950s and 1960s...but that entity really doesn't exist in large measure anymore.

The reinvention of the serial as shorter, more limited, more gender-neutral...this simply reflects adaptation ('evolution') to the modern audience. Some of those shows are just terrific. And, by not having 70-year lifespans, they dazzle with "bright shining moments", and then we move on. The Sopranos or Deadwood or Six Feet Under (or, now, True Blood) will linger for many of us as a time of greatness, in part because they knew when to leave the stage. Even the still-marvellous ER...which has had a looooooong run...manages to leave with dignity intact...still seeming like a fairly strong version of itself.


But what about Erica and Marlena and Luke and Laura and Victor and Nikki and Kim and Bob and all these beautiful, iconic "people" with whom we shared every day for so many years?

Well, beyond saying goodbye, it sure would be nice to say goodbye with our heads up...with planned endings on a high note. There is a seedling of hope that life could continue for some of them.

(For me, Soapnet's Night Shift II was just the most beautiful little gem. I wish it had rated better. I'd love to see that used on the broadcast networks, and serve as the model for the next generation of our daytime soaps).


The dramatic serial will live on, clearly, well past all of us. The adaptive response from all of us, in my opinion, is to (a) celebrate the past, (b) treasure what we still have, and focus on the positives of our beloved genre in its twilight years, and (c) enthusiastically embrace the evolution. Primetime serials, re-inventions of daytime shows as shorter-arc telenovelas, internet much hope! Sometimes, you need to clear the forest to restore it to health.

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