I don't know why 1981 proved to be such a pivotal year for television. But the premiere of Hill Street Blues in January 1981 and the wedding of Luke and Laura on General Hospital that November marked the beginning of a profound shift for television programming, day and night. For primetime, the trajectory was up; In Glued to the Set, Steven Stark describes Hill Street as "pav(ing) the way for TV's second golden age,'" due largely to its use of the serial narrative. As for daytime, well, it's been a long, slow downward slide; their future, a question mark. And that slide began with how other daytime soaps operas responded to the juggernaut that was "Luke and Laura."
I've been watching soap operas since I was in kindergarten; writing about them since the early-1990s, so I have a vested interest in seeing daytime soap opera, not just survive, but thrive. The Suits (the politest of soap fans' many names for the executives calling the shots) list the obstacles standing in the way: cable and satellite; women in the workplace; residual effects of the OJ Simpson trial; too few younger viewers. All true, but how about the storytelling? Talk with soap opera fans about what's wrong, and their collective response can be summed up in a recent post on the Serial Drama Blog: "It's the writing, stupid." Lest the blogger's clever riff on Bill Clinton's campaign refrain obscure her true meaning, what she, and millions of soap fans, are really saying is: "It's the stupid writing!"
Yet, relative to daytime shows, primetime soaps thrive. Over the post couple of years, I've enjoyed more character-driven stories on shows like Brothers and Sisters, Ugly Betty, Dirty Sexy Money and Friday Night Lights. So why are daytime soaps in freefall while primetime soaps flourish? The short answer is character; primetime soaps are telling fully-drawn, complex, character-driven stories. This is the kind of storytelling that used to be what daytime soaps did best is, at least it was what they did best until The Suits hit the panic button in the aftermath of Luke and Laura.
Given the viewer erosion over the past twenty-five years, the obvious question is why doesn't daytime go back to what it does best? Moreover, why haven't The Suits been able to connect the success of primetime soaps with the decline of daytime? There's a long list of reasons; most stem from the long-standing marginalization of daytime soaps attributed to gender and class and the resulting stigma. Some viewers of primetime soaps, who want to distance themselves from this stigma, reject the idea that these shows are indeed soaps. Within the soap community, I've had journalists, fans and some soap writers tell me that primetime shows cannot soaps because they believe that soaps are the exclusive domain of daytime, with an audience separate from primetime
To survive, daytime soaps must get past this territorialism and take a good look at what's working in primetime soaps and why. If they don’t, they will never find their way back to the future.
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