Twenty-five years after Hill Street Blues led to "TV's second golden age" (Steven Stark: Glue to the Set), a new incarnation of primetime soaps were introduced in the fall of 2006. In addition to Brothers and Sisters, ABC had Ugly Betty; NBC, the critics' darling, Friday Night Lights; all will be returning for third seasons in fall 2008. In many ways, these 21st-century primetime soaps, along with Dirty, Sexy Money, have embraced the true soap opera ethos - intimate, complex character-driven drama - their daytime counterparts long ago abandoned in the pursuit of "the youth market."
In some ways, the scale of these primetime soaps more closely resembles that of the 30-minute soap operas of old. I recall Claire Labine, creator of the much-loved Ryan's Hope, once suggesting in an interview that soaps really began losing their way when most expanded to an hour in the mid-70s. The increased number of characters required by the longer format has certainly contributed to soaps lack of consistency. How else to explain two recent fan board (MediaDomain) postings: "Very Good Show in Tuesday," and "Goodbye, ATWT" just three days later? Tuesday's show focused on Oakdale's core family, the Hughes. Friday's poster was largely fed up with two new characters Janet and Liberty, connected only to a single couple, Katie and Brad, all of whom are "being shoved down our throats."
This schizophrenia has been building for some time; its roots lie in daytime soaps' abandonment of multi-generational storytelling. ATWT's cast currently numbers 38, 13 of whom - almost a third of the characters - have no parent present on the Oakdale canvas. And of those 13, 11 are currently involved in front-burner stories. This is in sharp contrast primetime soaps like Brothers and Sisters, which New York Times television critic, Ginia Bellafante described as "committed to the primacy and romance of the family." As have the rest of the new breed of 21st century primetime soaps.
Yet daytime continues to ignore primetime's success, encouraged by critics like Marlena de la Croix, who went so far as to say, "Daytime drama and primetime drama are two very different genres with two very different audiences." Her point was quickly rebutted by Snark Weight In, who sums up succinctly why daytime soaps ignore what they have in common with primetime at their peril:
"I'm not sure I understand this line of reasoning-do people who watch daytime soaps really not watch primetime drama? Doesn't the fact that we have engaged thinking members of the soap community referring to these prime-time shows put that theory to bed? Daytime fans and primetime fans are the same! Indeed, many primetime fans are former daytime fans who now stick exclusively with primetime, because it's the only place they can get anything resembling the socially aware, character-driven, serialized storytelling they used to get from soaps."
Another argument often articulated by daytime fans is that while daytime lost when it began emulating primetime back in the early 80s, primetime gained far more by emulating the daytime of old. It's not that the argument is wrong, but it suggests that the relationship between daytime and primetime soaps is a zero sum game. That's exactly the kind of thinking that led daytime into its current sorry state. Rather trying to expand daytime's overall audience, by reinforcing each show's unique identity, those in charge settled for diluting and homogenizing the shows so you can barely tell one from the other. The underlying assumption - a soap is a soap is a soap and any distinctions among them are wasted on daytime viewers - is a deeply flawed strategy that continues to fail.
But it's never been a zero sum game. And it certainly isn't now, not with multiple platforms providing fans opportunities to watch shows - daytime or primetime - morning, noon and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This is exactly the time daytime must take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and rather than focus on what separates daytime and primetime soaps, begin to understand what they share; then use that understanding to bring daytime back to the future it abandoned so long ago.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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