The Decline of Television: Farewell, Soap Operas!

Mark your calendars! We may only be eleven years beyond the turn of the millennium, but media pundits are already referring to April 29 as the date of the wedding of the century for Prince William of Britain and his bride Catherine Middleton. The ceremonies will be televised globally; two billion people are expected to watch the event.

Of course, the wedding of William’s parents Charles and Diana was similarly promoted as the wedding of the century as well, albeit of the 20th century. In fact, weddings of the century have occurred quite frequently throughout the years. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, married Edith Galt while serving as the President of the United States in 1915. John F. Kennedy’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier created quite a stir in 1953, as did Hollywood legend Grace Kelly’s nuptial event with Prince Rainier of Monaco three years later. And just last year, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea’s marriage to Marc Mezvinsky was deemed by many to be the wedding of the century.

Back in 1981, though, the widely proclaimed wedding event of the century in the United States involved a pair of fictional characters from the soap opera General HospitalLuke and Laura’s wedding episode featured a special appearance by Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor and attracted nearly 30 million viewers; it was later recognized as one of the 100 Best Television Shows by Time magazine.

We are not likely to witness any future weddings of the century from the world of soap operas, though. Last week’s announcement of ABC’s cancellation of All My Children and One Life to Live left American television with only four remaining such shows spread across the three major networks, with many media experts predicting the imminent demise of the genre.

Radio Days

The soap opera format was more than just a dominant form of day time entertainment for many decades. In fact, it actually predated the establishment of commercial television, and it served as a foundation on which the medium established its credibility.

The venerable soap Guiding Light, for instance, initially launched as a dramatic series on the CBS radio network in 1937, and was shifted to the fledgling CBS television network in 1952 to help attract the mainstream audience. It aired until 2009, making the 72 year show (as Wikipedia eloquently describes it) the longest story ever told in a broadcast medium.

Back in 1952, of course, there was no guarantee that television would become a socially acceptable and culturally entrenched form of entertainment. The earliest mass purchasers of television sets were saloon owners, who viewed the medium as an attraction for keeping customers glued to their bar stools during the evening hours. That’s why Milton Berle, a vaudeville star with a notoriously bawdy reputation, became commercial television’s first major star, one who signed a mammoth thirty year contract in 1951.

Entering The Mainstream

Nevertheless, mainstream television programming began to emerge in 1951 and 1952 with the introduction of NBC’s Today show during the morning hours, and with the premieres of CBS’s I Love Lucy and NBC’s Dragnet in the evening. But what would fill the afternoon hours on television, a time when housewives would take breaks from their chores before greeting the buses that carried their children home from school?

Enter the soap opera, a genre named after the Proctor & Gamble household cleaning products that were peddled during the commercial breaks. With the introduction of CBS’s Search for Tomorrow in late 1951, and the transfer of the CBS radio network’s Guiding Light to television a few months later, the foundation of the visual broadcast medium was secured.

Time and Money

For half a century, the genre of the soap opera continued to dominate the weekday hours of broadcast television. And in a sense, the popularity of the multi-episodic dramatic format has never waned; it still provides the foundation for such contemporary television series as The SopranosDesperate Housewives, and Mad Men.

So what is killing this classic format as a weekday television staple? To put it simply, the genre is being slain by the combined forces of time and money. Household economic pressures have driven housewives out of their living rooms and into the work force, while American cultural standards have evolved to accommodate them. Meanwhile, the emergence of the internet as a mass medium of entertainment has placed extreme fiscal pressure on the traditional television model, driving networks away from costly dramatic programming and towards inexpensive talk, reality, and game shows.

Will the soap opera ever rise again, perhaps in a briefer, cheaper form? Foreign television networks are finding success at the moment with limited-run series called telenovas, featuring simple dramatic plots with soap opera themes that extend across a relatively small number of episodes. And these series often feature extravagant weddings as well, though none quite as grandiose as the real one starring William and Kate next week!