What will we lose when daytime soaps go kaput?

One by one, they’re biting the dust: “All My Children” (September 2011) and One Life to Live (January 2012) are the latest casualties in the world of network daytime drama. And while “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “The Young and the Restless” “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives” are keeping the chat shows at bay, the status of one of those already looks a little shaky: with Katie Couric’s announcement that she’ll be debuting a syndicated talk show next year, ABC noted they’d like to use the weirdly elfin broadcaster  to fill the 3 p.m. slot – the time “GH” airs on its stations. While it doesn’t mean a certain end for “GH” (the chat shows “The Chew” and “The Revolution,” which are taking the place of “AMC” and “OLTL” could certainly fail, leaving an opening for “GH”), it does seem like another step closer to the end. But is that such a bad thing?

I think so. I’ll admit, I’ve never been a true soap fan (and that was true both before and after I worked on the staff of one). But that doesn’t diminish the sadness I’ll feel when (or if, but realistically when) they leave the airwaves. Like bookstores, CDs and punchline/actress Tara Reid, you don’t really appreciate them until they’re gone (although I’m sure Reid is floating around… somewhere). To wit:
The end of soaps will mark the end of an era: Forget Brangelina. In the 80s, Luke and Laura of “General Hospital” defined the super couple. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect relationship, given that Luke raped Laura (hey, attitudes about sexual assault were less evolved back then), but when they finally wed in 1981, 30 million people tuned in – making that episode the highest rated in soap opera history to this day. To put that in perspective, this year the Oscars were watched by 37.6 million, a number that’s even less impressive given that there are now about 82 million more people in the U.S. These days you might be relive the punchlines of the latest episode of “Community” with a coworker or two, but you probably don’t gather in the lunch room (or set your VCR, since those don’t exist anymore) to watch the must-see program of the decade. Thanks to basic cable, out choices are limitless – but we as an audience are more fractured as well. It isn’t likely you watch the same shows as your spouse, your friends of ever your dog (he likes Animal Planet 24/7). Given that our society is increasingly divided, there’s something to be said for being able to connect over something, even if it’s a fake TV wedding.
Big issues were tackled: Before prime time got hold of edgy, envelope-busting content, the soaps did. HIV/AIDS, incest, homosexuality, teen pregnancy – no real-life topic has been off limits to daytime. While the focus of these shows has never been to be strictly educational, for many they did exactly that by providing a human (and usually super hot) face to scary stuff.
It was a training ground for talent: Christina Applegate (“Days of Our Lives”), Courtney Cox Arquette (“As the World Turns”), Christine Baranski (“Another World”), Leonardo Dicaprio (“Santa Barbara”), Sarah Michelle Gellar (“All My Children”), Tommy Lee Jones (“OLTL”) —  the list goes on and on. At least one “big” actor is even going back to his original stomping ground before the curtain goes down: Josh Duhamel will reprise his character Leo du Pres on AMC for at least one episode in August, and I’m guessing a few more stars might show up for old time’s sake. The grind of soaps, which film far more dialogue in a day than a conventional TV show or film, taught many a greenhorn how to memorize reams of script, get into character on the double and tilt their head during a kiss to show off their best angle. Hey, it’s the little things.
The new stuff isn’t necessarily better: Any talk show called “The Chew” sounds like something penguins do to feed their babies. Pass. But seriously, it’s a talk show about food. Because there isn’t already a network about it. Oh, wait, there is.
Soaps have been our ambassadors: Every time I leave the U.S., I’m always stunned by how many American shows are on television (I blame Brazil for ever getting me into “Private Practice.”). Sure, soaps may not show us at our best, unless you’re a womanizing lout on your fifth marriage who may or may not have killed the babysitter, but they often showed off a trait many Americans prize – an ability to keep going (and going and going) in the face of trauma, despair and bad news. And look great doing it.
They recall a time before widespread impatience: Remember when people had the patience to tune in day after day to see when the villainess of the day would finally get her comeuppance or see Ridge and Brooke finally get back together? No? Are you still reading this or have you checked your e-mail? Put down your phone. Hello? Nowadays we can’t even be bothered to sit through a commercial, much less tolerate daily cliffhangers or continuing plotlines (in case you had any doubts about why prime time is clogged with stand alone procedural dramas). As much as they might drive you crazy, there’s something exciting about having to wait for the big reveal. Which you can probably get spoiled for you online, but that’s another matter altogether.
But soaps aren’t really going anywhere. They survive in gussied-up form in primetime (“Private Practice,” “Desperate Housewives”) and have found devoted viewers abroad. Telenovelas often crack the ratings top twenty here in Los Angeles, and in Japan soapy imported South Korean miniseries (“Winter Sonata” started it all in 2003) are being credited with thawing the icy hostility between those two nations and even spurring tourism in Korea. In Africa, there’s a push to work HIV/AIDS education into soap operas. So soaps will live on, but not in the form we’re familiar with. But don’t be surprised if you miss them just a little when they’re gone.
Do you watch soaps? Are you looking forward to more courtroom reality and chat shows? Will you miss soaps when they’re gone?