Reflections on the Demise of Two Legendary Soaps

by | April 15, 2011 at 7:01 AM | Deep Soap

One Life to Live/All My Children (ABC)

One Life to Live/All My Children (ABC)

Like millions (and yes, there still are millions) of ABC daytime fans, I am cycling through the five stages of grief about the double whammy cancellation of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” I knew it was a possibility. But somehow I thought they would hold on for a little while longer. I convinced myself that ABC was too busy figuring out next year’s primetime schedule to worry about daytime. I hoped all focus groups would hate all of the new shows that they were considering.

Stars & Fans React To “All My Children” and “One Life To Live’s” Cancellation

ABC Daytime President Brians Frons does not seem to have any great love for the soap genre. His blase remarks about the cancellations to Deadline and The Wrap make it quite clear that he and ABC are more interested in cutting revenues than making memorable programming that will build generations of loyal audiences. There are numerous cable cooking shows — all with better names than “The Chew” –  as well as countless weight loss and makeover programs.  Daytime dramas are the one genre that set the broadcast networks apart from their cable competitors. Now they’re gone. That said, television is a bottom-line oriented business and it has become increasingly clear that people are simply not watching as much television in the early afternoon as they did a decade ago. It is not just soaps that have declined in the ratings. Syndicated daytime programming used to be a huge business, with dozens of talk, game and court shows raking in millions of dollars in profits. The syndicated market has been dying, just like daytime. I truly believe that it’s not the genre, it’s the time period. ABC did the research, concluding that anything they would put on at that hour was unlikely to perform well, and decided to save a lot of money. Soaps might play like gangbusters at 5:00PM, but affiliates will never give up their lucrative local newscasts.

It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened if someone who lived and breathed soaps — Francesca James, Wendy Riche, Agnes Nixon, you, meended up in charge of ABC Daytime. Maybe different creative decisions would have been made that would have helped maintain the ratings for longer.  Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. I suspect all of ABC’s soaps were in danger the moment Disney decided to transform SoapNet into a channel for pre-schoolers. It eliminated a revenue stream and signaled that the studio had given up on the genre.

I feel like I just found out that two of my best friends are terminally ill. Agnes Nixon’s two soaps didn’t made me laugh and cry and swoon and think. They shepherded me through all the high and low points of my life. At times, I felt like they were my guardian angels. When I was an awkward middle-schooler, I dreamed of being glamorous, powerful Erica Kane. Susan Lucci was not tall, blonde and WASPy — what the rest of television had taught me was beautiful. She was, like me, short and brunette with an “ethnic” nose. Erica was, like me, the only child of a single mother. She made me feel that I, too, could make my most grandiose dreams come true through sheer will power. Erica helped me grow into the person that I am today.

See A Montage Of Erica Kane’s Many Men:

I will always treasure my memories of the all-too brief time I spent as a writer on “All My Children.” I got to spend a couple days in New York working with the headwriters. As I walked from my hotel room to the ABC studios on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, energized by the crowds and the noise of the streets, it felt like destiny. Alas, it was not to be. But fate brought AMC to Los Angeles, where I had the opportunity to interview Lucci on several occasions. She was every bit as classy and gracious as I imagined she’d be.

“One Life To Live” during the early 1990s, when Michael Malone was  headwriter, captured being young during the grunge era every bit as well as “My So-Called Life.”  It was not just great soap. It felt relevant, daring, important. The soundtrack was hip. The clothes were spot on, from Marty’s (Susan Haskell) choker to earnest Rachel’s (then Ellen Bethea) overalls. When Todd, as portrayed by then newcomer Roger Howarth burst onto the screen, he was not just a compelling villain. His rage and detachment and, yes, his long hair and plaid shirts, captured the cultural zeitgeist. He was a Nirvana song come to life. During this era OLTL brought the AIDS quilt and a gay teenager named Billy Douglas into America’s living rooms. The story seems tame by today’s standards — Billy did not even have a love interest — but it broke down a lot of barriers.

Ron Carlivati’s OLTL continues this legacy. Last year, the saga of Kyle and Fish not only told a true gay love story — complete with a sex scene equivalent to what a heterosexual would have — but advocated for gay marriage rights. Now it is telling a timely storyline about teen bullying and suicide that is as much about the parents of the people involved as the teens. It has so far avoided easy answers and pat resolutions. It is far more sophisticated than “Glee’s” treatment of the same subject.

It’s hard to believe that a show this vibrant is being put out to pasture.  It seems especially unfair given that last week it was the number three soap in Women 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 beating “Days of Our Lives” and “The Bold & the Beautiful.” When “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” were canceled, they were the lowest rated soaps by a significant margin. OLTL is doing relatively well, at least by current daytime standards, and it is still getting the axe.

This truly is the end of the daytime drama. Yes, “General Hospital” is safe — for now.  So are “The Young & the Restless” and “The Bold & the Beautiful” and “Days of Our Lives.” But within a couple years, when their contracts expire, it seems likely that the bell will toll for them, too.

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