When, last month, ABC executives announced the cancellation of two of their network's soap operas, devout fans of All My Children and One Life to Live panicked. They signed petitions and threatened to boycott ABC if the decision was not reversed. They may have expected, however, that their efforts would be futile. Again and again in recent years, daytime dramas - even the long-running Guiding Light, originally a radio show before the onset of World War II - have been canceled.
In their desperation, ABC soap enthusiasts even sought divine intervention to save these shows. But, as much as she empathized with their feelings of grief, Oprah said there was nothing she could do. With her hands folded primly on her desk and speaking in a patient tone, Winfrey addressed her supplicants in a YouTube video, explaining that soaps no longer have the audience to keep them on the air: "Believe me," she said, "if there was a dime left to be made from them on broadcast television, it would still be happening."
As of this writing, more than 560 soap fans have left comments in response to Winfrey. They accuse her of callously dismissing the genre of daytime drama. They say she is insensitive to the feelings of actor Susan Lucci, who has played Erica Kane on All My Children since 1970. Others seem genuinely disturbed that Winfrey would be motivated by financial gain.
What? Oprah won't bail out the soaps? She wants her projects to be profitable? Shame on her!
In the video, Oprah said that the demise of the soap opera can be attributed to the fact that there are "just are not enough people who are at home in the daytime to watch them." I don't mean to fuel the anti-Oprah ire of her critics, but the "not enough people at home during the day" explanation seems thin to me.
I followed the storylines of a couple of soap operas every few years as a tween and teenager, but that was in a very different time. People weren't burdened by living under Orange Alert, with lingering wars, or in a tattered economy.
And I was a child. Soaps offered me a larger-than-life, exaggerated view of the conflicts inherent in adult relationships. They gave a delicious peek into the lives of the impossibly rich and beautiful. (And that Noah Drake on General Hospital? I swooned.) In the early and mid-1980s, when I was tuning in, some of the characters and storylines became so popular that they burst through the bubble of daytime television and garnered a wider, general audience. Remember the media frenzy that was Luke and Laura's wedding on General Hospital? In 1981, more than 30 million people watched their nuptials and celebrated their sweet union, even though Luke and Laura's romance began with a drunk Luke raping Laura.
Although it's true that fewer women choose to - or can afford to - stay home during the early years of their children's lives, and that "housewives" were the audience for which these shows were created, there are still plenty of people at home during the day. Telecommuters, the unemployed, college students - as well as patchwork, freelancing, work-at-home, primary caregivers like me - are among them.
But the majority of us who pad around in our tube socks and sweats choose to click around on Facebook and watch cooking shows in our spare time rather than follow the antics, adultery, and amnesia of soap opera characters these days. I don't think that the shows have changed; instead, we have.
Don't reality shows provide even more titillation than the soaps do? Maybe people changed channels from the soaps because our culture is dishing up so much real scandal, cynicism, and hyped-up stories that not even the most stylized soaps can compete. If a culture is already inundated with news of the real-life bad behavior and lavish lifestyles of celebrities, perhaps soap characters seem less shocking to us now. Noah Drake, as portrayed by pop star Rick Springfield in the early 1980s, is as tame as Anthony from the Wiggles when compared with Charlie Sheen living with multiple partners in Sober Valley Lodge.
And Charlie? He'll even Tweet directly to our phone so we know what he's up to. (If Charlie's on tour or in court or otherwise occupied, there are always celebrity mug shot sites to peruse when we need to feel superior.)
When no one else is in the news, there's always the likes of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan to oblige our culture with a bit of scandal. And, these days, instead of dreaming of living in the fictional Palmer Cortlandt's manor in Pine Valley, we have the option of getting a good long glimpse into how the garishly rich live in the Housewives of Beverly Hills.
What could have kept soaps interesting to an American public numbed by disappointment and anxiety and for whom scandal and conspicuous consumption are shrugged off as simple facts of life? Maybe soaps would have been revived - if only for a time - had the characters connected with viewers via social media. Or had more of the stories, in a complex and authentic way, spoken to our most hidden fears or more truthfully explored the human condition. Maybe if they had they told more soul-satisfying stories, stories about the "life that is really life" (1 Tim. 6:19), they'd still be alive and well.
Alas, there's little money to be made from that sort of thing.