Back in grade school, I could be off the bus and at my front door by 2:50 p.m., leaving just enough time to change out of my uniform, grab a Little Debbie snack cake, and take a seat in front of the television for that day’s episode of Guiding Light.
During the years I watched it, Guiding Light felt like the perfect escape. Like any good fantasy, the show transported me to a world populated by larger-than-life people (and their long-lost twins, played by the same actress!) doing larger-than-life things (like coming back from the dead, this time being played by a different actress!).
But Guiding Light also taught me plenty, in an after school special kind of way. Watching with my mom, we’d chuckle at the outrageous and ease our way into topics that were far afield from the predictable suburban existence we knew: rape, teenage pregnancy, AIDS. Guiding Light got us talking about these weighty topics and about love and commitment, irresponsibility and consequences.
That was – gasp! – almost thirty years ago, during the twilight of the soap genre. Guiding Light aired its final episode on CBS on September 18, 2009, 72 years after its debut as an NBC radio serial, making it one of five soap operas cancelled in the last three years.
Last spring, ABC axed both All My Children and One Life to Live. AMC, long committed to tackling social issues, signed off in September after a 41 year run. OLTL, which earned acclaim for a groundbreaking homophobia storyline, aired its last episode on January 13th after 42 years on the air.
Only four daytime dramas remain.
So what burst the soaps’ bubble? The numbers. Ratings fell precipitously as “women 18-49” turned their backs. But it’s not as though we’ve suddenly lost our appetite for love triangles, alien abductions, and surprise pregnancies. Heck no! If anything, we’ve become hungrier for the schlocky content soaps were long derided for.
And we’re finding plenty of it: in reality TV.
A glance at the Nielsen ratings for the past decade demonstrates the explosive growth of reality television. 56% of the primetime audience is watching reality TV, as compared to 22% in the 2001-02 season. During the day, aggressive, in-your-face options like Judge Judy and The View dominate.
As if the victory of reality over scripted drama wasn’t clear enough, ABC emphasized the point by replacing its venerable soaps with fare dished out by a veritable Who’s-Who of contemporary reality television. The Chew, a talk show about food and entertaining starring Mario Batali and Michael Symon (of Iron Chef America fame), Carla Hall (Top Chef), and Clinton Kelly (What Not to Wear) replaced All My Children this fall. The Revolution – a health and “lifestyle” talk show hosted by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’s Ty Pennington – debuted this month.
The demise of the soap opera underscores a deep shift in our cultural preferences away from the narrative form that has shaped art and entertainment since prehistory and toward quick fixes, cheap thrills, and narcissism. Sure, daytime dramas made their names with outrageous storylines, but they also asked their viewers for a commitment that most reality TV eschews.
Ultimately, soap operas gave us 40-year story arcs about families. The multi-generational clans made messes and had to deal with them. Declaring bankruptcy landed characters in more hot water than a cookbook deal could lift them out of. Being 16 and pregnant had consequences beyond giving them a chance at a TV contract. And watching these soap characters deal with the costs of their mistakes came with lessons for viewers.
Now I’m not trying to say that I learned all my values from watching soaps as a kid. And there were certainly plenty of badly behaved soap characters who were unrealistically redeemed or rehabilitated. But I am arguing that the values soaps taught me are a whole lot better than the ones reality TV is instilling in kids today.
The swan song of the soap opera makes me wonder about the type of television that my young children will eventually watch – and that we will watch and talk about together. It also makes me think about a recent UCLA study that found that fame was the top value conveyed by TV shows – many of them reality shows – popular among pre-teens. (Benevolence ranked 13th out of 16, tradition 15th.)
These are the values reality TV is teaching?
Maybe I’ll see if I can find some old VHS tapes of Guiding Light on eBay.
Did you ever watch soap operas? Do you watch reality TV? What, if any, TV do you like to watch with your kids?