Prime-Time Soaps: R.I.P?
With A Graveyard Full Of Cancelled
Nighttime Serials, Can The End Be Near
For This Troubled Genre?
By Jeff Nelson
"It's almost like a virus that's taking hold," says TV Guide's Michael Logan, of the recent epidemic of prime-time sudsers biting the dust. 2000 MALIBU ROAD, ANGEL FALLS, WINNETKA ROAD, MODELS INC., CENTRAL PARK WEST, KINDRED: THE EMBRACED, MALIBU SHORES, THE MONROES, SAVANNAH and PACIFIC PALISADES - all dead and buried within the span of five years. And this year, three newcomers - FOUR CORNERS, SIGNIFICANT OTHERS and PUSH - fared even worse. (OTHERS lasted less than a month. CORNERS and PUSH had only two airings!) What's up with that?
In the early '80s, shows like DALLAS and DYNASTY, after slow starts, became fan favorites and media sensations (if not critical successes). Friday nights had the one-two punch of DALLAS and FALCON CREST; bars exploited the trend with Wednesday evening DYNASTY parties.
By the end of the decade, however, the war-horses were losing steam. It appeared that the genre had expired... until BEVERLY HILLS, 90210 and MELROSE PLACE reinvented the category with younger, hipper casts in 1990 and 1992, respectively. Now, as the '90s wind down, these long-running shows have lost momentum, and their heirs-apparent just aren't catching
on with fans. What gives?
A large part of the problem, of course, is network-wide: the siphoning off of viewers by pay-per-view, cable, VCRs, computers, longer work hours and people simply leading busier lives. ("You have to be in a mindset of taking on a big load when you say 'yes' to a soap," says Logan. "I think it gets harder and harder to convince people to be in that mindset when we're all too damn busy.") But prime-time soaps are also facing competition from shows that have co-opted important elements from the soap format.
"I think what we've been seeing in the last 20 years is a transition from contained storylines to continuing storylines in almost every show," asserts Lynn Marie Latham, head writer of PORT CHARLES and former scribe for KNOTS LANDING and SAVANNAH. "Nowadays, a character is pregnant and that plays out for a full year - on a cop show."
A review of the TV landscape these days proves Latham's point. Medical dramas like CHICAGO HOPE and ER have continuing stories, as do sitcoms ALLY McBEAL and FRIENDS, complete with cliffhangers. Ann Marcus, a former FALCON CREST and KNOTS LANDING supervising producer, says, "[These writers] don't realize they're really writing soaps. Look at the continuing stories among their characters. Nighttime soaps have had a tremendous influence on prime-time
With the lines between prime-time soap, prime-time drama and sitcoms so blurred, are viewers getting their serial fix from technically non-soap shows? "What that says to me," notes Logan, "is that this is the most satisfying kind of programming for audiences."
It doesn't help that networks are so quick to pull the plug on struggling shows. Imagine if DALLAS, DYNASTY or MELROSE PLACE had been cancelled early on? All those catfights lost! None of these eventual ratings winners had gangbuster ratings at first, but each was given a chance to thrive.
David Jacobs, former creator of DALLAS, KNOTS and FOUR CORNERS, insists that dismissing the genre is a grave mistake in today's TV landscape. "Since the networks can't do as much sex and violence as they do on cable, the only thing they can do is engage people on a weekly basis and keep them coming back."
But soaps require a gradual build, as viewers get to know the characters. Explains Jacobs, "You have to lure the audience in slowly. You have to get them to like the show first and not be afraid to watch it if they haven't the week before."
Time was, a network committed to a schedule and pretty much stuck with it. Today, of course, even top-rated shows get jostled, a situation particularly damaging to soaps. In the case of Jacobs's FOUR CORNERS, "CBS tested the show and it didn't test well," he says. "They started moving the shows around out of order. In fairness, they weren't great, but we could have fixed them and we did."
It's just such "[unwise] programming with these shows," concurs Logan. NBC placed MALIBU SHORES - a 90210-esque teen offering - on Saturday nights, not exactly a time when the target viewer is sitting home. WB hit gold with SAVANNAH on Sundays, then inexplicably moved it to Mondays. Viewers retreated and SAVANNAH's ratings went south.
Of course, it's unrealistic to compare the salad days of DALLAS and DYNASTY with today's environment. "We've got to start thinking that a show like DAWSON'S CREEK is a success for the '90s," offers Logan. "There are new standards of what a success is, and it does get more and more microscopic as time goes on. We also need to get enough distance from the '80s. No one's ever going to get those types of ratings again."
And networks haven't given up diving into sudsy waters. NBC, for example, will premiere WIND ON WATER this fall, starring Bo Derek and Shawn Christian (ex-Mike, AS THE WORLD TURNS). Will WIND ON WATER sink before it has a chance to sail? Now there's a cliffhanger.
Who better to ask about the state of prime-time soaps than TV titan Aaron Spelling? With no need for an introduction (okay he's the mastermind behind hits such as DYNASTY, BEVERLY HILLs, 90210 and MELROSE PLACE). Spelling candidly talks about the issues at hand.
Digest: How do you feel about the alarming number of prime-time soap cancellations recently?
Spelling: I could only answer that with BEVERLY HILLS, 90210. In the beginning, we only had an order for 13 episodes - and our ratings were not good. But Fox stuck with us. Looking back, as 90210 starts its ninth season, where the hell would we have been had they not given us a chance? Because of 90210's success, we spun off MELROSE PLACE. I think the problem the networks are running into is that its hard. to repeat a soap. Therefore, the networks have to wait longer to see whether the show is going to register for them. It's sad for me because I know its very hard these days to sell a soap.
Digest: ABC's PUSH was pulled after only two airings.
Spelling: How could you find out anything about it? That must be so heartbreaking for its producers and the cast.
Digest: Is it really as simple as networks giving primetime soaps more time?
Spelling: I thought [NBC] was generous with us with [1996's] MALIBU SHORES. But it was on Saturday night - a very tough time to get young people. Still, they ordered six episodes, then went to 13. NBC is also the same network that gave us a shot at doing a daytime soap, SUNSET BEACH. I don't know why the networks don't treat nighttime soaps like daytime soaps. They give daytime soaps a chance to get started.
Digest: 2000 MALIBU ROAD, MODELS INC., SAVANNAH and PACIFIC PALISADES - all yours. Do you feel they were victim of a too-quick trigger?
Spelling: I wish I could say yes, but I can't. All I core about is that they were given a chance. Plus, they put most of them on in the summer, when you should be able to attract viewers because you're up against repeats. I think my biggest disappointment was was probably the cancellation of 2000 MALIBU ROAD. I loved that show. The director, Joel Schumacher, is one of my closest friends and Drew Barrymore [ex-Lindsay] and I were real buddies. It was one of our biggest sellers overseas. MODELS, INC and SAVANNAH were huge there, as well.
Digest: Do you feel that prime-time soaps can make a
Spelling: Yes, I really do. I think it happens in this industry where [networks] want this or they want that and then they go to other genres. Who in the hell ever thought, for example, that UPN would order a '90s version of THE LOVE BOAT [laughs]? I'm willing to bet you that in about three more years, [the TV industry] will say, "Dammit! We've gotta get prime-time soap audiences back," and they'll start trying nighttime soaps again.
Digest: Would you consider a '90s remake of DYNASTY?
Spelling: I think DYNASTY was right for what happening in our country at the time. I would never consider doing DYNASTY without our original cast. They were all so loyal to me. John [Forsythe, ex-Blake], Linda [Evans, ex-Krystle] and Joan [Collins, ex-Alexis] are still three of my best friends. We would never consider it.
Digest: Maybe another reunion movie?
Spelling: Maybe. That might be fun.