Earlier this summer, NBC Universal announced its deal with DirectTV to bring the daytime soap Passions to the satellite network’s DirectTV 101, a channel created especially for original programming. This new deal offered a glimpse of the future of daytime soap operas as ratings for the programs continue to free fall on the networks.
While network heads continue to blame competition from cable for the loss of viewers, most fans will state positively that the genre’s decline has all to do with network interference. A move toward gimmicks, quick storytelling and an overreliance on pretty models to fill their casts has all but destroyed the genre as nervous network heads try to stop the ratings bleed. But as technology changes what we see on television and the way we see it, will soaps be able to find new avenues in which to tell their stories?
While soaps have always appeared on the networks, cable and the Internet could prove to be lucrative avenues. For instance, cable networks such as HBO and Showtime have been known for the freedom they allow producers and writers to create their own visions. While cable has recently shown to be as equally responsive to poor ratings at broadcast networks (hence the canceling of HBO’s John from Cincinnati earlier this summer due to poor ratings), there is no doubt that producers and writers are given far more creative freedom on cable than they are allowed on broadcast networks. Soap operas could benefit from that kind of freedom. A cable soap opera isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. During the 1980s, the late Doug Marland created Rituals for cable. And most of HBO’s more popular series, such as The Sopranos, were ersatz continuing dramas. It’s not unlikely that a soap opera could become just as popular on cable, and could also be freed from network interferences or expectations that are destroying the genre today.
The Internet could also be an interesting new avenue for soaps. Producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) recently announced their new Internet-based media project, Quarterlife, based on a failed pilot they produced for the broadcast networks. Quarterlife will air on a MySpace account and will also launch a social-networking site after the same name. Both Zwick and Herskovitz argue that they were forced to look for other opportunities to show their work due to the constant contraints they faced from network heads who were more interested in the bottom-line than pursuing interesting and original programming. Could this also be a prime opportunity for daytime producers and writers? Youtube has been a popular site for original programming, including such popular series as Chad Vader and others. And unlike networks, which continue to expect huge numbers, particularly from specific demos, the Internet could prove to be lucrative for soaps since the amount of fans who watch soaps on broadcast networks would be considered successful for online enterprises. Recognizing the opportunities that the Internet could provide for their products, the networks have already begun showing episodes of their soaps online. Episodes of Guiding Light, for instance, are now shown on the CBS.com site after each daily airing.
In order for the genre to survive, producers and writers of today’s daytime dramas are going to have to think outside the box. Many are certainly aware of this. ABC daytime head Brian Frons has been a forerunner by creating the popular GH: Night Shift for the cable soap network SoapNet. But what soaps truly need in order to survive is a singular vision, one that is not hampered by network interference and advertising expectations and only cable and the Internet can seem to provide those opportunities for soap operas in today’s environment.