Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Cultural Archaeologist

By Mitchell

Through what I can assure you is no fault of my own, I seem to have become a character in a long-running soap opera at the Recovering Dissident Catholic site (with graphic embellishments by Abbey Roads). It’s flattering, to be sure, to be cast as your own character. And far be it from me to discourage comparisons with such sartorial luminaries such as Amos Burke, John Steed, or even What's My Line's John Daly.

But this does bring us around to the golden age of soap opera on television. You don’t see many soaps on TV nowadays, and in fact why would they be needed? Between Opera and Springer and The View and all the rest of the daytime talkers, your dramatic and lascivious needs are pretty well taken care of.

Such was not always the case, however. There was a time, back in the day, when daytime television was ruled by a combination of sudsers and game shows (now also largely forgotten, alas), with a few movies and variety shows thrown in for good measure.

The April 27, 1957 issue of TV Guide (with Groucho Marx on the cover) gives us a fair measure of what the average housewife might be able to choose from. (And housewives were the primary audience back then, in the age of stay-at-home moms, when men dominated the workplace and televisions weren’t yet a staple of college dorms and common areas.)

Soap operas had started back on radio, of course, and many of them made the transition to early television (including a lawyer who was once a character in The Edge of Night – Perry Mason). The Guiding Light was one of them, although originally the show had something of a religious, inspirational subtext – the guiding light, after all, was pretty much what you’d expect.

The soapers were broadcast live, back then, five days a week. They even provided listings in the TV Guide as well, if you can imagine that. Here’s a week’s worth of Guiding Light, for example:

Mon: Bill goes to see Dr. Fletcher. Tues: Dick tries to advise Paul about his attitude toward the patients. Wed: Bill tells Elsie not to let Albert know she is aware of his condition. Thurs: Dick tells Marie he is taking Kathy as a patient. Fri: Robin comes to visit Meta.

There you have it. No need to even tune in; you know the whole week right there. (By contrast, yesterday’s listing: Natalia alerts Gus that Harley knows that they slept together.)

As you could tell, doctors (and nurses) were popular subjects for soap operas. Some, like The Doctors and General Hospital, were primarily about them (at least at the start). But almost every serial had a doctor or two somewhere in the mix.

So let’s look back at what you might expect to see that week.

CBS was the king of the soapers back then, with Brighter Day (Rev. Dennis talks to Max and tries to explain Grayling’s resentment), Secret Storm (with an opening theme based on the second movement of Brahms' Concerto in A Minor), The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, The Valiant Lady, Love of Life, The Guiding Light, and As the World Turns (which was, of course, the program interrupted in November 1963 by the news of JFK’s assassination). NBC was in the mix as well with Modern Romances, although they relied more on variety and game shows, and their prime afternoon feature was the hour-long “Matinee Theater,” which sounds as if it belonged more properly in prime time. (Sample program: “The Professionals,” by Stan Cutler. A professional golfer employed by a country club is stunned to learn it will no longer finance his expensive trips to golf tourneys. He has lost too many matches to make it worthwhile.) ABC also gave the nod to movies, with Afternoon Film Festival, and cartoons (Mickey Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle, etc). Both NBC and ABC would follow suit eventually, however, introducing such classics as The Doctors, Another World, Dark Shadows (a story in itself), One Life to Live, and a daytime version of Peyton Place.

You might wonder how they were able to squeeze so many soap operas into the daytime schedule, back then. Well, it was because most of them were only 15 minutes long. It was a big deal back in the late 70s and early 80s when some of the most popular serials expanded to an hour, but it was just as big a step in the 60s when many of them went from 15 to 30 minutes. The longer form meant that more than one storyline a day could be explored, and the hectic back-and-forth cutting of the modern soap opera can probably be traced back to that original 15 minute timeframe.

So, as is the case with so much of television nowadays, the daytime lineup has changed greatly over the years. And not for the better, I’d suggest. With 150 channels to choose from, anyone can probably come up with a better lineup than that which was available with only 4 or 5 channels – but that means there’s a lot more dreck out there as well. Which is a shame, because many of the plot-driven soaps of the era, with five shows a week and no reruns, required a fairly high quality of writing and acting. Relatively speaking, of course; I don’t think anyone would ever confuse The Edge of Night with Playhouse 90 (a reference for you old-timers like me out there). But there’s no doubt there was a style in those days which is missing today.

Unless, of course, we can produce more writers like Cathy of Alex. With her, the soap opera might make a comeback after all.


  1. Mitchell - Don't you watch "Passions" - oh, that's right, you have a job.

    (I'll keep posting photos of you anyway.)

  2. Don't forget that the soaps started on radio.

    And that's where the 15 minute format started.

    When you lived three blocks from school, you walked home for lunch. News was on at 12:00; Oxydol's own "Ma Perkins" came on at 12:15; something else at 12:30; and at 12:45, when The Guiding Light came on, it was time for us to start walking back to school.

  3. Mitchell: Interesting post. I AM a soap fan. Really.

    Oh, and my graphic embellishments are courtesy of Vincenzo. Though, Terry always adds "graphic" embellishments of his own!

  4. The way networks have lost viewers I believe has been a byproduct too of how the modern soap has become too sexualised and raunchy. Once HBO began winning Emmy awards, television declined because everyone wanted to be like HBO.

    Only one soap on the air today is a 30-minute episode.

    NBC is down to just one (Days of Our Lives), and ABC has two, and CBS has four (three one-hour and one 30-minute). Even DirecTV has begun adding new soaps to their exclusive "The 101" channel, acquiring Passions, which moves to The 101 this fall.

    This is another attempt to gain more subscribers by having exclusive packages such as moving soaps, video game championships, and NFL Football (especially aimed at the 27 markets where television coverage is severely restricted by NFL policies; the New York, Bay Area, and Capitol markets only have two games a week -- their local teams; the other 24 markets only get doubleaders eight times a year (when their local team has a road game, the NFL allows one station to have two games and the other one; if the local team has a road game in Week 17, they get four games under the new 8-8-1 rule), while other non-NFL markets get three games on Sundays (8-8-1 rule) to satellite television.

    And without commercials and the right to air more raunch (adult material) on unregulated satellite television with a very minute audience, this could out-HBO the channel that established the modern raunch factor.

    There is only one network daytime game show since 1994, and that's Series 36 of Drew Carey's show (first with Carey) starting in September. Of course, Carey will probably keep the military audiences on the show, the the audience of the game show which he hosts in daytime has featured plenty of college students and troops. In some markets. that ugly gabfest talk show of women on ABC has beaten in ratings the game show now hosted by Drew Carey, mainly because CBS has very weak affiliates (Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee) caused by the 1994 Realignment. (In fact, Realignment made it possible for major markets not to receive the Daytona 500 in 1995 as CBS did not have affiliates available in major markets!)

    * The 8-8-1 rule: Under the terms of the 2006-2013 NFL television contract, Fox has eight doubleheader weekends (one of them is Kickoff Week, because CBS has the US Tennis Association Men's Championships -- there is talk of the USTA asking CBS to move the Men's Final to Sunday Night, just like the Women's Final, but the network has balked; with European players, CBS may be playing to interests of European prime-time television with 10:30 PM CET starts) and CBS has eight doubleheader weekends (one of them is the last week of October, because Fox has Game 4 of the World Series under the new television package, with a Wednesday series start, and Game 4 is on Sunday, ensuring there will be one Sunday game).

    Both networks get doubleheaders on Week 17 in order to air all games with playoff possibilities.

    If the local market team is playing at home on Week 17, neither network may air more than one game in that market.

  5. I think Bobby raises a very interesting point.

    With "Passions" moving to DirecTV (and speculation that "Days of Our Lives" might do the same, thus ending NBC's soap opera schedule altogether), along with DirecTV's continued move toward program exclusivity (the NFL's Sunday Ticket, and it's abortive effort to secure exclusive rights to MLB's Extra Innings), DirecTV is attempting to become a true competitor to cable TV programming, not merely an alternative vehicle for carrying the signals.

    Will DirecTV attempt to create an entire programming schedule - in effect, competing directly with other cable channels? And what effect will this have on its programming as a whole? The possibilities are intriguing.


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