Long-Running Soaps Scrubbed

ABC announced this week that two of its long-running soap operas, “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” will be cancelled, one in September and the other in January.  One Life to Live has been on the air for 44 years, and All My Children for 42 years. Each boasts more than 10,000 episodes.

Of course, as impressive as the runs of these programs were, they don’t hold a candle to Guiding Light which began its run in 1937 over NBC radio and continued on the air for 72 years, producing more than 17,000 episodes.

Guiding Light was one of many soap operas that aired during the golden age of radio. Many were sponsored by soap companies (thus the term, soap operas) . Most radio soap operas only survive in fragments. (one exception to this appears to be OTRCat’s Collection of “Hearts in Harmony.” )

Soap Operas are best known for their long story archs that stretch over multiple episodes, convuluted relationship dynamics, and melodrama. The multiple weekly broadcasts and drawn out plot points were not originally unique to soap operas. In the early days of radio, many programs had serialized stories. This included mysteries programs such as Charlie Chan, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, and The Ghost Corps, comedies such as Lum ‘n Abner and Amos ‘n Andy. The idea of early radio seemed to be much like that of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights.  End with a cliffhanger so the audience will want to find out what happens next in the story.

Long-running soaps continued this tradition while self-contained programs became the rage. Soap operas have continued to run despite being ridiculed by comedians ranging from Bob Hope and Fred Allen through Drew Carey, for their outlandish plots and often absurd situations.

I’ve never been a fan of soaps personally. But even as a non-fan, there are some aspects of the Soaps I can’t help but admire. Carlton Morse was the original king of the soap opera, with his radio program, One Man’s Family running from 1932-59. He also created the Mystery Serial, I Love a Mystery which ran from 1939-44 and 1949-52.  Dennis at the Digital Deli in his article on Adventures by Morse pegs Morse’s strength and the strength of many of the great soap writers, “His strong suit was his extraordinary ability to keep an exceptionally large cast of diverse characters sufficiently updated, while maintaining the continuity for each individual characterization over a span of weeks, months, or years of that character’s development.”

I’ve often thought the sheer pace of soap opera production would have to be grueling for the actors and crew, particularly as soaps have gradually expanded from 15 minute segments to an hour every day. Whatever can be said for the moral or artistic value of soap operas, I have to admire the work that has gone into keeping them running.

It seems like the soap opera will soon past from the American scene. Many have been cancelled and no new soap operas have been launched on American television since 1999.  The reasons cited for this vary. Some suggest it’s due to women entering the workforce (though this seems improbable to me as the status of women in the workforce hasn’t really changed that much in the last decade.) Perhaps, it’s because of declining attention spans that really don’t have the patience for the way soap operas work. Or maybe,  a growing number of us have enough melodrama from our own families that the soap operas are superfluous.

Whatever the case, time is running out for soap operas like  sands through the hourglass.

Now where did I hear that before?

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