Binging, Purging, and Daytime TV’s Reanimated Corpses

And there they were, standing cheek to jowl, two old foes reunited on the battlefield.

viki dorian

(Source)

That is Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks and Dorian Cramer Lord…aw fuck it–Viki and Dorian.  On April 29th, One Life to Live and All My Children–formerly of ABC–returned to television, kind of.  After being booted from daytime TV back in 2011, both shows were resuscitated by Prospect Park Productions as web series broadcast via Hulu.  As a younger man I watched both shows religiously, but ensconced in my 30s and gainfully employed, I can only manage to keep company with my first love, One Life to Live.

OLTL began in 1968, meaning the show lasted 43 years on network television, garnering audiences of 8+ million during its height, and down to less than two million as it slouched towards cancellation.  The longevity of most soap operas rarely gets the notice rightly deserved.  Though we are down to only four on network TV (the zenith being 11), many of those–Guiding Light, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and others–have existed literally for decades, outliving not only other shows, but actors, genres, and distribution models. For as much as they have been consistently mocked, their longevity proved how special the soap opera could be.  Does their return via internet television say the same?

Television in general is in murky territory these days.  Like the music industry, television hasn’t quite found a way to monetize itself in the digital age and the fragmentation produced by Youtube, Netflix, and proliferating cable networks has produced a lot of hand-wringing among executives and plenty of thought pieces by media commentators.  Though variety certainly hasn’t helped soap operas (no show is exempt from the perils of audience fragmentation) the writing was on the wall years before the internet came to play such a powerful role in the television landscape.  Second tier soaps like Loving and Another World were canceled in the 1990s.  Attempts to replace those shows (The City, Port Charles, Sunset Beach, and Passions) never quite caught on, because the audience was already heading to the exit. Or rather, heading to work. The most obvious culprit in the death of the soap opera was gender equity and the economic stagnation of the middle and working classes. Women could no longer dawdle about the house Betty Draper style but had both the opportunity and necessity to go to work in order to maintain a decent standard of living.

So while a large portion of the audience went off to work, another portion could simply fulfill its television needs elsewhere. Some people mourn the days when tens of millions of Americans sat down at the same time every week to watch I Love Lucy or Dallas. On the opposite end of the spectrum,  Entertainment Weekly recently ran a column about those shows that are best consumed in “binge” form, such as Lost or Arrested Development.  The idea of watching large chunks of a television show in one sitting is new, but has caught on, and Netflix (and perhaps even Amazon) are betting that many viewers prefer binging on TV. The next season of Arrested Development (following its unceremonious cancellation by Fox in 2003) will be dumped like a bucket of chum into the shark tank of Netflix subscribers in one day; I myself will spend much of Memorial Day taking part in the eating frenzy.

But soap operas were perhaps the only genre (game and talk shows excepted) that provided both the structure of ritualized television watching with the pleasure of binge consumption.  You could watch five hours (five!) of any given soap opera (except the half hour ones) in a given week.  That’s almost as many hours of entertainment in one week as you will get from the recent Arrested Development season; in one month, you get more episodes than an entire season of Man Men.  And in a year you would spend more hours in Llanview (or Port Charles, or Salem) than you would in the entirety of the time spent on the island in Lost.  Though that often produced quality-control issues, including flubbed lines and cheaper production values, it did provide the requisite dopamine levels that TV consumption can produce.

That binging, however, was structured.  Sure, you might be one of those few people in the 80s and 90s capable of programming your VCR so that you could watch your soap later in the day, but most people who watched sat down at a specific time, structuring the afternoon’s errands and activities around their favorite soap operas.  That structure was itself a large part of the pleasure: eating lunch during Days of Our Lives, coming home from school right as General Hospital started, doing laundry during Guiding Light, etc.  Those rituals and activities also took the edge off of the show’s weaker elements, the sometimes bad acting and wobbly sets, for example.  Let’s be honest, even the most committed soap opera fan is aware of the genre’s weak spots, which are part of the pleasure.  Though I have been captivated by some exceptional story telling on daytime TV and some quality performances, soaps are defined for both their fans and detractors by some of the clunkier and campier elements.  But those flaws were part of the charm, and while you whiled away at your homework or housework, such elements could be quietly ignored until the show’s energy amped up.

But what will viewers do now that they can watch these two shows whenever they want? Now that the ritual has been replaced by the convenience of television on demand, will people still want to turn in and will viewing habits change the nature of these shows? The evidence suggests it already has.  Recently ,the producers of AMC and OLTL have revised their scheduling of the shows. The shows began their online run with 4 half-hour episodes a week, with a Friday recap episode (already down from the five hour long episodes in their original broadcast run). Viewers are not watching on a regular time table and finding it difficult to keep up with all the episodes. As a result, production company Prospect Park will now air each show twice a week, with a combined recap episode on Friday. This means only one hour of new content a week for each show, which makes them almost indistinguishable from prime-time serials like Scandal and Nashville (both of which are rebroadcast on Hulu as well).  In that regard, it seems difficult to imagine how these shows are going to compete in the media marketplace.  Without the excessive time commitments that matched their excessive narratives, without the ritual pleasures of daily viewing, and without the production budget found on other shows, how many people will consistently tune in once the pleasure of seeing these shows brought back from the dead has passed?

As I said earlier, I have followed One Life to Live since I was a teenager.  I watched it on summer vacations and after school, I watched it in college before and after classes, I tuned in on days off in my adult life.  The sight of Viki and Dorian fighting again (this time over Dorian disgraced senate career and CIA coverups!) felt like a return home for me as a viewer.  And given the show’s inauspicious end-run on ABC, it felt good to see these characters back in action. But nostalgia can’t be the engine for a television show for very long and I can’t imagine too many new viewers flocking to the show.  I can’t imagine an audience twenty years from now telling stories about sitting with their mothers watching One Life to Live on a laptop.  When Guiding Light transitioned from radio to television in 1952 it ran for 15 minutes.  As the years progressed it became 30 minutes, and then a full hour in 1977. OLTL also started at 30 minutes, and only became an hour-long show once it proved its durability.  I suspect what we are witnessing now is the reversal of this process, of an entire genre winding itself backward,  shrinking to the size of a pin as old televisions used to do when you turned them off.  Many of the conventions of the soap opera have translated to prime time television and other genres; what the daytime serial offers to viewers in the 21st century still seems unclear to me.

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