Cheaper Clothes And Shorter Stories: On Soaps, Strange 'Days' Indeed

Mar 20, 2012
Originally published on March 20, 2012 9:13 am

It's not easy being one of the last soaps standing, as Neda Ulaby reports on today's Morning Edition. For fans, the shuttering of iconic shows like All My Children and Guiding Light has upended routines that, for some, date back to childhood. When I was in high school, my soap of choice was Days Of Our Lives, which Neda says has changed a lot since that era — well, it's changed and it hasn't.

Kristian Alfonso, who talks in the piece about the impact of stopping every day in wardrobe and seeing the clothes go from designer to off-the-rack, has been playing Hope Williams Brady (with some breaks while Hope was falsely believed to be dead) since 1983. Next year, that will be 30 years. Thirty years. She and Bo were a "supercouple" when I was 16, and they still are.

But despite all that continuity, Days has had to adapt in ways that go beyond the clothing budget. Writer Marlene McPherson tells Neda that story arcs used to stretch out for up to a year, and if you ever watched the "Marlena's demonic possession" or "Cruise Of Deception" stories, you know what she's talking about. Now, they try to wrap things up in shorter chunks. It's interesting that as nighttime television finds more space for long stories and serialization, soaps have to move faster to stay alive.

At least one of those adaptations seems very positive, though: Sarah Brown (who I didn't even know was on Days Of Our Lives now; I think of her as Carly from General Hospital, because I am years behind) says that you no longer have to stand around explaining everything that happened yesterday, partly because the show now assumes that people who are confused because they missed something can hop online and figure it out. It's been a while since I watched, but this hopefully means less of people staring out of windows and talking to themselves.

The economics that are affecting daytime soaps are a spin on the economics affecting the rest of television: more competition, cheaper shows (particularly personality-driven talk shows), different audience habits that make live viewing less likely and delayed viewing more likely ... it's an environment that's already killed off several giants with decades of history.

As we've talked about in this space before, soaps are easy to make fun of until you realize that for years, they inspired loyalty from viewers that your average high-profile prime-time show would envy. As Days producer Ken Corday says, and as Agnes Nixon talked about when All My Children was ending, daytime also used to have a role in breaking social taboos, though it's diminished with time.

For now, Days is on through the fall of 2013, when its contract will run out and we'll learn whether those sands are going to keep sprinkling down through that hourglass or not. Until then, fans still have ... well, Hope.

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And let's go from political dramas to the dramas of daytime TV. When the soap opera "One Life to Live" went off the air this year, it didn't die off for some soap opera reason - killed by an evil twin brother; and its demise was not fake, either - explained away later as a dream. It was part of a real decline of shows that once dominated daytime TV. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on one of the last few survivors, "Days of Our Lives."


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It cannot hurt to have such an iconic theme.


ULABY: Soap operas are fighting for their lives. "Days Of Our Lives" has been through almost as much as Molly Burnett. She plays a reformed vixen on the show, named Melanie.

MOLLY BURNETT: I've been shot, stabbed, poisoned by a wedding hairpiece. I was shot by my mom on my wedding day. I found out my husband cheated on me with my father-I-didn't-know-I-had's wife, and then they had a child.


BURNETT: Then I got pregnant.

ULABY: Burnett is 23 years old. She admits that soap operas' tortuous plot twists are not exactly cool among her peers. None of her friends watch them.


ULABY: There was a time soap operas wielded wide cultural influence. Even people who could care less about them knew about Luke and Laura's wedding on "General Hospital," in 1981; or when Bo kidnapped Hope from her wedding, on "Days of our Lives."


ULABY: Since 1983, with a few breaks, Kristian Alfonso has played Hope - all cheekbones and raven hair. Over the years, she's watched production budgets get halved, salaries chopped, and the end of filming on location.

How nostalgic are you for the days when you would wear $35,000 wedding dresses and...

: Oh my gosh. It was a big adjustment at first because seriously, that is your first stop in the morning - is wardrobe.

ULABY: That used to mean designer dresses. Now, Alfonso says, Tarjay(ph). Part of how soap operas are trying to adapt to a new era has to do with how they're written. When "Days of our Lives" head writer Marlene McPherson started her career 20 years ago, storylines - or arcs - could work themselves out over a year. Now...

MARLENE MCPHERSON: We'd like to be able to start telling stories that maybe, you know, we'd do a week arc; that it only goes on for a week.

ULABY: McPherson says these days, people have shorter attention spans. She's banned the kind of scenes where actresses like Sarah Joy Brown talk to themselves, to explain what's going on.

SARAH JOY BROWN: You used to have to do exposition for half of your episode.

ULABY: Brown acted on "As the World Turns," "General Hospital" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" before joining "Days of our Lives" last year.

BROWN: These were the rules - that we had to repeat the same things we said the day before. They were certain that the audiences were not going to get it, if you didn't.

ULABY: NBC's strategy these days has changed.

BROWN: Like, if they miss something, too bad, you missed it. You better crawl around the Internet and try to find it. And they will, and they'll find it.

ULABY: Creating stronger online fan communities and deeper engagement with the show is another way "Days" is trying to survive. "Days of Our Lives" executive producer Ken Corday is the son of the couple who created "Days of our Lives" back in 1965. He says soaps used to be leaders in addressing social issues. They featured the first interracial couple on TV, and the first abortion. Now, they play it safe.

KEN CORDAY: You don't deal with politics, conservative or liberal. You don't deal with abortion, being pro or con. These are just no-no's. They're not going to get us any audience.

ULABY: Also out - those over-the-top storylines about demon possession that goosed ratings in the 1990s.


ULABY: "Days" is safe until the fall of 2013. That's when its contract expires. Its Nielsen ratings have stunk even more than usual recently, but people at the show are convinced that Nielsen does not accurately reflect its reach. And maybe they have a point.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN: I love your swagger, darling. I love your swagger on the show.

ULABY: At a huge fan event for "Days of our Lives" in Los Angeles, nobody talked about watching it at 1 p.m. Eastern time on NBC. They watch it after work, on weekends, online, and on a cable channel that mainly airs soap opera reruns.

DEBRAH FALANGA: I'm thankful for SoapNet.


FALANGA: I work during the day and I don't have time to watch it, so I stay up until 12 midnight to watch it.


ULABY: Bad news for "Days of our Lives" fan Debrah Falanga: SoapNet is going off the air this week. It's becoming, instead, a Disney-themed cable channel for children.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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