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The World Has Turned: Why Are Soaps Dying?

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Cyndi Lauper guests on ATWT in happier times. / CBS

The latest casualty of the Great Soap-Opera Die-Off was named yesterday: CBS’s As the World Turns. Along with the closings of newspapers and the killing of Gourmet magazine, this is one of those epochal-sounding media deaths that drives home the big changes going on. I mean, count the rings on this baby: ATWT will be 54 years old when it goes. A soap opera was supposed to be a habit you formed and could maintain your whole adult life. Why are they collapsing?

There is, as always, one basic reason: they now cost more than they’re worth. There are, as always, many specific factors. But here, there is one overarching cultural reason that ATWT bought it: The whole world is now a soap opera.

What I mean by this is: the attraction of soap operas was that—on a budget and with addictive dramatic hooks—they provided an endless serial narrative for people, mostly women, at home on weekday afternoons. But today’s media is full of drama and serial narratives. On a literal level, network soaps now compete with dozens of channels of daytime programming on cable, including female-targeted networks like TLC and Lifetime. And, thanks to DVRs in on eof three homes, they compete with nighttime programming too—plenty of which, like The Hills or the Real Housewives franchise, is patterned on a soap structure. Has any soap lately had anything to rival RHONJ’s Teresa overturning a table and yelling “prostitution whore!”?

But more broadly speaking: the media serve up soap opera serials constantly now. Jon & Kate: that was a multimedia serial, which you could follow on TV, in the tabs and on Perez Hilton. Tiger Woods is a soap opera. TMZ and the like serve up low-budget, real-life soap operas—some limited-run, some ongoing—without end. They may not have scripts, but they fill the same entertainment niche and have the same basic cultural appeal: escaping your own life by gawking at the secret troubles of the rich and glamorous.

If you’re slightly more high-minded, even daytime cable news is basically presented as a soap opera, with a lot of focus on personalities, name calling, overblown dialogue and ginned-up suspense. And if you choose to avoid TV altogether—well, there’s always Facebook or Twitter, where you can immerse yourself in the lives of friends and acquaintances, or you can pick up some voyeuristic anonymous drama through online message boards.

If the appeal of soap operas was heightened reality and the ability to feel better about your own life by seeing other people’s woes—well, that’s a commodity as cheap as air nowadays. ATWT may stop turning next year, there remains a whole sudsy world to watch.