Tuned In

No Soap: ABC Cancels One Life to Live, All My Children

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Even a Kourtney Kardashian guest spot could not save One Life to Live. / ABC

Over 80 years of cumultive soap-opera story will be ending on ABC, as the network has announced it will cancel both All My Children and One Life to Live, as of September 2011 and January 2012 respectively. The network announced the axings by way of announcing the shows’ replacements, a food show called The Chew and a self-improvement show called The Revolution.

I have to empathize with fans of the soaps even if I can’t feel their pain. (I was once a regular Young and the Restless watcher, a habit I picked up owing to the timing of my lunch break at a certain summer job.) Soap operas are an all-or-nothing thing; if you don’t watch, they may as well not exist, but if you do, they’re like no other commitment on TV. If you watch a soap daily, you likely spend more time with it than with an extended family member who lives in the same town as you. If you’ve been watching a soap for 42 years, that’s longer than a lot of marriages.

Yeah, everyone hates having a favorite show cancelled. But your soap? Damn: that’s getting a solid chunk of your life cancelled.

The decision leaves General Hospital the last soap standing at ABC. (It’s staying on the air, the netowrk confirmed.) My old soap, Y&R, lingers on at CBS, along with The Bold and the Beautiful [update: with NBC’s Days of Our Lives rounding out the survivors]. But Guiding Light and As the Word Turns (and the shorter-lived Passions) have been killed in recent years, and the trend line is pretty clear.

Their replacements—talk and lifestyle shows—are more eaisly produced and replaceable, and have had far more success launching in recent years. Why the reversal for a genre that has been so reliable for TV and defined serial television as a genre? Besides economic reasons, one explanation may be reality TV, and beyond that, the larger tabloid culture.

A soap opera, after all, is about becoming immersed in the details and drama of a set of people’s lives. (Mrs. Tuned In still refers to “my soap” when she has not actually watched a daytime soap since before we were married.) The Real Housewives, for instance, may not be competing directly—though a rerun is on the air on WNBC while I type this—but even if not,they compete for the same mindspace. They offer a similar kind of serial storytelling, personal intrigue and schadenfreude—as do, say, the off-screen tabloid narratives of the likes of Kate Gosselin or the Kardashians.

Before any soap fan posts an angry comment, I know these are not exactly the same. The whole point of a soap is that nothing can really be the same as your soap. But for enough TV viewers, they’re now an alternative. Which is why one of TV’s oldest formats is running out of lives to live.