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If Soaps Were Regarded As Prestige TV...


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As soap fans, we are always proposing "What if..." in our discussions in various threads.  

 

In another thread people were batting around ideas (some jokingly) about storyline and character shifts that would've been more interesting had they happened.  This got me to wondering whether storylines that might have been considered challenging or risqué or improbable on daytime soaps could have had a chance had soaps been regarded as more prestigious vehicles.  I also wonder whether these shows could've had more power to retain talent, the way that TV can now draw Oscar and Tony nominated actors.  I can remember watching some very risqué shows and films on PBS in the 80s when I was a kid. Of course, there's always the aspect of daytime being during the, well, day but every now and then we've seen some boundary pushing episodes and stories even on the most conservative leaning networks (CBS).

 

What are some of the things that you believe daytime soaps could have achieved had they been regarded as "Prestige TV", the way an HBO, PBS, Netflix or Hulu (or even CBS All Access) has been regarded? Bigger budgets? More creative leeway? 

Thoughts?

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I was wondering where to post this, but this seems to somewhat touch on a lot of the topics you speak about. (Basically that a lot of prestigious shows are fundamentally soap operas, yet they don’t have the stigma attached, which exists for a lot reasons, including a combination of sexism and classism about who the perceived daytime audience is.)

 

 

Edited by Faulkner
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Could you imagine if someone like Matthew Ball were the head of daytime television on a network like CBS??  Then we might have seen something closer to peak soap TV that we're seeing and reading about for cable and streaming.

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I’m curious what conditions would have needed to exist for soaps to be seen as “prestige TV.” Certainly fans of the genre know how great soaps have been. We all talk about how ahead of the curve Agnes Nixon was, tackling subject matter than even primetime wouldn’t touch in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You had shows like Ryan’s Hope, Lemay’s AW, and Santa Barbara that often wore their erudition on their sleeves. Yet snobs would always dismiss the genre, which was really a dismissal of the viewers (thought to be lazy, toothless single moms in trailer parks or undersexed housewives living in fantasy worlds or dotty grandmas with nothing better to do). I’m just trying to think of another genre perceived to be aimed at lower-class women (or a mass female audience, in general) that really became embraced by the elites. 
 

The U.K. soaps are seen as national treasures (especially Corrie), but they air in primetime and come from a very different set of circumstances.

 

 

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33 minutes ago, Faulkner said:

Yet snobs would always dismiss the genre, which was really a dismissal of the viewers (thought to be lazy, toothless single moms in trailer parks or undersexed housewives living in fantasy worlds or dotty grandmas with nothing better to do).


The thing is, those very women you describe were watching soaps in their heyday of great storytelling, too, and once upon a time, TPTB at soaps were perfectly contented appealing to those people (plus other sectors of the audience). The degrading of quality in daytime coincided with the need to chase a certain type of viewer that was different from what they'd been attracting for decades. Mainstream acceptance and popularity of soaps ultimately hurt the genre more than helped it.

Also consider - I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of those who care about such things as whether their show is "prestige TV" or critical darlings had little to no access to daytime television until the very late 70s or into the 80s. Most daytime viewers just wanted to enjoy what they were watching with no concern as to their show's place in the greater TV landscape.

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Being held in better regard would have allowed soaps to reach a bigger audience. On the flip side even if they were treated as being prestigious,  you still had the problem of accessibility. Before VCRs and VCR Plus if you missed an episode of a soap opera you were just out of luck. And even after VCRs came along they were so expensive that a large portion of the soap audience wouldn't be able to afford one. When VCRs became cheaper and Soap Net started, soap operas had passed their stride.

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7 minutes ago, ReddFoxx said:

Being held in better regard would have allowed soaps to reach a bigger audience. On the flip side even if they were treated as being prestigious,  you still had the problem of accessibility. Before VCRs and VCR Plus if you missed an episode of a soap opera you were just out of luck. And even after VCRs came along they were so expensive that a large portion of the soap audience wouldn't be able to afford one. When VCRs became cheaper and Soap Net started, soap operas had passed their stride.

But why did they need to reach a bigger audience? They had humongous audiences of millions and millions of engaged viewers in the 70s before they decided they needed a different type of viewer.

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4 hours ago, All My Shadows said:

But why did they need to reach a bigger audience? They had humongous audiences of millions and millions of engaged viewers in the 70s before they decided they needed a different type of viewer.

My point wasn't really needed a bigger audience, just that prestige would have allowed them to reach a larger one. At it's peak the genre had a large enough audience to sustain it. There really isn't a whole lot that prestige could have done for soaps.

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On 2/9/2020 at 12:18 PM, Faulkner said:

I’m curious what conditions would have needed to exist for soaps to be seen as “prestige TV.” Certainly fans of the genre know how great soaps have been.

 

One condition that immediate comes to mind is the inherent sexism that existed and still exists, would have had to disappear.  People mention Irna Phillips as having a number of character flaws but let's face it, as successful as she was as a show creator and producer, had she been a man, she would have had her pick of a network to run.  Also, were any of her most serious character flaws as damaging as those of say, Leslie Moonves? Women, the target audience for these shows were valued as consumers of the show and its products that were being advertised.

 

On 2/9/2020 at 12:59 PM, All My Shadows said:

The thing is, those very women you describe were watching soaps in their heyday of great storytelling, too, and once upon a time, TPTB at soaps were perfectly contented appealing to those people (plus other sectors of the audience). The degrading of quality in daytime coincided with the need to chase a certain type of viewer that was different from what they'd been attracting for decades. Mainstream acceptance and popularity of soaps ultimately hurt the genre more than helped it.

Also consider - I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of those who care about such things as whether their show is "prestige TV" or critical darlings had little to no access to daytime television until the very late 70s or into the 80s. Most daytime viewers just wanted to enjoy what they were watching with no concern as to their show's place in the greater TV landscape.

 

I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. I do think that the popularity of soaps, in the long run ended up hurting more than helping because the executives began to focus less on producing a good compelling show and more on chasing ratings and viewers.  And here is where I'm going to say something that some may not like: We often discuss how the execs chased the youth market but I also believed that once they learned that men were watching too, also started chasing the male viewer by writing stories that they believed would attract/retain the male viewer, instead of trusting that what male viewers wanted were the same things that women wanted--a compelling show about relationships in the world around them.  How can I say that the execs were chasing male viewers? How can I say such a thing?  When you look at how many shows started inserting explosions, chase scenes and more violent fare--what were deemed 'action-adventure' stories where there weren't before.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate movies like The French Connection and the classic car chase and there are some great scenes staged on 80s soaps that contained location shoots with adventure but it just seemed that in the 80s and 90s, in particular, every soap had to have car chases and explosions whether it made sense to the plot or not. There were soaps that needed to have at least one "Save The World From Destruction" per year. And when those budgets started to dwindle, many soaps still insisted on trying to maintain these type of plots and scenes, some of which became laughable.  On the other side, there were many cheap ploys on the other side, aimed at women (the overused amnesia tropes) that had a long-term effect of cheapening these shows.

I don't think the soaps were so much trying to appeal to be a critical darling, I think the networks and some production companies were taking shortcuts to try to rake in ratings and ratings-cash mostly.  I do think writers and directors and many of the onscreen talent wanted their work to be respected (who doesn't?) and you would get Emmy Award winning stories and performances from that end but the ultimate decision-makers were the production companies and networks, and their aims were quite different. For them, it was about ratings and $$$, not critical acclaim.  Critical acclaim only mattered in as far as it could garner them higher asking prices for ad space during their shows.  Want to know how I know?  Look at the callous disregard that companies such as Procter & Gamble had for their entertainment properties. P&G saw these shows as cash cows and when they no longer regarded them as cash cows, they proceeded to find ways to dump them all, one by one. Critical success and Emmys mattered to them not one bit.  I do think that if they shows were regarded as Prestige TV, perhaps P&G would have found a way to profit from this, especially if they could sell them for "Prestige TV" rates.

 

15 hours ago, ReddFoxx said:

My point wasn't really needed a bigger audience, just that prestige would have allowed them to reach a larger one. At it's peak the genre had a large enough audience to sustain it. There really isn't a whole lot that prestige could have done for soaps.

 

I agree here that the formula under which daytime soaps operated, prestige couldn't have done a whole lot for soaps, especially if the ratings weren't there. The irony is that most critically esteemed things often don't get the biggest audiences.  Downton Abbey, in its heyday probably had several millions less what the highest rated soaps had in their heyday(s). But guess which out of the two has movies and merchandise?

 

Remember when Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty (a film that many people believe isn't all that great now but was a critical darling when it originally hit the big screen) won the Oscar?  He became one of the hottest screenwriters in all of showbiz.  He leverages that acclaim and regard into getting his own show on HBO called "Six Feet Under".  Also, does anyone know who directed that same Oscar winning film American Beauty?  A man by the name of Sam Mendes, who had been a pretty well regarded theater director (who I once had a somewhat odd but ultimately amusing phone conversation with in my first real job out of college).  Sam Mendes who directed a film that was again nominated for an Oscar this year.

Prestige doesn't equal high ratings or even big box office (although sometimes they do intersect).

Prestige=leverage. Something that a writer or director, editor or actor doesn't have in the daytime soap genre.

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2 hours ago, DramatistDreamer said:

I agree here that the formula under which daytime soaps operated, prestige couldn't have done a whole lot for soaps, especially if the ratings weren't there. The irony is that most critically esteemed things often don't get the biggest audiences.  Downton Abbey, in its heyday probably had several millions less what the highest rated soaps had in their heyday(s). But guess which out of the two has movies and merchandise?

 

Remember when Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty (a film that many people believe isn't all that great now but was a critical darling when it originally hit the big screen) won the Oscar?  He became one of the hottest screenwriters in all of showbiz.  He leverages that acclaim and regard into getting his own show on HBO called "Six Feet Under".  Also, does anyone know who directed that same Oscar winning film American Beauty?  A man by the name of Sam Mendes, who had been a pretty well regarded theater director (who I once had a somewhat odd but ultimately amusing phone conversation with in my first real job out of college).  Sam Mendes who directed a film that was again nominated for an Oscar this year.

Prestige doesn't equal high ratings or even big box office (although sometimes they do intersect).

Prestige=leverage. Something that a writer or director, editor or actor doesn't have in the daytime soap genre.

I see what you mean and that makes a lot of sense. The genre not receiving respect really hasn't allowed much advancement for soap writers and actors. That is unfortunate, because those who work in the soap genre do more work in a year than those in primetime and film.

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1 hour ago, ReddFoxx said:

I see what you mean and that makes a lot of sense. The genre not receiving respect really hasn't allowed much advancement for soap writers and actors. That is unfortunate, because those who work in the soap genre do more work in a year than those in primetime and film.

 

Five days a week is much more demanding than once per week, which is why the comparisons between daytime and primetime can only go so far. 

Respect has to come from within and again, because this genre was originally marketed to women/housewives and all the sexist ideas that go with it (just think of the connotations that the phrase "chick flick" conjures up), I'm not sure how much respect the genre got from network executives beyond how much soap they could sell and how much they could price the ad rates. I'm still not sure

Edited by DramatistDreamer
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This is a great topic.

Here are my pithy thoughts on soaps as prestige television:

From the 30s thru the late-70s, the soaps were targeted towards women, but they were programming for anyone who wanted to watch it. They appealed to a wide audience which, in part, lead to their popularity. Small shows about real, yet heightened problems, provided an easy escape for its audience. All of that changed with Jacqueline Smith at ABC & her endless pursuit of the 18-49 demo. By chasing demos, you were trying to write for an audience which didn't exist with one outlandish stunt after another after another... With all of the soaps chasing demos, their quality - which had been high for many years! - suffered.

Prestige TV, by contrast, does not chase ratings. BBC, Hulu, Amazon Prime, PBS, HBO, Netflix, Showtime, etc. which have paved the way for what we consider prestige television do not subscribe to ratings, nor do they chase one viewer, they tend to cater to all and then those who stick around. They create, produce, and distribute the best show they can create with the resources at hand. They allow the creator, producer, and/or writer to execute their single, cohesive vision like soaps did before the mid-70s; nothing more, nothing less. Irna Phillips wrote ATWT her way without chasing demos and with the support of Benton & Bowles, P&G, and CBS for years and ATWT stayed Number One for 20 years. Bill Bell followed that template with Y&R; Julian Fellowes and David Chase did it in peak prestige television with DOWNTON ABBEY and THE SOPORANOS. 

When you start chasing ratings and demos every day, you'll never survive, your product will suffer, and there will be endless churn in your organization.

 

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3 hours ago, mikelyons said:

All of that changed with Jacqueline Smith at ABC & her endless pursuit of the 18-49 demo.

 

Longtime AMC writer Wisner Washam would agree with you.

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Well, I enjoyed reading your pity thoughts @mikelyons, you brought up a number of aspects that gave me food for thought.

Definitely agree that the best writers can't get caught up in chasing demos and ratings. We see the results of that now and it's not pretty.

I will say that daytime (and primetime) network/broadcast TV is really out there by themselves seemingly, compared to subscriber funded channels on pay TV (HBO, Showtime) and even streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu) that have more latitude because they don't have to kowtow to the sponsors.  The closest entity to what daytime soaps would have to deal with that I can think of has to be PBS, which exists from pledged support of viewers but also federal funding, which has often tried to dictate what gets aired on PBS networks. Over the past 15 years or so, I've noticed that PBS has added brief ads before their shows, and before that they always announced sponsors (usually some foundation, some of which were owned/operated by the philanthropic arm of some corporation).

I can remember when HBO was unique in its subscriber funded programming, now it seems as though subscriber-based programming is all the rage and the CBS, NBC and ABCs of the world are more rare.

 

Another thing that your post made me wonder is the role of the Movie Of The Week (MOTW) and its role in building Prestige television. From what I remember as a little kid in the 1980s, who would sneak and watch HBO it seemed as though it was mostly known for comedy specials, second run of movies once they had left the theater and the occasional quirky weekly original series (remember that one with Delta Burke running a football team?) and weekly sports shows.  At that time, I think Prestige TV was the MOTW, those Hallmark movies that came on CBS (Mare Winningham was the Queen of those) and movies like The Burning Bed got critical acclaim and practically revived careers.  Then toward the mid to late 90s, the MOTW moved to networks like TNT (they practically took over the MOTW format), HBO started to become more invested in original scripted series. Bravo and A&E actually used to show arthouse films.

That's a bit OT though.  Suffice it to say, though that this period seemed like a big shift away from broadcast network television toward pay TV.

 

EDT: Now that I think about it, an awful lot of those MOTW ads used to run during breaks on daytime soaps. Now I wonder what effect it might have had once the MOTW migrated to pay TV.

Edited by DramatistDreamer
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1 minute ago, DramatistDreamer said:

(remember that one with Delta Burke running a football team?)

 

"1st & Ten!  Do It Again!"

 

(Sorry, I was having a flashback to my childhood.  Carry on.)

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