Sick-Day Soap Opera Afternoons

In my mind, soap operas are forever linked with a flushed, overheated feeling of low-grade fever, the briny taste of chicken noodle soup, and the peculiar impossibility of ever getting quite comfortable while lying on a living room couch, no matter how many times you’ve arranged and rearranged your pillows and blankets.

When I read today that CBS has cancelled the last of the old Proctor & Gamble soaps, ‘As The World Turns,’ I immediately experienced again that metallic cherry taste of Robitussin cough syrup and that damp, clammy feeling of a water bottle gone cool against your chest. I remembered, too, the magic and wonder conveyed by the first bulky, rotary-dialed cable decoder box ever to sit on top of our family TV. Spiderman cartoons on Philadelphia TV! Home Box Office movies in the middle of the day! Oh, the future had arrived and it was going to be very, very good.

In the days before cable television, VCRs, movie rentals, and DVRs, soap operas were a calamity visited upon boys who were too sick to go to school. Weekday television from 8am to 11am offered slim pickings (mostly syndicated reruns of early-’60s-era sitcom fare like ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘ Dennis the Menace,’ and ‘Hazel’) that were an entertainment feast compared to the network soap opera programming that followed. The soaps were enough to leave any young boy slack-jawed with despair. What are all these women in elegant dresses yelling/crying/simpering about? Why is that mustached man in polyester suit separates shaking that woman like a ragdoll/eavesdropping/whispering into the phone? Why is everyone throwing glassware/fainting/slamming doors? Why is EVERY OTHER SHOT a high-and-tight closeup of someone’s face?

In my childhood home, the TV channels were 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13. CBS, NBC, WNEW, ABC, WOR, WPIX, and public television WNET. After 11am, channels 2, 4, and 7 were a soap opera wasteland. If you were home alone, you could seek some meager refuge in the programming content on channels 5, 9, and 11, which consisted of syndicated talk shows, midday news, and low-budget game shows like Bowling For Dollars). If your mother was home with you, you got the soaps.

My own kids, by the way, find this whole vanished state of affairs—a bizarro world where you couldn’t watch any show you wanted to, at any time—both unlikely and hilarious. They lump these tales in with my accounts of having had dinosaurs for pets and clothespins for toys. (Oh, Daddy, you’re lying again!)

I probably haven’t seen thirty minutes of soap opera broadcasting in the last twenty years. Hospital and auto repair waiting rooms all show Oprah or E! TV, CNN or ESPN now. I knew soap operas still existed, though, because I still see copies of Soap Opera Digest in supermarket checkout aisles. But now the soaps are all but gone.

Oh, there are still a few soaps left. General Hospital. One Life to Live. But they’re a dying breed. Their audiences are small and old.

From the New York Times article I read:

“For the most part soaps these days are watched by older women. Every network soap now has a median viewer age over 50 and only ‘General Hospital’ on ABC is under 53. ‘As the World Turns’ has a median age of 57.8.”

This tells us that some of the women who started watching the soaps in the ’70s and ’80s are still watching them today, but no one new, no one younger, has joined their ranks in the ensuing two decades. Interestingly, the statement that follows the above in the New York Times article is an excellent example of burying the lede:

“That is older than most of the network averages in prime time, during which NBC’s programs have a median age of 48, ABC’s programs 51.4 and CBS’s programs 54.1.”

If the viewership of ‘As the World Turns’ skews far too old to be profitable at a median age of 57.8, what are we to make of an overall prime-time CBS viewership median age of 54.1? It seems like only a matter of time, a few years perhaps, until CBS cancels itself in entirety, with the other networks right behind it.

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