Tube Tied: The Decline and Fall of the American Soap Opera

Michelle Dean
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For at least the last thirty years (and probably more) my mom has been a faithful viewer of The Young and the Restless.  For several years in there I was too - my earliest memories involve eating the peel from her apple while watching the show.  Without fail, my mother has taped every episode, even if she's watching it live, in case she is called away.  Great woe awaited the daughter of hers who accidentally interfered with its taping on the VCR every once in awhile - though always the result of a mistake my mother acted as if I had deliberately planned the ruin of her day.  Vacations are organized with an eye to how my mother will get to catch up on her show.  Nowadays I'll only see glimpses of it when I'm home, and not much has changed: Victor is still endlessly remarrying and divorcing Nikki, Jack Abbott still has an abundance of sandy blond hair, and there is always, always, a rhinestone somewhere in the frame.

I'll admit that despite all the wooden acting, the stilted dialogue, the unbelievable marriages and remarriages and devil possession plots, I did, for a while, succumb to the hypnotic power of the soap opera.  There is something reassuring about them, the same people there every day, without fail, missing only a few major holidays a year, never changing and always predictable.  And I can see, very well, that they broke up the monotony of housewivery for many women.  Moreover, soap operas have occasionally displayed a penchant for progressivism: most recently, they've been introducing gay and lesbian characters with little judgment, and more than a little reverence.

I wonder, though, lately, whether soaps will survive my mother's generation - and certainly, even for white, middle class women, they aren't the kind of universal touchstone they once seemed to be. Granted that I no longer live in the suburbs and probably never will again, I don't seem to know any women my age, homemakers or working outside the home, who watches them, or at the very least, no one who will admit to having the time or the inclination for it.  Statistically-speaking, the ratings have been going down for some timeGuiding Light has itself been cancelled.  Last year, Days of Our Lives fired two of its oldest and most well-known stars because NBC was no longer willing to pay their salaries.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with the gradual downfall of network tv, the proliferation of DVRs and other recording devices, and bored and lonely people's newfound salve in the internet.  There is no point, after all, in getting invested in fake people when you can simply log on to Facebook and watch the vicarious drama scroll by in the status updates.  If you want narrative and companionable fictional characters these days, your sources aren't as limited as they were before.

Part of me feels it's cultural, too.  I'm not going to argue, by any means, that women no longer need escapism - the looming shadow of the Sex and the City empire kills that argument immediately.  And women still religiously watch one-hour dramas in prime time, though Grey's Anatomy does seem like small-screen cinéma vérité when you set it next to Passions, doesn't it?

But I was wondering, as I watched Peggy Olson tell her secretary that she's "going to be fine," this week, if the gradual recession of the American soap opera also has something to do with younger women feeling a bit more free to dream, these days.  Oh, I'm not saying that our freedom isn't, at times, illusory - little girls may now plausibly dream of being the President of the United States, but not a one of us has gotten there yet.  But the feeling that we could - that is very real.  And suddenly a life of lounging on couches in fine jewelry seems less interesting to us than it might have been to our forebears, because the horizon is wider, and because we spend less time feeling trapped in the home.  If we are there, it is because we feel we have chosen it, not because it seems like the default option in a world where no one gets what they want.

Maybe I'm projecting because I am the daughter of a mother who was not altogether happy at home, of course.  But there is something both touching and melancholy about the monotony of watching these shows, day in and day out, and more and more it strikes me that I'm glad to be away from it.

Do you watch soap operas?  Do your moms? Why do you think no one is watching them anymore?

Image via Mike Licht at Flickr on a Creative Commons license.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

I love this post, Michelle.

I love this post, Michelle. My mother has been a loyal viewer of "All My Children" for something like 35 years now, and some of my earliest memories, too, are sitting next to her and trying to discern what these couples are doing in bed together. I also named my Barbie dolls after some of the characters.

I wonder, not being a viewer myself, whether the decline in ratings doesn't also have something to do with the stigma of being a "soap opera watcher." I think younger women might be dissuaded from becoming regular viewers because of the sort of dated notion of the soap opera. Even my mother, who continues to loyally watch AMC, won't mention it unless she is doing so a little disparagingly. It's pretty synonymous with the guilty pleasure, isn't it?

I watched General Hospital

I watched General Hospital in middle school through...maybe 9th grade. I got hooked during the summer and I could just catch it if I raced home from school. Honestly, I feel like the reason less people are watching Soaps is because more people are working during the day. Not necessarily in a progressive feminist way (although thats part of it), just in a we need two incomes to survive way. Plus, the era of the "nighttime soap" a la Dallas etc has probably been pulling viewers away who might otherwise tape or dvr episodes to watch that night.

the soaps

I wonder how much the ratings dip is due to cable TV offerings. As there are more other options, ratings for just about anything are going to decline. Also, particularly with higher numbers of women in the workforce, there are probably fewer people who can devote the time to follow along with the plot twists. I know that I'm much more likely to watch a show that doesn't have much of a plot--like "What Not to Wear"--if I am home sick during the day than something that requires that I know characters and complex relationships.

Love the post

I mother watched General hospital when I was a kid, impressive since she was a teacher and had to tape it everyday. I was never really interested in that world. Then, the summer I was 15 (I think) Passions changed everything. It was so horribly bad, and I knew that, but I could not stop watching! When I got to college it got so bad that I sucked my entire suite into their ridiculous plotlines. We got together and watched, gently poking fun, but genuinely loving every badly acted episode. Passions ended a few years ago, but when I get together with my college friends, it is inevitable that one of us will bring up the year we spent glued to the TV every 1 o clock. I don't know what it was that made us all such rabid fans, but we still hold a special place in our hearts for it.


My mom is a faithful Young and the Restless (which my dad refers to as Young and the Respite) fan. I imagine she got hooked during the six-year period she took off work to have my younger brother and me. When she went back to work, she continued to tape the show and watch it in the evenings while riding her stationary exercise cycle.

I briefly got into Passions while underemployed post college. That's the one with the chimp, right? I didn't have cable at that time, but could get a few channels anyway. I have to agree with others that the fact that I work full time and have better cable means I just can't get hooked like I once did. I feel like everyone I know, male and female, has a story about a period of time when they watched a soap opera. In most cases it was intense, but unfortunately for the soap opera, brief.

No more bubbles

It seems to me that even for famiilies where a parent is at home during her day is very active, often out of her home, often with expectations of running a business or schooling her kids, and certainly more digitally engaged than the women who were at home during the last decades were able to be. With so many competing media options, including creating our own media, coupled with declining ad budgets to fuel storylines and salaries, I can't imagine that soap operas hold any appeal any longer.

twitter: @debontherocks

Younger viewers?

Great post! Like some of the other commenters above, my soap opera days took place in 9th grade (when I was a serious <i>Days of Our Lives</i> devoteé) but I stopped watching once I hit 10th grade or so. I think for me, part of what I liked about soap operas was, in a word, sex. Once I got even a little older, it stopped being quite so titillating to see two blurry people roll around in the candlelight, but at the time it was omgtotallycrazy.

I wonder if young people these days still watch soap operas to get a thrill, or if they get enough thrills on the internet and on cable? Maybe we don't need to travel to Salem to get our kicks in this day and age.


I grew up watching "The Young and the Restless" because the women who cared for me--related and unrelated--all watched religiously. They talked about the characters like they were real people. Back then, (the '70s) "Mrs. Chancellor" was our euphemism for rich and "having it all." Across generations, she was revered. "Jill", the young adulteress, was universally reviled. Over the years, of course, the women-of-a-certain-age got less and less airtime, and the younguns took over.

Remember how every summer they developed plots about high school or college kids? Working at a pool or private club? As if the older people couldn't come outdoors???

I think no one is watching any more because of Facebook (for the reason the author states) and because reality TV gives us "real" fake people to obsess over. Plus, we live in The Age of Snark, and soaps are just way too campy and unhip to survive.

And maybe because more women are in the workplace now, plus retiring later? And because the demographics (and tastes) of the women who <i>are</i> at home has changed?


Thanks a lot for the post!

Thanks a lot for the post! It reminded me aperiod of life from my childhood. I used to watch All My Children with my mom when I was a kid. You may believe me or not, but she made me promise not to tell anyone that she watched it :D
A friend of mine says that if only a woman takes the remote control she will immediately turn to a soap opera, which is no more than just "fictional rubbish" about relationships.

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