On the small screen, daytime soaps are quickly becoming an endangered species - Guiding Light is no more, As The World Turns is on its last legs, OLTL and DOOL seem to be living on borrowed time. Even the once-mighty General Hospital feels the sting. All My Children? It's so bad that it probably should be cancelled, but it would seem ABC is trying to breathe new life into it with a move to the west coast. Only The Young and the Restless, maintains a solid hold on a substantial chunk of daytime viewers who come for great writing, acting and production values. People are lazy about changing the channel - that can be the only reasonable explanation for the success of The Bold and The Beautiful: a hot mess lucky enough to air on CBS and keep most of the audience that tunes in for Y&R. Soaps as we know them are in danger of disappearing, entirely. How are the people who make their living in daytime drama reacting to what would seem to be pretty clear writing on the wall?
The Birth of the Web-Based Serial Drama
There's an announcement almost every day about a soap actor's plans to launch his or her own web-based series. Melody Thomas Scott has announced plans for such a show. Martha Byrne has secured a deal with Nicole Miller, filmed her first season of Gotham, edited it, and announced a premiere date and a free-to-view format. Crystal Chappell has filmed her first season of Venice, released a series of high-quality publicity stills, and promises an unlikely launch in November (unlikley because it's already November, the Venice website still looks like the amateur hour, there's no sponsorship, and no payment scheme has been announced, yet.) GL's Remy, Lawrence Saint Victor, quietly wrote, starred in and produced a relationship-focused comedy series which launched yesterday. Noel Coward has nothing to worry about, but Wed-Locked isn't anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be.
Guiding Light, it would seem, brought out the worst in Saint Victor: Remy was among the worst and most dull characters to grace daytime, and Saint Victor's performance was laughable. In fairness to him, he had crap to work with. The first segment of Wed-Locked doesn't make me think Saint Lawrence is the new Brando, but it does make me think he has the potential to eventually become a solid writer of light romantic comedy. It also makes me think that network television has ignored a completely viable alternative to game shows and "reality" shows, such as Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, or any of the other small claims court programs: the anthology series.
From 1969 until 1974, ABC aired an enormously popular anthology series called Love, American Style. LAS was an hour-long, night time series. Each episode consisted of three or four vignettes - light-hearted, self-contained, little movies that usually focused on the trials and tribulations of romance. From time to time, these vignettes would revolve around other subject matter - family love, for instance. Gary Marshall's phenomenally successful television show, Happy Days, started out as an LAS vignette in much the same way The Simpsons started out as a regular skit on The Tracy Ullman Show. LAS had a core of regular actors who would play different characters in different situations every week, as well as guest stars who did one-off appearances.
The first segment of Lawrence Saint Victor's Wed-Locked immediately made me think of Love, American Style. It isn't so much hilarious or witty as light-hearted, inoffensive, and good-natured. I honestly don't think there's enough there to sustain a full-blown series. I also don't believe it will gain enough popularity online to garner funding from sponsors or convince viewers to pay to view it. I can't imagine people will rush out to buy Wed-Locked merchandise. I do, however, think Saint Victor has successfully produced something we haven't seen in a long time: a light-hearted, self-contained, little movie about the ups and downs of romantic love. He's produced a classic Love, American Style vignette, and the television networks should sit up and pay attention.
Studies show that our attention spans are shorter than they used to be. Americans are more likely to sit down and pay attention to 8-10 minute bytes than we are to 30 minute or hour-long episodes. The time for the light-hearted anthology program may well be here, once again.
Why Do It?
There are many reasons the networks should consider this model, including:
- No one really wants another game show or courtroom show.
- There is nothing even remotely like this on television, today.
- An anthology series would be significantly less expensive to shoot than a daily soap.
- Unlike soaps, an anthology series would not require 250+ episodes a year. Such a series could be produced just as night time series are filmed: a 13 week cycle, followed by a hiatus, during which reruns air.
- Such a show going into perpetual syndication is a realistic possibility. Ka-ching!
- A small core of contract actors, and a revolving door of guest stars, who would be basically day players, would mean spending only a fraction of the amount of money networks now spend on large casts consisting of contract actors.
- Daytime viewers like and are used to continuity - employing familiar soap actors and former soap actors would draw an audience.
- The anthology model lends itself to wide cultural diversity.
- An anthology series could include comedy, drama, tragedy, action - the sky's the limit.
- Sets for such a series could be relatively simple and inexpensive: the segment of Wed-Locked took place in a very plain room that was meant to be a counselor's office.
- There could be countless opportunities for product placement - very attractive to sponsors.
- An anthology series could serve as a testing ground for concepts for tv series. In much the way Love, American Style launched Happy Days, a new anthology series could be a vehicle by which ideas are tested on the public - a lot cheaper and more efficient than shooting and airing full pilots.
- Unlike soaps, which require a certain amount of long-term investment, anyone could start watching an anthology series at any time. Soaps are usually all or nothing: if viewers can't watch five days a week, they don't watch, at all. Not so for an anthology series.
But, What About Soaps?
I do believe that the web is where the future of serial drama lives. I'm looking forward to finding out what Gotham is all about, and I'll be happy to give Venice a go. I watched season one of Empire: The Series, and thought it showed great promise - the premise is a great one, but it needs better writing and some money poured into sets and, in most cases, stronger actors. But the folks putting it together really understand soap opera structure, and it shows. I hope Empire gets some backing, because it represents the most significant and complete attempt at capturing the flavor of old-school soap opera for the web.
I also think day time television is left with a gap - a gap that an anthology series could easily fill. Someone at CBS needs to give Lawrence Saint Victor a call and give him a chance at this sort of programming. It may well be his calling, both as an actor and a writer.