To anyone paying attention, the signs are clear: if the daily soap opera is going to survive, something has got to change. What sort of changes, though, are called for? What will it take to make the daily soap a good investment for networks and sponsors, while ensuring good, solid storytelling that attracts viewers?
In the past, changes have mostly been about expansion. First was the move from radio to television. This was followed by an extension of episode length: soaps started at 15 minutes long, moved up to 30 minutes, and then an hour. (Another World actually did the 90 minute thing for a short time.) Then there was an expansion regarding sets and locations - where, once upon a time, the drama used to take part in a kitchen over a cup of coffee, soaps started adding work places, restaurants, country clubs, casinos. No longer happy to keep the action in small town America, soaps started doing elaborate location shoots in places like St. Croix and Santo Domingo.
The logic behind these changes was simple to understand: bigger is often thought of as better. In all fairness, many of these changes garnered positive results. The lavish sets of the 70s and 80s were aesthetically pleasing. The occasional location shoot can be a lot of fun to watch, and made it possible to tell a wider range of stories that attracted viewers who may not have been all that interested in the traditional domestic dramas that were the bread and butter of the genre.
Bigger, in my opinion, sometimes was better. Times, though, have changed. These days, bigger is just more expensive.
Backlash: the Peapack Model
When Guiding Light seemed doomed for cancelation, a drastic turnaround was made. The show that had once boasted some of the biggest and most beautiful soundstage sets on daytime and whose location shoots in Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico were the stuff of soap legend made the move from NYC to Peapack, New Jersey. Gone were the huge, lavish banquet rooms and oak-paneled executive board rooms that made it possible to shoot scenes with crowds of 20 or more. In their place: actual rooms in an actual house - none big enough to reasonably shoot more than four or five actors in one scene at a time. Gone, too, was the rich quality of film, in exchange for handheld, shaky video. Rich lighting? Buh-bye! Hello, harsh, overhead lighting controlled by an ordinary light switch on the wall.
Some people considered the Peapack model a bold experiment. Others considered it a mess. I think it was a little bit of both. Cutting back, in my opinion, was a move in the right direction. Whereas the trend, for many years, had been towards expansion, the choice to move towards something more compact and manageable was a wise one. The decisions about where and how to get smaller, though, could have been better.
Smaller AND Better?
There's a common rule in business: if you want to be successful, study what successful people before you have done, and take your cues from there. Best-selling books have been written about nothing more than the habits of highly successful people. Professional development trainers make a lot of money running workshops that pretty much take 4 hours to tell students just that: if you want to succeed, find some successful folks to copy.
Soaps became bigger than life because their smaller incarnations were successful. Now that the big-budget, lavish soap opera model is no longer financially viable, it makes sense to go back to basics, and look at what made these shows so successful, in the first place. The only elements that need to be in place in order for a daily soap opera to gain a loyal audience are:
- A core of fully developed characters who relate to one another, brought to life by decent actors
- Good, solid stories that people can care about
That's it. The rest is all icing. A daily serial does not need a huge cast, elaborate locales, special effects, or special guest stars in order to be good or to capture the interest of viewers. In fact, if it has all of those things, but doesn't have a good story or decent acting, a soap is pretty much doomed. Soaps, after all, have their roots in radio. Television is a visual medium, but the television soap was born out of an audio medium. What happens and who it happens to are the most important things about a serial drama.
It may well be that the best thing the networks and sponsors can do, if they wish to rebuild viewer loyalty for their daytime lineup, is go back to basics, and return to a simpler form of daily storytelling: smaller acting ensembles, a handful of key, core characters who are connected to one another, very basic sets, and a half hour format.
Imagine if, instead of the Peapack model, TPTB at GL had decided to slash their cast of characters down to the Bauers (they could have brought back Ed and Michelle, given Rick more of a story, and integrated both Mel and Leah), Spauldings, and Lewises, with just a couple of other characters who were connected to these families (yes, Otalia.) No Edmund, or Remy. No Christina. No Coopers (an extraneous family that it made no sense to hold on to.) No Cyrus. No Doris Wolf (sorry, Orlagh, but you were not necessary.) Imagine, too, if the drama had been limited to the Spaulding and Lewis offices, the Bauer kitchen, the farm house living room and Cedar's. No more Towers. No convenience store. No Company. No wobbly, noisy outdoor shots, full of traffic and airplane noise. Just compelling stories (no clones, or magical portraits....no Bosnia) about people we all knew and loved, driven by strong dialogue, solid acting, and quality cinematography. Imagine if this version of GL had been doled out in 30 minute episodes, five days a week, with a chance to catch up on all five days via late-night and/or weekend marathon. Imagine, too, that this version of GL had been seasonal, running for 13 weeks, and airing reruns while the show was on hiatus.
Is it crazy to think American audiences would watch a show structured in such a way in 2010? They already are.
A Flicker of Hope: In Treatment
Any lover of serial drama who hasn't caught seasons 1 and 2 of HBO's In Treatment really should get the lead out. Based on Hagai Levi's highly successful Israeli series, In Treatment is the closest thing we now have to the old fashioned, small scale, 30 minute daily serial. (Do not send me emails about B&B. Seriously - don't bother.)
The show revolves around Dr. Paul Weston, a psychotherapist. It airs five nights a week, with each episode coming in at under 30 minutes. Each night of the week focuses on Dr. Weston having a one-on-one session with a particular patient. (He also sees a couple or a family, now and then.) Friday episodes usually revolve around Paul's own sessions with his mentor and psychotherapist, played by Dianne Wiest. The patients and their lives provide a series of mini dramas, but the main focus is Dr. Weston - how his work and personal lives have collided, how he finds himself at a crossroads in both his profession and his marriage (to a wife played by soap vet Michelle Forbes,) how his relationship to his children is effected by his relationship to young patients. It's about the demons Paul lives with, both as a man and a doctor...his obsession with events of the past, his struggles to maintain appropriate boundaries with his patients, and his midlife crisis.
For all intents and purposes, In Treatment is classic soap opera. If you miss an episode, you've missed something important, because each episode builds on the next one. Each patient's issues somehow touch on issues Paul is struggling with in his own life.
Shooting locations are basic: Paul's patients see him in his home. Paul sees Gina (his therapist) in her home. No board rooms or banquet halls. No television station or light house or foreign locales.
There are no gimmicks here. No evil twins. No clones. No secret cities or time travel or plots to control the world via weather machine. No car chases or hostage situations. In Treatment is about people talking. That's it. And it's compelling. What's more, HBO has renewed it for a 3rd season.
The Old and the New
While In Treatment is throwback to the way serial dramas used to be made, it's also fresh and modern. Episodes are available on-demand and for download via Itunes. The show is seasonal, which gives new viewers a chance to pick up during down time, and loyal viewers a chance to catch up or re-watch episodes. It's also available on DVD. Just last week I spoke to someone who'd just discovered In Treatment, watched seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, and is now eagerly awaiting season 3. This is virtually impossible with a soap opera that runs 52 weeks a year, with no breaks.
The people involved with making In Treatment have noted how exhausting the process is. Who would be better equipped to work within the grueling schedule than soap opera veterans? If anything, actors and crew who have cut their teeth on the one-hour-episodes-five-days-a-week-52-weeks-a-year schedule that is de rigueur in the production of American soaps would find the shooting schedule of In Treatment a walk in the park.
If the people who develop programming for daytime television are truly interested in fare that will attract viewers (and viewer loyalty), that they can sell to sponsors with confidence, they should take a look at the model HBO has adopted for In Treatment. It has all the elements of classic soap opera, in its barest form: short episodes, minimal sets, a small cast of interesting characters. By relying on the classic elements of soap opera, and putting some thought into the way people get their entertainment these days, the makers of In Treatment have created what represents the first glimmer of hope for the daily serial we've seen in a long time.