One (real) life to live

ABC’s cancellation of One Life to Live and All My Children sends a clear message: soap operas are over. Except they aren’t really dead; they’ve just transformed.
May 25, 2011

ABC’s cancellation of One Life to Live and All My Children marks the end of an era. Although there will still be four soap operas airing on daytime TV after the two series end their runs, the cancellation of two shows that have been broadcast for more than 40 years sends a clear message: soap operas are over.

Except they aren’t really dead, they’ve just transformed. Now, our serialized dramas star real people.

That couldn’t have been made more evident than by ABC’s press release announcing the cancellation. It focused mostly on the two new series replacing the soaps: The Chew, a live, food-focused talk show, and The Revolution, a weight loss and makeover series from 3 Ball Productions.

Neither is quite like Bunim-Murray’s stripped, syndicated reality series Starting Over, which followed a group of six women being helped by life coaches over a period of time, thus ensuring a continual, soap opera-like series of characters and narrative arcs. But The Chew will have regular panelists, while The Revolution will follow a different woman each week, with her five months of weight loss efforts compressed into five episodes.

In other words, both shows give viewers real people to know and follow – exactly what reality television has been doing for a decade on primetime TV, and since the 1990s on cable. Much of that, though, happens over a single season: real-life characters are introduced, drama unfolds, things are resolved, and viewers say goodbye to the cast.

Increasingly, however, producers have recognized that audiences get invested in the lives of real people even more than they do fake soap opera-like characters. And shows can take advantage of the fact that viewers know who someone is.

Besides series such as Deadliest Catch or The Real Housewives that follow the same group of people over multiple seasons, The Real World reunites its cast members to compete in MTV’s Challenge shows, while The Bachelor constantly returns to the same pool of people, using a jilted contestant as the star of its next season, for example. Many competition series have produced all-star seasons, bringing back well-known and well-liked (or loathed) cast members for another chance.

This spring, Survivor brought back its obnoxious villain Russell Hantz for his third appearance in as many seasons, turning off some viewers. But the strategy can also work well. Survivor also brought back “Boston” Rob Mariano, who has been on five previous seasons of CBS reality competition shows, but who has showed a new side of his personality and game play during a spring season of Survivor that surprised some fans and won him the game. That explains why History hired him to co-star in its new series Around the World in 80 Ways.

There’s another advantage to focusing entertainment on real people. Soap opera characters don’t exist outside of the world of their writers’ brains, but reality stars keep living 24/7, and whether they’re tweeting, making appearances or getting arrested, today’s audiences are even more invested and interested than they are in characters they know are fictional.

Andy Dehnart publishes and writes TV criticism for assorted outlets.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.