Crying shame for fans of soaps

Weekdays, just before 11 a.m., Martha Torres would lean out the kitchen door of her modest Albuquerque home and beckon her two granddaughters: “It’s almost time.”

It was the early 1980s. The girls would dash into the adobe-like house to join Torres, and her husband Joe, to catch the latest episode of “All My Children.”

“That was our special time of the day,” said Desiree Sanchez, one of the granddaughters. Now 32, she is a gymnastics coach in New York City and plans her workouts so she can watch the program while running on the treadmill.

“It was not just some silly show. It was so much more than that,” she said.


On Friday, the ABC television network will end the nearly 42-year-run of “All My Children,” which stars Susan Lucci as Erica Kane, the temptress of a fictional Philadelphia suburb of Pine Valley. The drama has been gradually losing viewers, and ABC was worried that it would soon lose money on the production.

Changing audience tastes, increased competition and challenging economics have diminished the soap opera, once a staple of daytime television. ABC’s “One Life to Live” will end in January, leaving just four daytime dramas on broadcast television.

For avid viewers, the cancellations have been devastating. Fans have been preparing for Friday with the same range of emotions that accompany the death of a loved one.

“This is like losing my grandmother all over again,” Sanchez said. “This show made me feel connected to the people whom I’ve lost, and the people who I am far away from. No matter what else was going on, you could always turn on the television and there was that one constant, that one comforting thing, particularly when the rest of the world seemed like it was in chaos.”

Soap operas provoke a degree of devotion that is increasingly rare in the fragmented media world.

“There is no other genre that gets under the skin and gets into the DNA of viewers like a soap opera,” said Sheraton Kalouria, an executive vice president for Sony Pictures Television, which produces three of the four surviving daytime dramas, including the top-rated “The Young and the Restless” on CBS.

Researchers have been struck by viewers’ strong attachment to the shows. Fans become eager to learn what happens to their favorites as the writers judiciously parcel plot developments. They refer to the program as “my show,” and consider the characters friends.

Viewership often is multi-generational. For example, in the Torres/Sanchez family, the women passed the ritual -- stretching the dedication over three generations. The familial connection serves to intensify the emotional tug.

But the most crucial factor, researchers said, is the frequency of the program. Fresh episodes run five days a week, providing an intimacy that few shows can match.

“In many ways, soap operas were the first social network,” said Stacey Matthais, co-chief executive of Insight Research Group. “For decades, people have tuned in every day to get an update on their favorite characters. The frequency of the connection is not unlike Facebook today.”

What makes soap operas different from other shows is “this feeling that you are walking through life together with these characters,” Matthais said. “These programs present an extreme version of what goes on in people’s lives. It’s like life concentrated.”

When ABC announced last spring that it was canceling “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” furious fans peppered the network with hate mail, organized rallies and boycotts and erected Facebook pages, including one dubbed “Save Our Soaps.”

“You want to preserve what you love,” Gail Giordano, 52, said. She remembers how she and her cousin would sit with their Italian grandmother on her floral couch in Brooklyn and watch the soaps. Her grandmother would carve apple slices for the girls with a paring knife. “That’s one of my fondest memories,” she said.

“These characters are guests in your home, they are like members of your family,” she said. “You love some of them and hate some of them -- but they are yours.”

Roger Newcomb, a database project manager in New York who edits the website “We Love Soaps,” said he became engrossed in the characters’ exotic and complicated lives.

“I would come home from school and watch five hours of soaps -- this was back in the VCR days -- and I could transport myself from my home in Tennessee to one of these fictional Midwestern towns as a means of escapism,” Newcomb, 41, said. “The people survived so many things and always overcame adversity. It was a great message for young people.”

But the audience is graying -- and shrinking. During the last year, “All My Children” averaged 2.4 million viewers an episode, down from 4 million a decade ago, according to the Nielsen Co. The median age of the show’s audience is 57 -- well beyond the category of viewers that advertisers pay a premium to reach.

Daytime dramas reached their zenith in the early 1980s. That’s when college students would warm to the coming-of-age stories. The few common TV sets on campus would be locked on soaps. But now students have their own TVs and laptops, and networks including CW, ABC Family and MTV target young adults with shows just as salacious, including “Pretty Little Liars” and “Jersey Shore.”

According to ABC, 10 million women ages 18 to 49 watch TV from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., but only 16% are tuned in to one of the soaps. Mothers are more likely to be watching the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon with their kids, connecting with others on Facebook or playing online social games.

A Los Angeles-based production company, Prospect Park, believes there is still juice left in the soaps. It hopes to adapt “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” for the Internet. The company bought the rights to the two ABC dramas last summer to launch as part of a planned online entertainment channel.

“People are just glued to these programs, and that’s the ideal audience,” Prospect Park co-founder Rich Frank said. “There is nothing else like it in American television, and we do not want to ignore technology.”

But the soap audience is generally more comfortable with its TVs than its computers.

For 41 years, Martie Sanchez, Martha Torres’ daughter, has been watching “All My Children,” since 1970 -- the year it debuted.

“The show was something my whole family had in common,” said Sanchez, 64, who recently retired from her teaching job. “My mom loved the drama. She would talk about the stories in a way that helped her transmit her values to me and my daughters.”

When Martie’s daughter, Desiree, moved to New York in 2004, she would call her grandparents each night so they could rehash plot twists. Her grandfather, Joe Torres, died the following year. Martha Torres died in 2008, and on the day she passed, her family forgot to watch the soap.

“This show was the last viable connection that we had with my mom and dad,” Martie Sanchez said. “And I really didn’t think I would ever lose this.”