originally published May 31, 2012
If daytime television was a nature reserve, then soap operas would be on the endangered species list. Where once they roamed free, drinking from the waters of extramarital affairs and seeking shelter from low ratings under bountiful storylines about amnesia, long-lost siblings and husband-stealers, now their numbers are few.
One Life To Live passed away in January. All My Children was infanticided last fall. As The World Turns ceased its rotation in 2010. Guiding Light was extinguished in 2009. Passions subsided in 2008. Another World imploded in 1999. Daytime talk and reality shows are popping up like sterile grey condominiums in the once-vibrant countryside. No longer does fiction flourish. All that’s left is a thin, stumbling herd, foraging for that elusive 35-49 female demographic. We’re down to The Bold & The Beautiful, The Young & The Restless, General Hospital, and Days Of Our Lives.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I have never knowingly watched Days Of Our Lives. If I was in front of the TV during a weekday when I was young, I’d either search for a syndicated sitcom or plug in my Intellivision for some quality Night Stalker action. But daytime soaps were a dependable constant. I dabbled in Y&R for a short spell, and found it fascinating (also a little unnerving) that one could miss a month’s worth of shows and still leap into the storyline with little effort. Days Of Our Lives has been on NBC since 1965, longer than every other daytime soap, apart from General Hospital. Shows don’t last nearly a half-century by accident; there must be something that keeps people tuned in.
Days Of Our Lives took the hospital soap concept, and centered their show around a family, some of whom are doctors at a mental hospital. Husband and wife team Ted and Betty Corday created the show, and their son Ken took over the family business in 1985; he still runs the show today. It’s almost a quaint family business.
Soap operas don’t run in seasons like a prime time show. Their seasons have no lengthy hiatus break; they keep churning out five shows per week almost every day of the year. In 47 seasons on NBC, Days has aired nearly 12,000 episodes. I wonder – is soap opera addiction a diagnosed condition? If they sold these things in season-long box sets, you could mainline this stuff and be lost to the world.
It took a few years for the show to gather its impressive ratings. The writers generated interest by peppering in controversial storylines to keep the tuned-in housewives abuzz. Concepts like interracial relationships and artificial insemination – stuff that was too risqué even for most prime-time shows, found its way through the hourglass. By 1973 the show was at the top of the daytime heap for NBC. This was a big deal – these shows cost relatively little to produce, and the shows at the top could haul in the most advertising dollars. There were no million-dollar actors on board; Days was a firehose of pure profit for the network.
The show’s popularity took a hit in 1980 though. It wasn’t that the daytime homebodies were turning away from soaps, but the CBS lineup was stronger. To make Days a little more lively, producers turned to the concept of the supercouple.
This is a thing – Wikipedia has a page devoted to it. A supercouple is defined as a popular or wealthy pairing of fictional characters who are followed almost obsessively by fans, defining (for those fans anyway) what makes up a great love story. The term was first applied to Luke & Laura on General Hospital, but it’s believed that the first soap opera supercouple was Doug and Julie on Days, played by Bill Hayes and Susan Seaforth. It helped that Hayes and Seaforth were – and still are – a couple in real life. I have no doubt that the off-screen romance strongly influenced how much fans root for Doug and Julie. “When they kiss on screen, it’s wonderful because it’s real!” This is entering Twilight territory.
And they tell me that Star Wars fanatics are weird.
By the way, before he became an actor Bill Hayes had a number one hit with the “Ballad Of Davy Crockett” in 1955. So… yeah.
To perk up ratings in the 1980s the show spewed a number of supercouples into their stories, introduced some rival families for the Hortons, and added some action-adventure storylines, like the “Salem Strangler” and a bizarre Gone With The Wind plantation story that was supposed to take away ratings from the Olympics in 1984.
Ratings dipped once again in the 90s, so they brought in James E. Reilly to spice up the writer’s room. His storylines pissed off critics and the show’s rabid (and possibly dangerous) followers by adding some of the supernatural. He buried one character alive for weeks and allowed another to become possessed by Satan.
Right around this time came my only exposure to Days Of Our Lives, when Joey on Friends got hired on as Dr. Drake Ramoray. The sitcom storyline that had him dying in an elevator shaft, only to return to life thanks to a brain transplant probably didn’t seem too far-fetched to Days fans during the Reilly era.
As noted above, the turn of the century was the beginning of the end for most daytime soaps. Talk and reality are cheaper to shoot, plus with hundreds of channels to choose from, and with daytime distractions online catering more to our society’s ever-dwindling attention span, it doesn’t look good for the genre.
In 2007, NBC president David Zucker said he didn’t see Days lasting beyond its current contract to 2009. The show saw enough of a surge to keep it alive through 2013 at least – but the ratings from this spring are sub-toiletish.
Surprising fans of the show include Julia Roberts, who asked to be seated near the cat at the 2002 People’s Choice Awards, Monica Lewinsky, who wrote a poem about the show in her high school yearbook (seriously), and US Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
One interesting note, and I could find absolutely no resource on the interwideweb to confirm or refute this – while some countries (Sweden, South Africa, France) are 4-6 years behind the US broadcasts, most of Canada airs the show in sync with the American network. Except for Global, whose Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton affiliates air the shows a day earlier than the US. Could it be that I’ve come across the greatest advantage to living in the Canadian prairies? Probably.
Lastly there’s that theme song. The narration, with the oft-quoted “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” has been spoken by actor Macdonald Carey, who played Dr. Tom Horton until the actor’s death in 1994. The music was composed by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the duo responsible for writing a large portion of the Monkees’ hits, including their show’s theme and “Last Train To Clarksville.”
Days Of Our Lives is likely going to survive into its 48th season, but whether or not it hits 50 is anyone’s guess. Housewives today have other distractions (like The Real Housewives, which from what I’ve seen is criminally awful, whatever city it’s in), and their hope of amassing a new fanbase can’t be pinned on controversy or shock value. I’m not certain our society can even be shocked anymore.
So how many grains of sand are left in that hourglass? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if its sun goes down before my thousand days are up.