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The Deterioration of Storytelling

On Friday, September 18th, Guiding Light will air its final episode, ending more than 70 years of storytelling. And while this is certainly not the first time a soap opera has faced cancellation, it somehow feels different this time. Guiding Light's cancellation feels like the first major step toward pulling the plug on all soap operas. After all Guiding Light has been around longer than any of the other soaps currently on air, and if it could not be saved then how much hope do the rest of them have? Moreover Guiding Light is not even being replaced by another soap opera, instead an updated version of Let's Make a Deal will take its place. This has many loyal soap viewers, including myself, fearing that when other soaps finish their run that will be the end of the entire soap opera genre. This is an unsettling thought especially when you consider the fact that out of all the other types of programs on televison, soaps are arguably the only ones rooted in traditional storytelling.

When soaps are well-written characters have a long pre-established history, often before viewers ever actually meet these characters. Any character that enters a soap automatically has some sort of tie to other well known characters, with only few exceptions. This immediately gives viewers the idea that new characters have a history and a past that they should care about. Even prime-time dramas, which are often incorrectly labeled as soaps, do not have this element of shared history that is so important in storytelling. Characters in prime-time dramas typically only have backgrounds, information that really only exists for the purposes of letting viewers know who they are and how they differ from other characters. These backgrounds do help establish connections between the characters, but because prime-time dramas typically have a much shorter shelf life than soaps, these connections are really only meaningful in the sense that they help move storylines along.

Prime-time dramas also often have actors and characters that come and go quite frequently. When an actor leaves a prime-time show, the characters often go along with them, forcing the audience to get adjusted to not only a new actor, but a new character. The same cannot typically be said of soap operas, whose fans become accustomed to certain characters that are with the show throughout its duration in one form or another. When characters leave a soap they are often either presumed dead, with the possibility that they will return someday, or they are portrayed by other actors. In order for either one of these scenarios to be successful there has to be an assumption that a particular show will be around long enough for the audience to get used to these changes. And since most prime-time shows only last on average about 5 or 6 years, they do not have this luxury. This further complicates the idea of establishing shared connections through character history because if a show does not have time to establish a rich history, than their ways of telling stories will have to be modified.

Most soaps spend a great deal of time letting stories unfold, not completely unlike epic poems, which in their oldest forms often had information continuously added to them that featured an ongoing struggle of some sort. Sound familiar? The same cannot be said of prime-time dramas whose plots have to be much shorter to accomodate a potentially bored audience. These dramas usually feature an ongoing storyline that is never quite resolved until the final season of the show, with the remaining storylines being resolved in just a few episodes. It is like the difference between novels and short stories, not that short stories fail to meet the standards of traditional storytelling. Their historical significance alone proves that they do. However, what if someone said that novels were no longer needed because the target demographic did not have as much time to read as they used to, therefore only short stories would be available? What would happen to traditional storytelling after that? At some point someone would inevitably decide that it was too much trouble to read a short story and would find a way to eliminate them. Then the whole history and culture that exists within traditional storytelling would eventually evaporate, leaving everyone a little less than they were before.


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For Immediate Release
Contact: Suzanne Curry suzannecurry@ho…