R.I.P., Soapnet: The Death of the Network Where Every Soap Went to Die

Soap operas have been one of television’s hardiest genres since the medium’s inception, adding a visual component to what was already an extremely successful category of radio show. Dependent upon endless cliffhangers and narrative tension drawn out at a snail’s pace, soaps are like a shrub that always thrives no matter what the TV climate trends forecast. So it’s sad to hear about the end of cable network Soapnet, which has been broadcasting soap opera reruns since the year 2000. With a lineup combining nighttime airings of current daytime soaps and reruns of canceled shows, Soapnet filled a niche that ultimately might have proved to be too niche. In recent years the daytime soap opera genre in general began an unprecedentedly steep decline, spurred on by the rise of on demand viewing.

Daytime TV soaps have always relied on the assumption that housewives will want something to watch while they do their daily chores, but there was no accounting for the sudden rise of cable or of sites like Netflix and Hulu that allow viewers to ingest media at their own leisure. Nor was there the expectation that women would fill the workforce, particularly during recession years, and not be at home when their stories came on. Between 2009 and 2012, four long-running soaps hit the slaughterhouse floor: As the World TurnsAll My ChildrenOne Life to Live, and Guiding Light. All of these shows had run for decades, with the longest spanning over 50 years. Soapnet, which is owned by Disney (which also owns Grantland), is being shelved in favor of a network for preschoolers, but it might turn out that even preschoolers know how to look up their favorite shows on an iPad. Soon programs airing at exact daily times will be extinct.

Soaps are generally seen as an ephemeral pleasure, lacking the high production values of their nighttime network counterparts. They can be very silly, but that’s part of their charm. While they aren’t renowned for great acting, they have launched many actors with long careers, and there’s something to be said for learning a craft at the nonstop daily tempo that soaps require. Ephemeral pleasures are pleasures, too, and soaps are often ambitious in scope: tracking the path of sprawling families in fantastical small towns, following characters from birth to death, watching genetic traits play out across generations of fictional progeny. They also tend to focus on female characters and their inner emotional lives. With all the talk of the golden age of TV and its mostly male antiheroes, you don’t have to look further than daytime soaps to find a plethora of female antiheroes with huge fan followings. On soaps these character are not just bitches, they are bitches for a reason — usually a dark secret or hidden insecurity. You learn reams of information about characters over episodes that play out day by day, week by week, over years and years and years.

While there are stunts like fires, exorcisms, and trials where every star witness is a surprise, the stakes in soaps are mostly about the kinds of personal crises that people sometimes actually face over the years: falling in love with the wrong person, falling in love with the right person at the wrong time, accidentally raising children that turn out to belong to your worst enemy. Watching reruns of soaps can be a nostalgic experience, reminding you not only of what your beloved characters once went through, but also of what you were personally going through at the time when you first watched those episodes. (Soapnet had no luck with original programming. Its one major effort, a General Hospital spin-off called General Hospital: Night Shift, died a quick and mostly painless death.)

But don’t cry for the death of soaps just yet. The format lives on, albeit mostly at night. The hyper-popular Scandal is a nighttime soap, employing the kinds of crazy twists that soaps love to pull out for sweeps. Ever since Peyton Place made the leap from the page to the screen to a weekly ABC serial, soap operas have been a durable prime-time genre as well. Plus, there’s the rise of reality soaps like the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo, which exploit intra-clique fights between carefully cast female divas for maximum drama. Mad Men is a soap at heart. Any show about family, marriage, the workplace, and love qualifies for the honor. Soaps are not gone, they’re just changing. The soaps of tomorrow might not resemble the big-haired, soft-lit, leather-interior Luke and Laura aesthetics of our youth, but such are the days of our lives.

We’ll miss Soapnet — those old 90210 reruns most of all. It was nice knowing that no matter how much time had passed in reality, somewhere the Brenda-Kelly-Dylan love triangle was still in flux, playing out in an endless loop for eternity.

Filed Under: Disney

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert