Revenge of the Soap Opera: Ratings Up 15 Percent

7:00 AM PST 06/20/2014 by Alex Ben Block
CBS

After a depressing run that saw many dramas get axed, soaps are seeing a resurgence in this year's Daytime Emmys race.

This story first appeared in the June 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Peter Bergman began his career as a soap opera star more than 30 years ago, it seemed the public's -- and The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' -- appetites for daytime dramas were insatiable. He earned the first of his 19 Emmy nominations for playing Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children and in 1989 moved on to play Jack Abbott on CBS' stalwart contender The Young & the Restless, which then was (as it is now) the top-rated U.S. soap opera. Then, around the mid-'90s, daytime dramas slowly were pushed into the Daytime Emmy shadows as talk shows, game shows, reality and other programming grabbed the spotlight.

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Three years ago -- in the wake of the cancellation of two long-running soaps -- something unexpected happened. Interest in soaps, and their ratings, began to rise again -- up nearly 15 percent in the past year.

The rebound has been reflected in this year's race of the 41st Daytime Emmy Awards, where soaps once again have the most nominations: Y&R has 26, followed by The Bold and the Beautiful (both on CBS) with 18 and ABC's General Hospital with 16.

After ABC canceled All My Children and One Life to Live in 2011, there were only four soaps left on broadcast TV, compared with 19 at the height of their popularity in 1970. Then things turned around. "Yes, we've reduced the number of soaps, but there are still enough people who think, 'That's my kind of entertainment; let's see what's left,' " says Bergman of the shift.

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Soap viewership started to take a dive around 20 years ago largely because millions of women joined the work force and no longer were at home watching TV. The rising popularity of the DVR has countered that trend, making it possible for all those fans to watch. Also, it has been easier for them to engage with one another through social media, where they can discuss the genre's ever-edgier storylines, such as gay-bullying on NBC's Days of Our Lives and a character deciding whether to get an abortion on CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful.

Jill Phelps, executive producer of Y&R who has the distinction of having held that title on six soaps over the past three decades, says the shows have been made over for a cooler audience. "The stories have more edge, there are quicker editing cuts and newer music," says Phelps. "The pace, tone and sophistication have changed. We have smarter viewers, and I think that's true of all the soaps. It's an overall hipper viewing audience."

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Melissa Egan, who plays Chelsea Lawson on Y&R and is nominated for a Daytime Emmy for the fifth time in six years, says she hears from fans who have remained loyal but also finds that a new generation is tuning in. And the writing has gotten so much better, says Egan, who joined Y&R in 2011 after spending five years on All My Children. "It's a shame that soaps get a bad rap [critically]. Many of the actors are amazing. It's like doing a new play every day."

No one knows better than Bergman. On the day he spoke with THR, he had 30 pages of dialogue to memorize and another 30 the next day. There are no teleprompters or cue cards, and most scenes on Y&R shoot in one take.

"He has an unbelievable energy and theatricality that makes him delicious to watch," says Phelps. Bergman is humbled but also quick to defend his peers and fellow soap contenders: "To me, good acting is simply good acting."

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