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NOW LEAVING ORBIT #2
Dec 23rd, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

Knute Berger at Crosscut mourns the decline of soap operas (evinced by As the World Turns’ cancellation) with a tribute to his late aunt, one of the show’s, and the genre’s, most enduring performers. Berger rightly notes that “the soaps are the daily newspapers of daytime TV, once everyday staples that are now dying off like dinosaurs in a meteor-induced dust cloud.”

NOW LEAVING ORBIT
Dec 8th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

Three months after CBS extinguished Guiding Light, the network’s axing the only other remaining Procter & Gamble-owned soap opera, the 53-year-old As the World Turns. The last episode is scheduled for next September.

(Yes, conspiracy theorists, it looks like the network staggered the cancellations so P&G couldn’t offer both shows as a package to another outlet.)

NOT TO BE CONTINUED
Sep 19th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

As we’d known for almost six months, Guiding Light shone for the last time on Friday, after 72 years on radio and TV.

The show’s finale, and the dozen or so episodes leading to it, comprised a relative whirlwind of happy-ending stories, salted only by the sudden death of one of the show’s villains and the unresolved fate of one of its heroes (last seen in a high-noon shootout with another villain). This spate of happily-ever-afters, while out of keeping with the show’s tradition of complicated tragedy, was still in keeping with the show’s (and the genre’s) other tradition of deux ex machina improbabilities.

As overall TV viewership drifts downward, and the old-line networks’ market share is further eroded by cable and other alternatives, we’re reaching a point when original scripted dramas for one-time, daytime-only airing become fiscally unfeasible. As I’ve written here before, this would result in losing the only U.S. TV genre to feature open-ended storylines with no season breaks. The only other products in this country to offer that type of storytelling are certain comic books and comic strips. Online “webisode” dramas could adopt open-ended formats, but so far none have.

A LITTLE 'LIGHT' READING
Apr 6th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

As promised last week, here are my thoughts about the potential end of daytime TV mainstay Guiding Light.

When I’ve told people I’d become a GL viewer, they’ve scoffed. Some of them could imagine me watching Days, One Life, GH sure enough, but Guiding Light? Really?

Yes, really.

I’ve known about the show all my life, but only tuned in to it sporadically until last February. That’s when GL abruptly switched to what its PR called a “new production model.” It was an effort to cut costs and gain youth appeal in one fell swoop. Hand-held minicams replaced the big studio cameras. Twangy alt-country guitars replaced the syrupy synth-string background music. Four-walled studio rooms and real outdoor locations replaced the flimsy old sets. The show’s characters were the same, but its whole audio-visual vocabulary completely changed.

Daytime’s oldest, squarest show became an immediate mess.

Which made it a lot more fun.

At first, the crew’s unfamiliarity with the new format made for some of the clumsiest scripted drama this side of the Canadian network CTV (or the dialogue scenes on “Skinemax” late-night cable shows). Because they were making five one-hour episodes a week, they had to leave in a lot of imperfect takes.

It didn’t help that the new GL’s launch coincided with the first “scab scripts,” written anonymously during the 14-week writers’ strike.

After the strike, the show’s writing staff was reshuffled. The “handheld” cameras got attached to mini-tripods and Steadicam-type devices. The lighting and the sound gradually improved. GL again became a competently made show.

None of this affected the ratings, which continued to drift downward along with the rest of the oldline networks’ fare.

The new format had made the show profitable again, chiefly because it needed far fewer crew people. But if the ratings wouldn’t turn around, that profitability wouldn’t last.

At the end of last year, the producers speeded up the show’s plot pace and brought back several fan-favorite actors. The ratings stabilized. The gossip on GL message boards implied the show might make it to another year’s renewal by the network.

It didn’t.

Procter & Gamble, which has owned and sponsored the show all this time, says it’s shopping GL around to any other broadcast/cable channel that might be persuaded take it. P&G is U.S. television’s biggest single adversiser, so it’s got more than a little clout in that department.

At TV Guide (the magazine, not the online listings service no longer affiliated with the magazine), an exec with Telenext (the ad-agency-owned production company that produces GL and As the World Turns under contract to P&G) says they really are working to find GL a new broadcast or cable home. Fans on online message boards are trying to make their own voices heard in this regard.

The thing is, daytime soaps have a business model that’s just as last-century as that of daily newspapers. Talk shows, judge shows, game shows, and “reality” shows can be made for as much or as little money as a channel’s got. Daily soaps are different.

GL’s on-screen credits list 127 names, including those of several veteran (and presumably well-paid) actors. Anything resembling “fat” in its budget was excised with the new format. GL can’t be made much cheaper and still maintain both its stars and its staggering productivity.

GL produced 253 episodes last year, with only one rerun episode (at Christmas). Until the Internet, there was no domestic aftermarket for these episodes. New episodes now stream on CBS’s site. Past installments from before the full switch to the new production model are on Hulu.

If you look at these older GL episodes (and the many more posted by fans on YouTube), you can see how much slower and duller they were before the new format.

The new GL looks and moves a lot more like my all-time favorite soap, the British workhorse Coronation Street. The look is more naturalistic (when characters are outside in the snow, it’s the real outsides and real snow!). The dialogue is more intimate, less histrionic.

It’s still an American soap with your basic American soap plot themes–treachery, betrayal, crime, adultery, emotional turmoil, and the lot. But it’s been evolving a new approach to these formulae, an approach more suited to modern TV/film tropes.

That’s a feat for the world’s longest continuously running dramatic production. Then again, it’s continually reinvented itself since it began on radio 72 years ago. There were several total cast turnovers even before the switch to TV in 1952. (GL was on KIRO-TV’s first-day schedule in 1958.)

With a new home, and perhaps a more rerun-friendly production schedule, GL could shine the way toward a new future for drama on TV.

APRIL NON-FOOLS ALERT #2
Apr 1st, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

First, my daily paper goes away. Now, my favorite (US) soap is going away too. I’ll have more about this later in the week.

NORTHWEST AFTERNOON RIDES INTO THE SUNSET
Jun 11th, 2008 by Clark Humphrey

KOMO-TV’s long-running afternoon talk show will disappear in August, ending a 24-year run.

Producers had tried to shake up the show in recent years, slicing it into four or five segments per hour instead of its traditional two. But the lure of low-cost, high-profit syndicated talk fare has finally done it in, just like it’s done in most of the local gabfests around the country.

Also threatened by the dictum of talk-is-cheap: The daytime soap operas, which NWA cohost Cindi Rinehart has chronicled since the show’s debut. At that time, there were 14 daily serials on American TV. Now there are just eight (not counting Spanish-language imports). Almost all of those shows are scrambling to cut their budgets and shrink their acting and writing staffs.

In the ultimate unintended irony, the syndicated show that will replace Rinehart and co. has the same title as a former long-running soap, The Doctors.

POPCULT NEWS OF THE WEEK, non-drunken-celebrity edition
Oct 11th, 2007 by Clark Humphrey

  • The exodus of established stars from the decaying music industry continues, with Madonna signing a concert management company, not a record company, to distribute her next few CDs. Other artists, including space-heater heir Trent Reznor, are going further and selling direct to fans.
  • That quintessential “legacy media” company, NBC, is buying up Oxygen (one of the last big non-conglomerate-owned cable channels) and vacating its historic studios in Beautiful Downtown Burbank. Under California laws intended to preserve media-biz jobs, the network has to offer the lot to a buyer that’ll keep it operating.The Tonight Show will move to the Universal Pictures lot, which NBC also now owns; the NBC News bureau, the KNBC-TV local news, and Access Hollywood will move to a new building nearby. The other network show still made on the Burbank lot, Days of Our Lives, is rumored to be ending in ’09.

    But by that time, the whole company might be sold off.

  • Get ready for more Letterman “Network Time Killer” segments: The movie and TV industries are bracing for the first writers’ strike since 1988. The difference this time: The networks and cable channels might let a strike go on for a while, running a bunch of cheap reality shows instead of scripted fare.
  • Our pal Sherman Alexie is in the running for a National Book Award. It’s for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a “young adult” novel about a Spokane Reservation teen who finds himself an outsider everywhere he goes.It’s also got fabulous illustrations by another of our ol’ pals, the one-n’-only Ellen Forney. It couldn’t have happened to two nicer folks.
  • Looking for an industry even more moribund than recorded music? Try mass-market beer. Miller has already merged with South African Breweries; Coors has merged with Molson. Now both seek to merge their respective U.S. operations.The deal would turn the once competitive domestic swill market into a duopoly between “MillerCoors” and Anheuser-Busch. (The Pabst brands are now owned by a marketing company that contracts out its production to Miller.)

    I can still remember when there were five mass-production breweries in the Northwest alone, each operated by a different company.

    Fortunately, we now have a wealth of microbreweries, whose broad range of tasty product has long since rendered superfluous the likes of “Colorado Kool-Aid.”

  • As the world gets hotter, it also gets humid-er.
  • Ann Coulter inanity of the day: Now sez she wishes all Jews to “perfect” themselves, by becoming Christians.
  • Office whoopee? Go right ahead, say many companies. Just don’t try to cover up the aroma by burning microwave popcorn in the break room.
  • While other commentators wax nostalgic about the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, P-I business columnist Bill Virgin gushes undeserved laurels on the semicentennial of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (that other favorite novel of male virgins everywhere).Let’s compare n’ contrast, shall we?

    Both Kerouac and Rand are better known today for their celebrity and their ideas than for their prose stylings.

    But both authors’ rambling self-indulgences actually serve their respective egotisms.

    Both liked to hype themselves as daring rebels, valiantly crusading against the stifling anti-individualism of grey-flannel-suit America.

    Kerouac helped provide an ideological excuse for generations of self-centered dropouts and anarchists to proclaim themselves above the petty rules of mainstream society.

    Rand helped provide an ideological excuse for generations of self-cenetered tech-geeks and neocons to proclaim themselves above the petty rules of civil society and rule of law.

    But at least Kerouac’s devotees don’t go around declaring that the oil companies and the drug companies somehow don’t have enough power.

    (P.S.: Digby has much more lucent thoughts than mine i/r/t Randmania.)

SAD BUT PREDICTABLE
Jul 5th, 2006 by Clark Humphrey

Seattle Weekly editor Knute Berger’s announced his resignation, six months after the paper was bought by the Arizona-based New Times chain. Berger (nephew of former Guiding Light soap star Barbara Berjer) spent his current editorship functioning as an old-guard defender of the faith, maintaining a sense of the paper’s (and the city’s) heritage in spite of parent-company pressure to cheapen and “modernize” the product. In spite of the Stranger’s constant ribbing about Berger’s official residence in the ‘burbs (a relic of his previous helming of the Weekly‘s former EastsideWeek edition), he remained loyal to the end to a particularly “Seattle” way of looking at the world—sincere and serious, but with a healthy sprig of wryness.

NET NEWS
Feb 22nd, 2006 by Clark Humphrey

To fill the scheduling void left by the forthcoming UPN/WB merger, Fox is starting a second network service, tentatively titled “My Network TV.” The first announced shows: Anglophone versions of Mexican novelas! No word whether the new net will appear here.

MISCmedia IS DEDICATED TODAY…
May 3rd, 2005 by Clark Humphrey

…to William J. Bell, cocreator (with his talk-show-host wife) of The Young and the Restless.

When the soap began in 1973, some critics called it a daring experiment in adapting the format to a hip young audience. Not quite. Bell, who’d apprenticed under the pioneering soap creator Irna Phillips, had simply added a veneer of Hollywood glamour to a classic daytime-drama formula.

In the show’s early years, its sets were small and dimly lit. This was a throwback to the first TV soaps of the ’50s, whose studios were tiny and whose settings were cheap to the point of abstraction. When Bell invoked the same look on a larger budget, it emphasized the characters and de-emphasized all other visual elements.

Before the show expanded from a half hour to an hour in 1980, its cast had as few as 16 regular characters, almost all of whom belonged to just three families. The hour-long format necessitated larger casts and more complicated plotlines; but Bell still emphasized his traditional themes of romantic and class conflict. He mostly avoided the other soaps’ digressions into espionage, weird/kinky crime, and improbable fantasy.

Bell continued as Y&R‘s head writer into the ’90s, and as its senior executive producer until his death. As fads came and went, the show remained constant to his vision. It remained a low-key, ploddingly-slow affair. (Some episodes would open with a minute-long shot of a woman pacing back and forth in an office, waiting for a phone to ring.) It eschewed flash, noise, hit-song samples, and everything else Those Kids Today were supposed to like.

(It even kept its original theme song, borrowed from a background track in the Stanley Kramer film Bless the Beasts & Children, and which became a top-40 single in ’76 after ABC Sports used it in a profile of Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci.)

The reward for Bell’s intransigence: Y&R has been the highest-rated show on US daytime television for more than a decade.

CHRISTOPHER REEVE, RIP
Oct 11th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

Long before he played Superman, I’d seen Reeve on the soap opera Love of Life. It was never one of the most popular soaps, but I liked it. It was only 25 minutes long (a newscast filled the rest of the half-hour), so it moved faster than most; but it was still produced live-on-tape, so it lacked the frenetic cutaway editing seen on most of today’s hour-long soaps. Jennifer Aniston’s daddy was a cast member, as were the guy who later played the Twin Peaks killer dad and the guy who played Bogart in Play It Again Sam.

Anyhoo, Reeve was energetic and somehow sympathetic in the role of a slick, two-timing swindler on the show. I could tell he had a big career ahead of him.

WITH 'FRIENDS' LIKE THESE DEPT.
Jul 8th, 2004 by Clark Humphrey

Bainbridge Island preservationists are up in arms over rumors claiming Jennifer Aniston and hubby Brad Pitt might move into one of the island’s multimillion-dollar “cabins,” thus turning the ferry suburb into a lala land affordable only by celebrities (instead of the lawyers and software execs crowding the place now).

If she finds a lousy reception here, maybe Aniston could still move to an island–the mysterious supervillain island where her soap-star dad is currently holed up.

FAVORITE NEWLY-DISCOVERED TV SHOW
Jun 20th, 2003 by Clark Humphrey

video coverUnreachable Zone of Darkness, a particularly grim family-treachery soap opera from Hong Kong currently running weekday mornings on the International Channel. It’s in Cantonese only (no subtitles), but you don’t need to know what the characters are saying to understand the general mood of delicious backbiting and vengeance.

SQUARE-TO-BE-HIP DEPT.
Jul 12th, 2001 by Clark Humphrey

Spyder Games is, beyond a doubt, the weirdest series MTV has ever aired–for the mere reason that MTV is airing it.

To wit (or, in this case, witless): If the 130-part youth-appeal soap opera had been on some other cable channel (such as Oxygen or Lifetime) or in broadcast-channel syndication, it would clearly be nothing more or less than the poorly-written, poorly-acted, shot-on-video mediocrity it is.

But by being on MTV, where everything’s allegedly so slick and quick and hot, the show’s wooden acting and cardboard sets take on a nearly surrealistic tone. It’s as if the channel’s top brass had finally realized that 20 years of incessant, aggressive programming (not to mention five years of hyping awful boy bands and all-white gangsta rappers) have made it a spent force among wide swaths of its target audience–a Dawson’s Creek generation with little interest in a Beavis and Butt-head aesthetic.

So Spyder Games doesn’t try to be hip–or rather, whenever it tries to be hip it fails miserably, making its fundamental squareness even more apparent. The rock band some of the characters have is relentlessly average. The costumes are off-the-shelf mall-chain recreations of the worst ’80s-style homeliness. The dialogue makes no discernable attempt at contempo slang. The storylines are supposedly about hidden family secrets, but in detail are nearly incomprehensible to first-time viewers.

In other words, it’s a standard regular-issue daytime soap, differentiated from the network fare only in that (1) it’s more incompenetly made, and (2) it will end after 26 weeks, like a Mexican telenovela.

To compare and contrast, MTV’s running the second season of its Undressed serial after some showings of Spyder Games. Undressed features perky college kids, stripped to their glamorous undies as often as possible, chattering on about sex and relationships. (In keeping with today’s reversed double standards, the gals are usually the ones obsessed with sex while the guys want to pontificate about relationships.) Everybody’s “beautiful” and stylish, and the show uses that muddy digital process to make video supposedly look like film.

Neither show is very good, or very entertaining. But despite (or because of) its incessant hotness, Undressed already seems more dated than last year’s Victoria’s Secret catalog; while Spyder Games, invoking 50 years of TV soap opera histrionics, is a relative evergreen.

THE CONTINUING STORY OF CNBC
Apr 21st, 2000 by Clark Humphrey

A YEAR AGO, I wrote in this space about NBC’s callous treatment and eventual dumping of what had been its longest-running soap opera, Another World.

At the time, I’d neglected to notice the network had, and has, another daytime drama incorporating many of the classic soap elements (heroes, villains, cliffhangers, short- and long-term plotlines, convoluted relationships, petty power battles) in a modern format, highlighting modern-day priorities and personal obsessions.

I speak, of course, of NBC’s business-oriented cable channel, CNBC.

I’ve taken lately to having it on while I’m writing during the mornings.

The past two or three weeks have provided for especially gripping viewing, as you might imagine.

Last Friday, particularly it looked as if the great tech-stock bubble “pop,” which I and many other market observers have impatiently awaited lo these past six months, had finally arrived.

In soap terms, it could be seen as an act of vengeful retribution by the established investors against those upstart bitch-goddess dot-coms and their coming-on-too-strong day-trader speculators. Comeuppance for all the concentration-of-wealth guys, those oh-so-easy-to-stereotype overgrown boys with their big-ass SUVs and their ever-beepin’ cell phones. (Not to mention the billions of on-paper wealth lost by a certain Mr. Gates overnight.)

Of course, in the soaps as well as in real life, the relatively innocent may also suffer when the villains are brought down. A soap baddie might blurt out some devastating family secret in court, or might even commit suicide and set it up so a good guy will be framed with a marder charge.

In the case of the tech stocks, or the stock markets in general, millions of folks who’ve never even bought anything at Restoration Hardware have put their savings and their retirement funds into what market pundits had called the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com-led bull market. With adjusted-for-inflation wages stagnant over the past decade or two for most non-wealthy folks, mutual funds and other stock-based investments have provided one way for middle-class and some upper-middle-class households to keep up with the rising costs of real estate, college tuition, etc. (My own family is such a beneficiary of such investments.)

And soap villains usually don’t conveniently go away when they’re found out. Not only do many of them avoid long jail terms, they can repeatedly cheat death itself.

And sure enough, the tech stocks you-love-to-hate came roaring back this Monday and Tuesday.

Similarly, we’ll all be living for some time to come with the tech-stock hustlers and the enterprises they’ve built on the shaky foundation of stock speculation. The recent stock drops might have been relative or virtual, but the money these companies are burning through is real enough that a widespread Net-company depression could jeopardize thousands of careers.

(One contributing factor in last week’s slump was an analyst’s report claiming most of those new online retail ventures will fail within the next two years. But most new retail ventures of any type fail in their first five years, as anyone’s who’s been involved in a fledgling restaurant or flower store can tell you.)

One last comparison: On the soaps, storylines drag on more often than they crash and disappear. Same with stock-market storylines. And since the stock markets pay no attention to “sweeps weeks,” anthing could happen on any particular day.

The next few weeks should be gripping viewing indeed.

MONDAY: Some short stuff.

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