Prime-time TV is awash in soaps

As the bubble bursts on daytime soap operas, the tide is turning on the nighttime versions

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The prime time of our lives
Martin Schoeller

Daytime soap operas are dying, but they’re also being resurrected—at night. While daytime drama fans have been devastated by a series of high-profile cancellations, prime-time soaps, the ones that run once a week and deal with good-looking rich families exacting revenge on one another, are stronger than they’ve been in decades. On June 13, the U.S. and Canada will see a revival of the most popular prime-time soap of them all, Dallas. The ABC network, which recently cancelled the long-running One Life to Live and All My Children, is full of shows like the aptly named Revenge (in the Hamptons) and has announced a fall schedule that includes new shows Nashville (revenge in the music business) and 666 Park Avenue, described as the story of a posh building full of “wealth, sex, love, power, even revenge.”

People who grew up in the ’80s experienced an era when prime time was almost as soapy as daytime: thanks to Dallas, Dynasty and many spinoffs and imitators, most of the top dramas were soap operas. But the form lost steam when the public got tired of rich-people problems and storylines, like the season of Dallas that turned out to be a dream. Since then, except for shows aimed at teenagers (the revival of Beverly Hills 90210), plus the spoof soap Desperate Housewives, networks have avoided them and gone for shows where the characters try to help people instead of constantly plotting retribution.

Now the tide may be turning. With daytime soaps difficult to sustain for economic reasons—namely, not enough people watching during the day—prime-time storytelling has become a more sensible option. Christine Fix, editor-in-chief for, says viewers feel “nostalgic about prime-time TV in the 1980s and ’90s,” and that they “seem to be begging to see more of that now that we’ve lost so many daytime soap operas.” The continued popularity of telenovelas in Latin America, not to mention Coronation Street in the U.K., may have shown networks that people still watch this kind of programming in the evenings. Last year, La Reina Del Sur, a story of a young Mexican woman who fled to Spain where she becomes a major drug trafficker, was the most popular show in the history of the Spanish-language network Telemundo, and a U.S. studio has the rights to make an English-language adaptation.

Will soap fans, a loyal and passionate crowd, embrace Dallas and other shows as a substitute for daytime shows? Fix doesn’t think that a weekly show has the immersive quality of a program that runs five times a week. “Prime-time soaps can be a little less satisfying to the habitual soap opera viewer who relishes viewing each day,” she says. One result, she adds, is that the fan following for a prime-time show is “less intense. There are fewer fan base wars.” It may not help that Dallas and Revenge and their brethren focus on impossibly wealthy people, not the more ordinary types who populate the daytime dramas.

On the other hand, if soaps in prime time don’t bring in all the soap fans, they might bring in reality fans. With their tales of rich people dressing well and doing obscene things, these shows are like a high-budget version of The Hills. Cable networks, which make much of their money from reality shows, may be starting to see soaps as the perfect type of drama for that audience. The E! channel, which specializes in reality and gossip, announced recently that one of its first scripted drama pilots would be Anne of Hollywood, a soap that updates the story of Anne Boleyn to “the flashiest, most treacherous court of all.” Soaps may be perfect for the age of celebrity dirt.

That doesn’t mean they will be as huge as networks hope; Revenge and ABC’s politics-based soap Scandal have had solid but not great ratings. Sometimes it may seem that soaps are too serialized for the viewers who like cop and doctor shows, but too trashy for those who like Mad Men or Game of Thrones—which sometimes resemble very classy soaps. But soap opera fans still have reason to hope that Dallas and other shows take off: even if they’re not a true substitute for daytime drama, Fix says they’re more interesting than “what Kim Kardashian is doing.”