Soap Operas Have Died on TV but Live On in Movies

Dark Shadows adapts a long-running serial—the kind of network show that just doesn't work anymore.

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ABC/WB

A movie fan hoping to play catch-up on ABC's 1966 TV series Dark Shadows - the gothic soap opera on which the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is based—would have had to have started a month ago. In advance of the film's release, MPI released a lavish, $600 full-series collector's set, spreading Dark Shadows' 1225 episodes over 131 discs. It would take nearly 20 days to watch every episode of Dark Shadows back-to-back—and that's only if you're enough of a Dark Shadows diehard to refrain from eating or sleeping.

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The absurdly comprehensive Dark Shadows box set is the perfect symbol for the decline of the daytime soap. In an age in which DVD sales and syndication rights are just as important as ratings, the open-ended, intentionally disposable daytime soap has become a relic. As the genre heads towards extinction, feature-length film adaptations (Dark Shadows) and limited-run TV series (TNT's upcoming reimagining of Dallas) may be the next steps in the conventional soap opera's evolutionary chain—but the open-ended, five-episodes-a-week model is all but gone.

To properly eulogize the daytime soap opera, we have to start at its birth. The genre was originally dubbed the "soap opera" in reference to companies like Proctor & Gamble and the Lever Brothers, who sponsored the recurring weekday programs in an attempt to reach housewives. Guiding Light, which Guinness World Records cites as the world's first soap opera, began as a radio drama in 1937 and aired on television from 1952 to 2009—making it the longest-running program in broadcast history. Later soap operas like As The World Turns, Days Our Lives,and The Young and the Restless became daytime staples and network favorites, as they proved both popular and cheap to produce.

There was very little to distinguish Dark Shadows from its small-screen cousins when it debuted in June of 1966, but it quickly evolved into something much darker and stranger. While most soap operas spent their time on the affairs of ordinary people, Dark Shadows introduced gothic and supernatural elements to the conventional soap structure. The series hit its stride in March of 1967 with the introduction of the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. Though the character was originally intended to be written out of Dark Shadows after a 13-week arc, Barnabas proved so popular that the show's creative team reworked the entire plan for the series to keep him around. But despite its relative popularity—it was the second-highest rated daytime soap of its era, behind As the World Turns—it was cancelled in 1971 in favor of a new daytime version of the game show Password.

It would be more than 20 years before television would see another gothic soap like Dark Shadows, as networks attempted to forge their own version of the grounded, human-sized "supercouple" arcs that made As The World Turns such a smash hit. The genre's popularity peaked in 1981 with the long-awaited "Luke and Laura's Wedding" episode of ABC's General Hospital, which earned 30 million viewers—more than one-third of that year's Super Bowl ratings, and the biggest-ever audience for a soap opera episode—and landed the covers of both Newsweek and People Magazine.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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