This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 24, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
For those of you who have followed my writing about soaps here on the C3 blog, you likely know that I feel one of the strongest thing the current daytime serial dramas have on their side is their history. As such, historical characters on the show today provide those contemporary ties to that deep history which I believe helps strengthen the transgenerational viewing patterns necessary to gain and maintain viewership for these shows in the long term.
ABC seems to hope this is the case, especially with the sagging ratings of longtime ABC Daytime fixture All My Children has been experiencing. Racquel Gonzales, one of the contributors to the book Abigail Derecho at Columbia College Chicago and I are putting together on the current state of soap operas, wrote me recently about how ABC Daytime is using the SOAPnet channel in a strategic way for both AMC and General Hospital. For GH, the cable network has planned to air a "Robin Unwrapped" episode marathon which helps catch viewers up on the history that more fully explains a pivotal story on the show, which is the first HIV pregnancy storyline in television, according to the promotion.
For AMC, these SOAPnet marathons coincide with the return of popular actors Darnell Williams and Debbi Morgan to the show, who played the first African-American soap opera "super couple," Jesse Hubbard and Angie Baxter, from a time period in which these shows got much higher ratings. With the high-profile "reuniting" of character Laura Webber Spencer last year on GH and the return of veterans to roles in 2007, for instance Scott Bryce's return to the Craig Montgomery role he originated on As the World Turns in the 1980s, there's been some realization that tying back into a show's history might be a benefit. In the case of Luke and Laura, a short-term storyline didn't seem to mean much long-term for the ratings, but some have pointed to Scott Bryce's return and central billing on ATWT as coinciding with that show staying relatively stable in the ratings compared to many of its competitors, helping make it more consistently the third-rated soap among the eight currently on the networks, behind only The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. This all happened despite a storyline which many critics and fans panned (for instance, see this piece from Patrick Erwin).
In the case of AMC, Racquel writes, "It's pretty ingenious the way they are utilizing past clips to hook viewers back in, especially with the tagline, 'They get a second chance.' It really is literally considering the character of Jesse was killed on AMC (ironically during the last major writers' strike) and has shown up as an angel at various points in AMC's run."
A promo has already started to air regarding their return (see here), and both ABC and SOAPnet have been hyping their return, along with the original actress who played character Greenlee Smyth, Rebecca Budig.
Racquel says that her mother is contemplating watching All My Children again "for the first time in over 15 years." The key, though, is, as opposed to the Laura return on GH, it has to be more than a stunt. These shows, which once earned massive ratings, might be able to gain back "prodigal viewers," if they return some familiar faces from more popular days gone by to draw old viewers back in, and have them integrate meaningfully with new stars in the process. Or they could even do a lot more with the veteran actors/characters they already have.
It's not a slam dunk, but bringing back the popular couple shows a willingness to look to the past for answers on how to get more viewers in the present.
Meanwhile, over on ATWT, controversy reigns regarding the heralded return of Scott Bryce, as news broke out a week or so ago that Bryce has been fired after several months in the position. Fans launched a site with the tag line "Scott Deserve An Emmy-Not a Pink Slip," as well as an online petition that has already garnered more than 800 signatures.
With no word coming forward on why he was let go, other than rumors that he was fired over the phone during the holidays, the usually-divisive online ATWT fan culture has largely come together in their stance on Bryce's firing (although there are still a few fans out there who, because of the fan wars between characters Craig Montgomery and Paul Ryan, are happy to see the Craig character leave Oakdale).
One of the reasons for this fan response is due to the fact that Bryce was let go mid-contract, rather than he and the show not coming to terms, as is the case with several other recent and upcoming departures for the show.
See here, here, and here what amounts to hundreds of posts on one of the many ATWT boards as news broke of Scott's departure and fans searched for more information, including flooding the show's feedback line.
What these two recent events demonstrate above all is that, for the fan base, veteran actors and characters are important parts of the show, and the passion that these characters bring out ties each of these shows to their rich pasts, and the myriad prodigal viewers that were "in the fold" back then.