Soap operas’ bubble bursts

B.G.’s Jonathan Jackson, a star of ‘General Hospital,’ says shows still have a future

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

On TV

“All My Children” airs weekdays at noon on ABC, local channel 2. “One Life to Live” airs at 1 p.m. “General Hospital” airs at 2 p.m. Episodes also are available to watch online at http://www.abc.go.com.

‘Children,’ ‘One’ to get online life

“All My Children,” which debuted in 1970, will end its long run on Sept. 23. It is being replaced with a new food-focused lifestyle series called “The Chew,” which starts Sept. 26.

“One Life to Live,” which debuted in 1968, will go off the air in January, making way for “The Revolution,” a show about health and lifestyle transformations.

All is not lost for “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” though. ABC licensed the two shows to the production company Prospect Park, which plans to distribute them over the Web and Internet-connected televisions. However, questions remain about whether viewers, as well as the soap stars themselves, will be willing to make the transition from network television to an online format.

This won’t be the first time soaps have changed platforms. Soap operas got their start in the 1930s as radio serials, and became a staple of daytime television in the ’50s.

“All My Children” and “One Life to Live” aren’t the first soaps to succumb to viewers’ increasing taste for reality television programming. Such shows also are less expensive to produce than scripted dramas.

The CBS soap “As the World Turns” went off the air last September. It was the last daytime serial owned by Procter & Gamble, which has owned more than 20 soap operas in the past 80 years, according to a New York Times story.

In 2009, CBS replaced “Guiding Light” with the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” “Guiding Light” had been on radio and television for 72 years.

Changes to how Americans watch television could have profound consequences for an actor, musician and writer from Battle Ground.

Jonathan Jackson, who had a six-year run on “General Hospital” beginning when he was 11, returned to the show in 2009 to reprise the role of Lucky Spencer, a part he originated.

Since Jackson, 29, got his start on “General Hospital” in the early ’90s, many of the longest-running soap operas on daytime television have received cancellation notices, with plans for some to migrate to the Web (see sidebar).

Now, broadcast journalist Katie Couric is preparing a new ABC daytime program, set to launch in September 2012, that has spurred media speculation about whether “General Hospital” could be next to get the ax.

“The announcement does not mean the inevitable cancellation of ‘General Hospital,’” said ABC spokesman Mitch Messinger. “Rather, it means that in September 2012 we will program our daytime block with our three strongest shows. … We believe in all of our shows, and the ones that our viewers want will be the ones that continue. There are many options that could happen. Only time will tell. We are simply giving ourselves options for the future, which is a smart way to do business. The best way to ensure a favorite show stays on the air is to watch it.”

The Columbian recently interviewed Jackson, who splits his time between Battle Ground and Los Angeles, where “General Hospital” films, about his thoughts on the evolving nature of daytime television and why he’s hopeful about the future of soap operas. The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

How did you feel when you heard that “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” were being canceled?

I think everyone in daytime, as well as a lot of places in the industry, was disappointed because they’re both such historical shows. It’s just kind of telling about the state of the economy and the industry right now. It’s a tough time for a lot of people.

Viewership is going to have an impact. Over the years and over the decades, it’s currently not as strong as it once was. It’s probably due to a lot of things. I think there are a lot more households with two jobs, so there are not as many people at home watching soap operas. And the current desire in television is more reality TV and the gritty shows, and I think soap operas tend to speak to something that’s a little bit more fantastical, romantic, kind of the opposite of a reality show or a gritty HBO crime drama.

Mothers used to watch soaps with their daughters, and that’s how it would get handed down. There’s just a little bit of a generation skip, where the younger generation isn’t quite as enthused as they were in the ’80s and ’90s.

Are you worried for the future of “General Hospital”?

There have been rumors floating around all over the place, and I don’t put too much stock in them. Having a lot of these other shows get canceled obviously puts every other show that’s on the air in a place of wanting to maintain its audience and also hopefully grow its audience.

I wouldn’t say it’s something to be overly worried about, but the industry’s in a pretty tough place, so anything could happen. We’ve seen a lot of support from the fans, and ABC is still very positive about “General Hospital.” It’s possible for the show to come out of this difficult time.

What do you think is driving these programming decisions?

Soap operas are having a hard time connecting with the current state of television. Budget-wise, because of the state of the economy and all that, you have to think in terms of how much it costs to put out an hour of drama every day with a cast of 25 or 30 people as opposed to putting on a cooking show or something. Those are the difficulties that soap operas are having to contend with right now. But I do think there is a really strong fan base that still exists.

How do you see “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” faring as online shows?

A lot of people watch the shows online already on abc.com. A lot of people DVR (digitally record) them. So it’s hard to track how many people are actually watching a show just by traditional ratings because the ratings aren’t taking into play all the people who are watching it online that evening, all the people who are watching it on DVR. I think there are more people watching than what they know.

Do you think their core audiences will follow them to this new platform?

For their sake, I hope so. It’s a little bit of a new frontier, but that seems to be something that’s happening. Even in the 24-hour news cycle, someone like Glenn Beck who has pretty big ratings is doing his own online network now as opposed to being on Fox. It’s definitely a time of transition.

It’s similar to the music industry transitioning from CDs to downloads and iTunes. Over the last five years or so, there are pretty much almost no record stores left. They’re all kind of dying out or just going online.

But these things are cyclical. Vinyls actually have gone up 41 percent in the last year (according to Nielsen SoundScan data). People, young people, are starting to buy vinyls again, which is kind of crazy.

I think for soap operas, it’s going to come back, but who knows how long it’s going to be before that happens. So hopefully the online thing will work out.

In one form or another, I think soap operas absolutely will come back. I don’t know if it’s going to look exactly the same. Maybe it will be in the form of telenovelas, or something like that, nine-month stories. But serial drama has been around since radio. We’re hoping that “General Hospital” and the other shows that are remaining on networks will continue to just push through this transition period and transition with people. But for shows like “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” hopefully they’ll be able to make that transition online. Either way, I think soap operas are going to keep going.

In light of these changes, have your thoughts about the direction in which you see your career going shifted?

No, not really. For me those are kind of separate questions. For me, I’ve been doing daytime and also films and prime time and music and writing and everything kind of the whole time. So I really don’t see myself as working in one genre or one medium. So the future still feels the same for me, which is to continue to work in all the different genres.

A number of high-profile television and movie stars got their starts on soap operas. How did “General Hospital” help launch your career?

It’s huge. It was really a huge blessing. I started when I was 11. Especially because I was coming on as Luke and Laura’s son, there was a pretty big fan base around them, so I was privileged enough to come into that family dynamic. It gave me the notoriety and the experience of a young actor to work really hard. It was definitely the launching pad and schooling for me all at the same time.

Mary Ann Albright: http://www.twitter.com/col_malbright; http://www.facebook.com/MaryAnnAlbright1; maryann.albright@columbian.com; 360-735-4507.