The Substitution Effect: How Reality TV Killed the Soap Opera

Photo: dno1967b

The Wall Street Journal has a story about all the long-running soap operas that are going off the air. A cohort of die-hard fans is protesting the move, arguing that the shows are more popular than their ratings suggest, and even threatening to sue ABC’s parent company Disney for causing them “mental distress” by canceling the shows. But the fact remains that their viewership is down, and sponsors have been pulling out, making the shows unprofitable for the television stations even in non-prime-time slots. One might think it is because of rising female labor-force participation–but the increase has been quite slow for the past 20 years. The reason is competition for viewers with a new, cheaper product—“reality TV.”

Apparently soaps and reality shows attract similar viewers—they appear to be substitutes for the average consumer. As with any new product that is hot, its substitutes suffer when it enters the market. As the World Turns and Guiding Light have given way to such pathetic substitutes as The Apprentice and Let’s Make a Deal.

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:


    There seems to be a lot of unsupported opinionated refutiating here. Certainly there are many reasons for the decline of soap operas…and real operas. I hear Shakespeare is down too.

    I had a brain-bolt that soap operas would be amazing if they just reran everything in a SF-Mars scenario. Same actors, same stories, same Earth-romantic duplicity. I’d watch it.

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  2. Jason says:

    I think rather than ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ and the ‘Apprentice’ they are more than likely heading to the ‘Real Housewives’ series and Bethany, Karsahians, etc. Why have fake drama when you can have the ‘real’ thing (although we all know it isn’t that real either).

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  3. Nosybear says:

    @Daniel, I think they already did what you suggested except using robots and humans and it was wildly popular, until the writers jumped the shark once too often: Battlestar Galactica (the remake).

    I think soap operas, reality TV AND religion serve pretty much the same need, the same need served by invisible friends in children. You have someone who is the perfect friend and who requires little investment in maintaining the friendship.

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  4. notkevinnealon says:

    Also, in much the same way that “soap” operas were named after the conspicuous sponsors of each series, reality shows are very eager to display sponsors products in not inconspicuous fashion.

    Maybe the genre should be called ‘reality operas’ or something along those lines.

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  5. AaronS says:

    Professor, as much as I can’t stand soap operas, I can handle even less the harshness, pettiness, and awkwardness that is shown on reality shows. To me, the bigger question is “What have we become when we enjoy seeing people’s feelings hurt by others, etc.?”

    HOWEVER, as for “Let’s Make a Deal,” even though it is in a newer version, it has long been a daytime show, even “back in the day.” And “The Apprentice” is a nighttime show.

    I think the real demise of soap operas is CABLE TV. When there are 30 options of what to watch, it’s really easy to want to skip someone’s eleventh marriage in thirty years (smile). And whether the alternative is a reality show, talk show, syndicated series, or some movie, that’s too much competition.

    However, it seems like it would be a good idea to keep soaps around on one of the cable channels–after all, there is a niche audience who are caught up in such, er, enduring epics.

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  6. Mike B says:

    I find it not at all surprising that soap operas and “reality” TV are close substitutes for eachother.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:


    “I had a brain-bolt that soap operas would be amazing if they just reran everything in a SF-Mars scenario. Same actors, same stories, same Earth-romantic duplicity. I’d watch it.”

    I don’t mean a space soap-opera like Star Trek and a hundred others. That’s just human drama layered onto SF. I mean SF layered onto human drama with silver jumpsuits and kissy two-timing babes inside pressure domes. No robots, ray guns, “Save the Universe”, aliens, giant worms, thought transference, Vulcans, Cylons, etc….only the day-to-day soap opera stuff:

    “Michele turns to Steve for help, urging him to keep Dubner away from Sheila. He wonders why he should help her – he knows about her early disastrous relationship with Brad. Michele argues that she accepts Dubner for who he is – she won’t try to make him change like her sister would.”

    Cue the theremin….fade to black.

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  8. David Olsen says:

    Interesting, but I’m not convinced. Exactly how many reality shows are on daytime TV aside from the normal plethora of game shows which have been around equally as long as the soaps? The real competition to reality TV is in primetime, not daytime, and I have a hypothesis that it’s actually created a golden age of television. Instead of churning out pedestrian shows to fill the time, scripted producers have had to make sure their shows are really good to justify the additional costs or else they get replaced.

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