Soaps are notorious for their exciting, unbelievable narratives, but lately it seems that the talk about the genre is getting a little out of hand, rather than the actual on-screen material.
Holby City terminated in March as the BBC worked to reorganise its schedule and shift production throughout the nation. Last week, Neighbours came to an end with a critically acclaimed finale that drew record-breaking numbers and cameos from celebrities like Kylie Minogue.
Two long-running favourites being axed back-to-back has, perhaps understandably, sparked a larger conversation about the state of soap operas as a whole. This conversation has included plenty of dour ratings talk, discussions about relevance, and in some particularly pessimistic cases, predictions that they may soon be completely gone.
Is a future without the Rovers Return, Woolpack, Dog in the Pond, or Queen Vic really on the horizon? Is the final Audrey Roberts “huh” or the final dead spouse for Mercedes McQueen really just around the corner?
While there is no denying that times have changed significantly since 19.1 million people tuned in to find out who shot Phil in 2001, such apocalyptic conjecture seems incredibly hasty. It’s more difficult to accept than a dead figure coming back to life and saying everything was a dream.
Particularly EastEnders has come under scrutiny; its live ratings have been a frequent topic of discussion among pundits, especially now that it regularly airs head-to-head against Emmerdale. This has been especially true in recent weeks as it has been moved around in the schedules (often to BBC Two to make room for sport).
A dedicated article was even published in the Sunday Times over the weekend saying that the downfall of the show is “growing critical” in the aftermath of Neighbours’ departure.
You can understand where some of this drama is coming from if you accept some of the recent overnights for EastEnders. It’s true that linear ratings are trending downward across the board.
The show’s enormous popularity on iPlayer, especially in recent weeks during the schedule upheaval when episodes have been premiering digitally before transmission, is conveniently never brought up in conversation (or, at best, quickly forgotten as an afterthought).
Although a show with hundreds of episodes per year might easily rack up more playback hours than a six-part series, individual episodes are frequently at or near the top of iPlayer’s Most Popular list on any given day. The Beeb verified this to the Sunday Times. At the time of writing, it is No. 1.
The most recent episode of Hollyoaks, which was also the platform’s most popular scripted title and second most popular overall title for 2021, is currently at the top of the Most Popular carousel on All4. On My5, the Neighbours finale is still at the top several days later, with the most recent episode of Home And Away at No. 3.
In 2022, broadcasters will place a high priority on digital performance, perhaps even more so than on “conventional” linear figures: Tim Davie, director general of the BBC, recently discussed “a digital-first BBC” and said they are “moving decisively to a primarily on-demand future.” What is their most watched on-demand programme? Please take a look; that is a soap!
In a similar vein, Hollyoaks became the first national soap opera to permanently premiere on-demand before showing on “normal” television thanks to Channel 4 in March, and ITV is redesigning its own online content with the launch of ITVX in a few months.
Streaming will rule the future. What the heck, the show is streaming.
Now, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not objective: I frequently contribute to Hollyoaks, EastEnders was the first television programme that really captured my attention as a teenager, and Corrie and Emmerdale will always bring to mind my late grandpa, who was a huge fan of both.
However, it is certain that ongoing dramas continue to play a significant role in British television.
Again, it is undeniable that soap opera ratings are falling year over year, even when on-demand data is included. We as a culture are watching less television now, and when we are watching it, we have a hell of a lot more options than we did five, 10, 20, and 30 years ago, notwithstanding the occasional exceptions like Line of Duty.
However, if you look past the numbers (and keep in mind that neither Neighbours nor Holby City were cancelled due to low ratings), soap operas continue to have undeniably strong appeal. They frequently trend on social media, generate a lot of column inches, and turn their casts into stars and Love of Huns-ready icons.
They continue to generate a lot of conversation about significant issues, too: Earlier this year, Marlon’s stroke on Emmerdale had a significant impact, while Hollyoaks produced a BAFTA-nominated online documentary about how its social problem plots have saved viewers’ lives.
The Doctors’ two-hander Three Consultations and a Funeral, which featured Lucy Benjamin as a woman experiencing domestic violence and received numerous prizes, was so potent that BBC One allowed it to air again.
When they have their big, exciting, gasp-inducing event episodes, the hype is enormous: this year alone, the Salon-de-Thé explosion on Hollyoaks, Gray’s downfall on EastEnders, and Meena’s end on Emmerdale all gave us big water-cooler excitement; discussed in great detail on Twitter, on daytime TV, and among friends and families in person.
Of course, if they want to keep up with what viewers want and how they want to consume it, soap operas and the networks that broadcast them must continue to develop. Everyone involved is aware that complacency is not and has never been an option.
But despite the fact that nobody can foretell the future and nothing lasts forever, I hope they continue to be a British institution for a very long time.
Just maintain the sensationalism in the show rather than taking it off.