Reality TV is without a doubt the dominant television genre of the 21st century. Dating programmes alone could easily fill their own channel given the constant stream of shows such as Love Is Blind. And when reality TV isn’t churning out new formats, it is rebooting old Noughties favourites, such as Netflix’s The Mole – which initially aired in the US in 2001 – or Big Brother, whose highly anticipated return to British TV is next year.
But as the genre booms, soap operas, which once reigned supreme on TV screens, continue to go bust. This year, the Australian soap Neighbours was canned after 37 years. It marks a global trend in the genre’s decline. The audience figures on EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale are tanking, too.
Hollyoaks has managed to entice younger fans by airing episodes on Snapchat but it still reported a slump last year. Meanwhile, in the US, long-running shows such as All My Children and One Life to Live have been shelved. The same is happening in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden.
A number of causes have been suggested. Soap operas have an ageing fanbase and struggle to attract new viewers. Streaming services have led to an ad hoc, “bingeing” consumer model that makes viewers less likely to tune into a show during a stipulated time slot. That said, fans seem to have no problem gathering to watch the sensation of the summer, Love Island, every night at 9pm. It’s hard not to think that there’s a correlation between the popularity of such shows and the fading relevance of soap operas.
Reality TV shows have become the new, higher-stakes, lower-budget soap operas. “It’s the new Dynasty, it’s the new Dallas,” the former Days of Our Lives actor Lisa Rinna said in an interview. “It’s the new paradigm of escapist television.” Rinna herself stars in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a show created off the back of the soapy dramedy Desperate Housewives which once showed on the same network. It has aired for twice as long as its predecessor, with viewers now hooked on watching celebrity gossip play out in real life.
In an interview with the BBC, the sociology professor C Lee Harrington spoke about how the OJ Simpson trial in 1995 affected this shift, when the trial coverage interrupted regular soap opera airings. The lives of the rich, famous and dysfunctional were once relegated to fiction, but when people were given access to real people’s lives, the stakes became higher, a sentiment echoed by the executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise, Andy Cohen. “Soaps became kind of unnecessary because you could do it with real people – and they are writing the drama themselves,” he said as part of The Story of Soaps, a documentary looking at the impact made by the genre.
Better yet, on reality TV the drama never stops, unlike soaps and their cliffhanger endings. When “khaos” breaks out in The Kardashians, it continues to unfold long after the camera cuts, on their social media accounts and in gossip magazines.
There is an interesting line between the two genres in terms of where life overlaps with art. Since Reality TV is supposed to be unscripted, it is often lambasted for its fakery. Soaps, however, were historically lauded for their gritty “realness”. Once upon a time, they held a mirror up to rarely seen parts of society.
In a campaign to save them from extinction, Kevin Kennedy, who played Corrie’s Curly Watts for 20 years, wrote about their virtues in the Sun. “If you are watching a soap and something happens to a character you care about, suddenly these issues become very real,” he opined. It’s true that they have poignantly dealt with difficult, taboo subjects over the years, such as cot death, domestic violence and miscarriage. In 1994, Brookside depicted the first female same-sex kiss to be broadcast before the 9pm watershed. Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper was the first permanent trans character in serialised drama.
When Mark Fowler was diagnosed as HIV-positive in EastEnders in 1991, it was groundbreaking, but shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race have since picked up the baton, with cast members speaking frankly about their diagnoses and telling their coming-out stories. Storylines that once felt daring in soaps are now mere conversation fodder for multiple reality shows.
While some soaps still try to keep up, others feel dated. EastEnders’ Watford feels like a throwback to an east London long gone. The cast are all cockneys, it’s barely touched by immigration and nowhere near enough people have been pushed out by gentrification.
Where reality TV struggles, though, is in working-class representation. Shows such as Bling Empire, Made in Chelsea and Selling Sunset are fixated on the super-wealthy, while Coronation street and the like focus on depicting everyday people. Still, with the launch of ITV’s Peckham’s Finest last year, it’s hard to believe they won’t soon catch up.
Soaps’ glory days are likely never coming back. Even modern reality TV doesn’t match the soap era at its height, peaking with 30.1 million people tuning in to EastEnders when Den handed Angie divorce papers in 1986. This year’s successful Love Island finale was watched by only 3.4 million. The ratings drop is part of a wider, inevitable fracturing of what people watch, now we have more than five channels.
Since Brookside and Crossroads were cancelled in 2003, no major new soaps have been made. But there may be a way forward. Part of me thinks that, instead of attempting to reflect present times, EastEnders should simply embrace its new identity – as a period drama.