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Daytime soap operas: why the bubble burst

There is no joy in the soap-opera world this week. Soap devotees are slowly coming to the realization that their precious - if far-fetched - stories are now on the endangered TV species list.

The daytime faithful were still recovering from the recent departure of Guiding Light , when news broke on Tuesday of CBS's decision to pull the plug on As the World Turns . Accustomed to villain-driven plotlines, soap followers recognize the cancellations as the beginning of the end - and that means millions of worried fans are now waiting to see which shows drop off next.

Somehow it's sadder when the older shows fall first. Before signing off three months ago, Guiding Light had existed for 72 years - it began as a radio serial in 1937 - and saw literally hundreds of actors come and go through the turnstiles. As the World Turns will have lasted for 54 years and more than 13,000 episodes when it airs its final one next September.

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How far has the soap opera fallen from grace? At the genre's absolute peak in 1963 - coincidentally the same year depicted in the most recent season of Mad Men - As the World Turns was drawing a daily audience of more than 10 million U.S. viewers; lately, the ratings have slipped to slightly more than one-fifth that number.

More ironic: Both ATWT and GL (soap people love acronyms) were produced by a broadcast subsidiary of the corporate giant Procter & Gamble, the same company responsible for inspiring the term "soap opera" back in the fifties, since the daily broadcasts were rife with commercials for soap and laundry detergent.

The loss of ATWT leaves seven network soaps on the daytime schedule, though rumours are already rumbling about ABC's venerable One Life to Live being next on the hit list.

To explain away the latest soap casualty, CBS cited the standard reasons: Soaps are too expensive to produce in these recessionary times - it's still the only TV genre that goes live with new episodes 52 weeks a year - and more damningly, too few people are watching.

The current highest-rated soap, The Young and the Restless , draws fewer than five million viewers. Leading up to its big finish, Guiding Light was in last place, with fewer than two million watching daily. The unsubstantiated industry rumour is that CBS was giving commercial spots on GL away in its final days.

The daytime audience has fragmented in the past few years, with more people filling the daylight hours with Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and, of course, Ellen DeGeneres. How can soapy plotlines about missing heiresses and evil twins ever compete with Ellen doing the funky chicken?

The soap opera is dying, and why do I care? Besides the fact that a good number of actors and other TV people are being thrown out of work, or at least reduced to hair and makeup duty on The Real Housewives of New Jersey and other reality shows, the decline of the soap makes me feel a tad guilty, because there was a time when I was deeply immersed in the soap-opera world.

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Back in the mid-eighties, while working for a digest-sized weekly TV magazine that shall remain unnamed, there was an extended period during which I wrote a steady stream of soap-star profiles. Christmas with the stars of Y&R ? Did it. Summertime recipes with the cast of Days of Our Lives ? You betcha.

Of course, the stories were piffle, but like the soaps themselves, the magazine, now defunct, was selling product, and sales went through the roof whenever they put a soap personality on the cover.

More to the point, the soap stars were a lovely bunch. Unlike prime-time TV personalities I've met, none had delusions of grandeur or dreams of a movie career. To a person, the soap actors were intelligent people who took their work seriously, but not too seriously.

The funny thing: I never had to watch all the episodes. A veteran soap actor once told me that you could easily follow any soap by watching the Friday and Monday broadcasts only. The Monday show was written to keep people watching all week, and the Friday show was structured to hold them over the weekend. Pretty smart, that.

And now, the end is nigh and everyone knows it's coming. It will likely take a few years but the soap genre is grinding to a halt and will be replaced by heaven knows what. It's only a matter of time before Dr. Phil's son gets his own show.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all: Nobody cares. The announcement of ATWT 's departure on Tuesday was little more than a ticker item on most TV newscasts, wedged as it was between breaking Tiger Woods newsflashes. An ongoing daily saga about the alleged sex dalliances of a billionaire athlete with a beautiful Swedish wife? Now there's your new soap opera.

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John Doyle returns on Saturday.

Also airing tonight:

Deck the Halls with Steven and Chris (CBC, 8 p.m.) is exactly like every episode of the daytime program Steven & Chris except, you know, more festive. Style mavens Steven Sabados (the tall one) and Chris Hyndman (the one with the hair-helmet) host a holiday party in an open space and good gosh, most of the invited guests turn out to be fellow CBC personalities. The Hour 's George Stroumboulopoulos and Being Erica 's Erin Karpluk build gingerbread houses. Dragons' Den fixtures Kevin O'Leary and Arlene Dickinson make potent cocktails. There are also taped Christmas memories from Rick Mercer, Ron James and, oddly, Suzanne Somers. In between guests, Steven and Chris flutter about, and Jully Black sings a jazzy version of Deck the Halls . Why am I never invited to these swank holiday soirees?

Impact (MTV, 8:30 p.m.) is a new series of specials produced by MTV Canada tackling urgent issues. In the first instalment, environmental activist Emily Hunter - daughter of the late Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter - undertakes a personal journey to the tar sands in Alberta. While there, she weighs the social and environmental pros and cons, and spends time in Fort Chipewyan, one of the most affected communities in the region. Currently, Emily is in Copenhagen reporting on the climate-change summit for MTV. Like her old man, she's feisty and fearless.

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