THE OJ SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL AS A TURNING POINT FOR THE SOAP GENRE
In the summer of 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance, Ron Goldman, were found lying in their own blood outside Brown Simpson’s home, having been stabbed dozens of times. Football Hall-of-Famer OJ Simpson went on trial for their murders in January 1995. The trial lasted for almost six months. Scholars and network and industry analysts called the trial the beginning of the end for soaps for several reasons. First, the three networks that aired the bulk of daytime programming preempted that programming to televise the trial, which caused many soap viewers to tune out and never tune back in. Second, with none of the humanity, heart, or buoyant representation of the human experience that soap operas show us, the trial contained enough blurrily facsimiled soap-like characteristics of fictional drama to draw in millions of viewers every day. It featured high drama in both the televised trial and the history shared by those involved, but drama that was lurid and salacious not moving and meaningful, as in soaps. It featured a motley crew of interrelated characters, whose lives and relations seem random and upsettingly tragic, not ones whose existences affirm the human experience and that people let into their hearts over time and thus built bonds with, as in soaps. Its “story” aired 134 consecutive weekdays, as soaps air five-days-a-week, but whose “characters” seemed exhausted and anxious at the end of the daytime programming time slot. So the trial had the same kind of regularity of soaps’ airing but wasn’t peopled by characters who were empowered and looking forward to facing the challenges to come in their lives when the story picked up, as in soaps., The carefully thought-out and scripted of content of soaps differed in positive and great ways from the helter-skelter and upsetting trajectory of the Simpson trial.
Finally, networks saw that they could put on videotape people who were not professional actors with unions and other career-related safeguards and expectations, structure what they recorded into a loosely dramatic format, and air those recordings on television for much less than the cost of producing a daytime drama, and that people would watch it. Hence, Reality TV, which many believe has damaged the appetite and audience for scripted television with its cheap-to-produce knock-off version of it. Just as the Simpson trial did, Reality TV barely but adequately satisfies the human desire for story. It also costs a fraction of what scripted television costs. Reality-based programming adds to the equation the satisfaction our collective penchant for voyeuristic pleasure. And finally, when networks offer little else to audiences but strategically place reality-based shows at times they know through market research they will be watched by millions of people, Reality TV’s success comes as no surprise.
But now in late 2015, television is coming full circle. Reality shows, talk shows, and lifestyle shows are losing viewership and being canceled seemingly a fast as they premiere. Network dramas borrow heavily from soap storytelling, even when they plot- rather than character-centered, particularly in the serialization of storytelling. The airwaves are primed for the inevitable resurgence of the daytime soap opera genre. All My Children, One Life to Live, Guiding Light, Another World, As the World Turns, and other soap operas will be back soon! And this is thanks to the tireless work of the Save Our Soaps community of passionate and committed soap fans. And the irresistibility of soap operas!
What do you think about this readers? Would reality TV have happened anyway, without the OJ trial? Do you think the trial had no effect or less effect than I say here on soaps? Or a different effect? Do you see what I see in primetime—soap storytelling, that is? Comment, discuss!
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan