All My Children and One Life to Live

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Soap operas are an all-or-nothing affair: if you don't watch them, they may as well not exist. But if you do, they're like no other commitment on television. Everyone hates having a favorite show canceled. But your favorite soap? That's getting a solid chunk of your life canceled.

More than 80 years of cumulative soap-opera story will draw to a close by January 2012 following ABC's April 14 announcement that it will cancel All My Children and One Life to Live. The decision leaves General Hospital as the network's last soap standing. Their replacements--a talk show and a lifestyle show--are more easily produced and are the type of program that has had far more success launching in recent years. The reversal for the soap, a genre that has been so reliable for so long, seems to be due partly to the popularity of reality TV and, beyond that, our tabloid culture.

Soap operas, after all, are about immersion in the details and drama of a set of people's lives. But they're no longer alone in that. The Real Housewives shows, for instance, indirectly compete for the same mind space, offering a similar kind of serial storytelling, personal intrigue and schadenfreude--as do the offscreen narratives of the likes of Kate Gosselin and the Kardashians. For too many viewers, soaps are now just an alternative, which is why one of TV's oldest formats is running out of lives to live.