Here’s something I probably shouldn’t admit, but what the hell: in 1982 I was a regular viewer of six daytime soap operas: The Edge of Night, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Search for Tomorrow, Another World, and Texas (a daytime knock-off of Dallas.)
When I tell people that, as a 13-year-old eighth grader, I watched five hours of soap operas every day, they look at me like I’m a survivor of child abuse. And yes, my obsessive (what else is new?) daytime drama habit was entirely the fault of my mother. When she went back to work in the late ‘70s, my job was to watch her “stories” after school and report on what happened. By the time we got our first VCR in 1979 I was hooked like a playground crack head.
Sister Dorothy, my teacher and tormentor, didn’t think this was a good idea, of course. And, as with most things, she was proven wrong. As I got older and began enduring epic battles with my mom over otherwise trivial matters, we’d call a truce every night to watch our time-shifted soaps. Then we’d go back to fighting. No wonder my father used to go to bed early.
All of this has been on my mind because Retro TV, “the original classic programming digital network,” announced this week that they’ll be airing the Emmy-winning 1963-82 NBC soap The Doctors beginning later this year. Sadly, this was one of the few soaps I didn’t watch as a kid, so I’m not as over the moon as I might be if some of my old friends from Monticello, Springfield, Oakdale, Henderson and Bay City were coming back from beyond the cancellation grave.
But still, Retro’s announcement is significant for a number of reasons.
First: daytime soap operas are almost never rerun, particularly on broadcast TV. A few have bucked this trend, notably the 1960s supernatural sudser Dark Shadows, which I first discovered in syndication on WNBC in 1982. (So that really makes seven soaps I watched that summer before high school). The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow also got second lives on the USA Network cable channel in the late ‘80s, and rebroadcasts of NBC’s Another World and ABC’s Ryan’s Hope graced the airwaves of SoapNet, which faded to black at the end of last year. Sadly, despite its content, the first and only 24/7 cable soap channel has not yet come back from the dead.
Also: the networks are slowly killing off the art form, going from a high of 19 daytime dramas in 1970 to four in 2014 (despite the ratings renaissance the contracted genre is experiencing). And, as each long-running series comes to a close, thousands of episodes and decades of storytelling history sit on a shelf gathering dust, awaiting rediscovery. (Sadly, most episodes of Procter and Gamble-produced soaps only exist post-1978; prior to that, videotapes were routinely “wiped” as a cost-saving measure.)
Finally: Today, thanks to digital technology, and the wealth of programming opportunities offered by free, over-the-air digital sub-channels like Retro, a cliffhanger exists for fans of classic soap operas. Will modern audiences look beyond old school production values and wide lapels and once again get hooked on the continuing stories that captivated viewers a generation (or two) ago? Will the physicians at Hope Memorial Hospital help save a dying patient and kick off a wave of nostalgia that will bring back other long-lost daytime dramas? And will The Doctors last long enough on Retro for us to see Alec Baldwin as Billy Aldrich, a role he first played in 1980?
For answers to these and other exciting questions tune in again…right now for my chat with Matthew Golden, Retro TV’s vice-president of production. (The following is an edited transcript.)
WILL MCKINLEY: When will The Doctors premiere? Will it air during the afternoon in typical soap fashion?
MATTHEW GOLDEN: We haven’t yet announced a premiere date for The Doctors. We’re still in the process of assembling all of the assets; this extends somewhat to the schedule for it, but as it stands right now, we plan to double-strip it Monday through Friday in the early afternoons. (Editor’s Note: “double-strip” means two episodes will air back-to-back.)
Update 8/28/14 – Retro announced today that “The Doctors” will debut on September 29, with two episodes airing daily beginning at 12 p.m. (ET/PT).
Update 9/27/14 – Retro’s website has a dedicated page for the show, including a clip.
Update 10/15/15 – “The Doctors” now airs on Retro at 1 p.m. (ET)
Update 12/28/15 – “The Doctors” now airs week nights on Retro at 2 a.m. (ET) The show also airs Saturdays at 3 p.m. (ET)
WM: Will you start the series from the beginning of the run in 1963? Or, as with many other soaps of the era, are some early episodes no longer extant?
MG: We will begin with the 1967 season, which is the first of the show to be produced in color.
WM: Is this the first time The Doctors has been rerun since its original network broadcast?
MG: I believe this is the first time The Doctors has been rerun in the USA.
WM: Has there been any re-mastering of source material?
MG: We are preparing new air copies directly from original 2” master tapes, digitizing them in archival quality, and doing cleanup where possible.
WM: The fear with fans is often that a network will begin airing a soap and then discontinue it, with no way to see additional episodes. Will your commitment to airing the series in its entirety be based upon ratings/audience response?
MG: There are a great number of episodes, and even double-stripping the series would run over six years with no repetition. We are committed to the series, and our commitment, like all networks’, is rooted in favorable response. That said, this is not a test: we will be running the episodes we’ve licensed, and if the response is good, then we’ll renew and continue.
WM: Daytime dramas, even extremely popular ones, are almost never rerun. Why do you think that is, and why do you think contemporary audiences will care about The Doctors?
MG:I think the largest part is the inherently unwieldy nature of daytime serials; this show alone ran over 5,000 episodes, all heavily serialized. The bounty of episodes produced for a daily serial effectively means that it will never run in repeats on a general-interest or current-programming network. The commitment necessary to re-run something like a soap opera is something Retro TV can offer, and a lot of other broadcast outlets can’t (or don’t). We have an opportunity with Retro TV to return this kind of serialized drama to audiences on a large scale. The bottom line is that enjoyable storytelling is universal and timeless, and can captivate audiences of any era. We believe The Doctors to be one of the series that most typifies these qualities.
WM: Will you be editing the individual episodes?
MG: I doubt we’ll have to cut much, if anything.
WM: Dark Shadows is the only soap to be extensively rerun, and it retains a large fan base today. Would you consider airing it, and have you made any overtures to MPI Media Group regarding it?
MG: We have not, but I’d certainly be open to speaking with them.
WM: If fans of a particular soap (like Dark Shadows) would like to see their favorite show on Retro, how can they communicate those wishes to you?
MG: Programming suggestions are best submitted to email@example.com. Side note: since announcing The Doctors, soap fans have vociferously been advocating for their own favorites, and I have been delighted to find that they are uniformly pleasant and polite.
WM: After our chat about Retro’s airing of classic Doctor Who episodes beginning later this summer, readers have asked how they can get the channel in their city. What’s the best strategy?
MG: Retro TV is a broadcast network, not direct to cable, satellite, or Internet. We require local stations to affiliate with us on one of their channels, and often cable or satellite providers in those markets pick up and serve the channel on their offerings. The best way to get Retro TV in your area is to call and write your local TV stations and let them know that you want Retro TV. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve welcomed new affiliates in Albuquerque/Santa Fe (KYNM) and Tri-Cities, TN-VA (WLFG), and next week should hopefully bring even more. Stations have been very receptive and excited about the new programming coming to Retro TV.
WM: Last question: Am I speaking with Matthew or his evil twin?
MG: I’m not entirely certain. The acute amnesia I experienced after the car crash that resulted in me being lost at sea and declared legally dead for three years makes it impossible for me to know for sure.