Diversity on daytime, or the lack of it, is hardly a new conversation. OLTL is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and it was new and bold in 1968 specifically because it did have ethnic diversity (much more diversity, it should be noted, than the show has today).
The shows do suffer because of a lack of diversity. And I’m not simply talking about diversity in terms of what we all associate that word with.
It’s very, very true that African-Americans are woefully underrepresented on daytime. Latinos are only slightly more visible. Asians are almost non-existent on daytime outside of a few recurring roles, and other cultural or ethnic minorities are almost never featured.
And for every story where a character eases onto the canvas naturally and has a story that is genuine and real – Jesse or Angie (AMC), Jessica Griffin (ATWT), or Carla and Sadie Gray (OLTL) – there have been countless other stories where attempts to introduce non-WASPy characters have fallen flat and been terribly awkward.
Daytime has been trying to feature more LGBT characters, but outside of the controversial Luke and Noah story on ATWT, most of the stories we’ve seen so far have followed the same script:
(1) The LGBT character is just short of sainthood. (e.g., Bianca on AMC) In addition to being presented as an example of moral fortitude for the entire town, the character picks up litter, saves stray puppies and pulls people out of burning cars and buildings.
(2) S/he helps other characters and/or is the catalyst for an epiphany in a major front-burner character’s life.
(3) LGBT characters are so busy being virtuous that they don’t see a lot of action. Whereas most characters in their age bracket are seeing more action than Pamela Anderson’s divorce lawyer, LGBT characters’ action level hovers around the “Nancy Hughes” level.
(4) S/he is there for a few cycles, and then mysterious disappears or is sent out of town, to be brought back at Christmas (if at all).
These are all examples of where daytime misses opportunities to keep our interest with a diversified canvas. But that’s only part of the picture.
I’m also talking about the kind of diversity we had when our shows had multi-generational casts and storylines. And more importantly, when characters had POINTS of VIEW – viewpoints that didn’t change every 13 weeks, along with the head writer.
Cady McClain is a notable actress, but she’s also incredibly intelligent about the industry. Some of her comments in her blog make me wish she would give up acting and come over to the dark side to become a writer or producer. She made a great comment (in an amazing post) about shows needing a character like the local storeowner who disapproves of the young, pregnant teenage customer. (Look towards the end of the post.) That’s the kind of character where you can put four or five of them in a room and the story writes itself.
I think the lack of diversity (both cultural and personality-wise) hurts daytime for two very specific reasons:
(1) With leaner, more streamlined casts, the characters shows keep are often so similar to one another it’s hard to tell them apart. On GL, Reva, Cassie, Harley, Blake, Beth, Dinah and Olivia are all, to some degree or another, the same damn person. On ATWT, most of the female contract characters under 40 are the same – they’ve all been painted with the same brush.
(2) When everyone is the same, and everything is the same, a very simple, logical result happens: THERE ARE NO SURPRISES. There is also no burning need to tune in tomorrow. Why? You know what will happen. Not because of spoilers, but because there are no surprises.
Can this be fixed? Creatively, it seems possible. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy are doing a great job of making diversity both a fact of life and a non-issue. But financially, I’m not sure this can ever become a priority for daytime. When we have shrinking budgets and disappearing vets, it seems less likely for a show to introduce a new character of family.
But I’ll make a point here as to why they might want to think about it. I would argue that the two most iconic soap stories of all time – the ones that even non-soap fans will know and acknowledge – are (a) Luke and Laura, and (b) the life and times of Erica Kane. Those actors and stories have made a lasting imprint on people. More importantly, they also brought a lot of non-soap fans – NEW FANS, which the format desperately needs – to their shows.
There’s something just like this happening right now – Luke and Noah on ATWT. Now, I’m not a Nielsen expert, or an industry insider, and I can’t verify the figures and the viewers and write all of this in stone for you. But we do know this: Their first kiss has had nearly half a million viewers on YouTube. ATWT went to #3 during the period when Luke and Noah were first playing front-burner. More importantly, people who did not watch before are watching. EVERY DAY. The site AfterElton.com has people liveblogging episodes of the show.
Part of that success is probably the new technology, but part of it has to be creative. ATWT is playing a new idea, with character “types” we haven’t seen before, in a very old-fashioned way. Every show would be wise to keep diversity in mind when they try to give us something “never before seen on daytime TV.” (And hopefully they’ll do a better job managing it than P&G, who seems to support the Luke/Noah story but hasn’t capitalized on the story publicity-wise as much as they could have. )