NBC announced last week that, starting this fall, its cash cow Today (weekdays at 7 a.m. ET) would be getting milked for an extra 60 minutes daily, bringing the length of each broadcast to an epic four hours. While this was a cause for joy for partisans of TV’s longest-running morning show, there was a smaller, weirder group who greeted the news with muttered curses. Today’s land grab spelled the death of the soap opera Passions (weekdays at 2 p.m. ET). As Variety put it, “Cancellation of the skein points to the increasingly harsh economic climate for sudsers.”
The suds of Passions were, originally, odd ones—bubbles glistening with Gothic camp. The soap debuted in 1999 and shortly emerged as a cult hit with dramatis personae including witches, warlocks, and a living doll named Timmy who, according to soapcentral.com, “died after being attacked by Zombie Charity.” But the strangeness waned, and last week Passions was looking much like every other daytime soap, just with a bit less gravity and refinement.
On Friday, Simone asked for a slight clarification from Kay: “So, when you say you were with Miguel, you mean you slept with Miguel? On the same night that you married Fox?” To which Kay, wounded, gave a shrug that looked like a flinch, as if trying to force together her well-tended eyebrows. Cut to Fox, who, drinking alone in front of a mirror, shared some exposition with his reflection: “Thank God Dad was able to get Mom out of here. I couldn’t take another minute of her histrionics. Let’s hope she keeps her mouth shut about my phony terminal illness.” And so on. What Passions had going for it, as a business property, was its youthful audience; the network has touted its huge ratings among “women 18 to 34” and “women 18 to 24” and, appallingly, “women 12 to 17.” (To know the age of the target audience is to understand, sort of, why all the men on Passions look like they’re 28 and all the women dress like they’re 15.)
But women 18 to 34 increasingly don’t have time for this stuff—at least that’s the idea you get while watching Today between 9 and 10 a.m. (The show’s third hour, an innovation dating from October of 2000, will be the model for its fourth.) This is not the salon of Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, with its intrusions of politics and war, but rather a romper room for the ceaselessly jovial weatherman Al Roker, the peerlessly blow-dried correspondent Natalie Morales, and Ann Curry, who shucks off the newsreader’s role she inhabits earlier in the show to help prepare easy meals.
Last Friday, Ann stirred away at a healthful Moroccan-style chicken stew presented by an editor from Good Housekeeping. That was after Al had hosted a segment, titled “Married to a Workaholic,” that involved eliciting tips on balancing work and family from an editor at Men’s Health. On the same episode, Natalie presided over a winter-weather children’s fashion show with an editor from Cookie. We were advised on how to protect the kids from hypothermia without turning them into little orbs of wool and goose down. We were told that one young male model “ate seven donuts in the green room,” which maybe accounted for his vaguely murderous gaze and sluggish motions. We came to understand that Today has grown into an empire by merging the approaches of a shelf’s worth of lifestyle magazines into one cozy promise: Despite the odds, the postmodern homemaker can have it all. How can the phony terminal illnesses of Passions compete with a fantasy like that?
And what if the fourth hour of Today is a success? Will there be a fifth hour? A ninth? How about a 24-hour news channel? Call it Today Forever, a network devoted to helping women across all demographics soothe their harried souls.