Soap operas were once the crown jewels of broadcasters that had the throne to themselves

Royal return to soaps only serves to remind us the golden era of their reign has passed

Royalty is about to return to soapland.

Yes, the prince and princess of Ramsay Street, Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue, will soon be swooshing back into Erinsborough for Neighbours’ swansong episode more than three decades after the wedding of Scott and Charlene was watched by almost 20 million viewers on the BBC alone.

Meanwhile, some 22 years after he made a fleeting visit to Coronation Street’s Weatherfield, Prince Charles will this week wander into Albert Square accompanied by The Archers veteran Camilla to admit he was the one who killed Lucy Beale after all.

Alas, that’s not quite the plot. The couple will instead be dropping in on a Walford street party in a platinum jubilee stunt of an episode designed to deliver good royal PR and bump up EastEnders’ flagging ratings, while also possibly getting cultural wrecking ball Nadine Dorries off the BBC’s back for five minutes.

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It’s a bit like when Charles’s grandfather, grandmother and mother toured a bombed-out east London in the 1940s, only this time the people in the background are extras and, officially at least, Britain is not at war.

“They’ve got mad faces when you’re close up,” mused Danny Dyer, who plays the Queen Vic’s reigning landlord and is the soap’s biggest star. Indeed, Dyer’s imminent departure — his own mad face was poached by Sky — was reported by the Daily Mirror to have “plunged the soap into crisis”. Maybe a Prince Harry cameo would help?

Talk of a Walford “crisis” might be over-egging it, but there is truth in the narrative that soaps are struggling.

The overnight ratings for the 2021 Christmas Day episodes alone reveal a stark decline in the UK’s affinity for them: Coronation Street did the best with 3.25 million viewers, followed by Emmerdale with 3 million, then EastEnders with 2.9 million. The soaps scraped into eighth, ninth and 10th place for the day, when once they would have been guaranteed a top five finish; just a decade earlier, EastEnders and Coronation Street were the Christmas Day number one and two respectively, with 9.9 million and 9.3 million viewers each.

While these 2011 figures are a far cry from the 30.1 million who watched Den serve Angie divorce papers on EastEnders in 1986 (a figure that includes Sunday omnibus viewers), they are still multiples of more recent ratings.

Soaps amass some of the highest streaming totals for broadcasters, in large part because they have so many episodes a year. That festive figure of 2.9 million for EastEnders doesn’t include the 1.5 million who viewed it on the BBC’s iPlayer. But the plummet in total viewership over time is nonetheless clear.

A similar pattern can be seen in the Irish consumption of soaps. In 2011, the most-watched episode of RTÉ's Fair City had 764,000 viewers, putting it 14th in that year’s top 50. The most-watched broadcast of Coronation Street on TV3 (now Virgin Media Television) was 16th with 749,000 viewers, and RTÉ's biggest episode of EastEnders was 31st with 646,000 viewers. In 2021, none of these soaps appeared in the Irish top 50 list.

Home and Away, meanwhile, topped the 2021 RTÉ Player chart with almost 4.9 million views, ahead of EastEnders with 3.5 million and Fair City with 3.3 million. Even Neighbours garnered 1.2 million streams. But these annual tallies, if averaged out per episode, don’t fully offset the decline in linear channel viewing.

All soaps have creative ebbs and flows — there was a point in the Noughties when EastEnders went so big on gangsters, I switched off forever. But their trajectory over the longer term is a proxy for what has happened to all of television. The glut of content brought into our lives by streaming services is only the latest iteration of the unrelenting fragmentation of the market, the extent of which was barely imaginable in the soaps’ heyday.

While perhaps no soap has ever matched the social impact of Coronation Street in the early 1960s, television soaps as a genre reached their high-water mark in the 1980s, when the BBC claimed a near-instant juggernaut with a newly launched EastEnders, while Neighbours — younger than EastEnders by just one month — went from schedule-filling Australian import to unignorable phenomenon, popstar factory and all-round provider of good vibes. Neighbours is not the first hit soap of the 1980s to be axed. Channel 4′s ever-so-slightly edgier Brookside, a centrepiece of the channel’s launch night in 1982, ended in 2003, its ratings having peaked in1995 with its headline-making body under the patio episode — a storyline that married soap melodrama to the hidden realities of domestic abuse.

Shorter-lived titles than Brookside proved that soap success requires a special and elusive alchemy, even when the timing seems right.

The BBC’s Eldorado became a byword for expensive flops in the 1990s and was feasted upon by the Dorries of the day despite not being quite as bad as everyone made out. In the 2010s, TV3′s Red Rock was a valiant effort that got off to a snappy creative start and made its way on to the BBC lunchtime slot once occupied by Neighbours. But it couldn’t sustain its audience, either in soapy half-hour chunks or its latter-day “dark” drama phase.

Broadcasters used to be able to rest easy on their thrones. With their kingdoms yet to splinter, they could powershare the early evening schedules, holding the court’s attention between them. Soaps were their crown jewels. But following any half-decent soap’s carousel of intricately connected characters requires commitment and loyalty — without it, the open-ended, see-sawing storylines make much less sense. In a crowded, peak-TV landscape, that commitment and loyalty is harder for soaps to win and harder for them to keep. Any accessible injection of entertainment or source of distraction acts as competition, placing them on the frontline of the industry’s shifting fortunes.

Unlike Neighbours, EastEnders is unlikely to sound its final “doof doofs” this year or next. Coronation Street and Emmerdale are faring relatively better for ITV. As a group, however, soaps have undeniably faded from the cultural conversation. Like the British monarchy after Queen Elizabeth dies, they will probably carry on in a faint reproduction of their more convincing eras, dying one by one until the only soap left standing, for a reason nobody can explain, is Hollyoaks.