TV soaps are facing a dramatic cliffhanger crisis of their own

UK soaps are facing an uncertain future as Doctors and Hollyoaks both feel the pinch. (Lime Pictures/BBC)
UK soaps are facing an uncertain future as Doctors and Hollyoaks both feel the pinch. (Lime Pictures/BBC)

Usually the drama happens within a soap, but the last two weeks have proven anything but.

Firstly, Doctors. The final episode of the BBC's laidback daytime soap, set at an NHS surgery, was filmed last week. A firm favourite to watch whenever we’re ill in front of the sofa, Doctor’s cancellation (due to the rising cost of drama) has sent alarm bells through the TV industry.

For you see Doctors played an important role – the series has been a training ground for many of our best actors: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sheridan Smith and Nicholas Hoult (to name but a few) all appeared in storylines long before they went onto primetime. Then there’s the people you don’t see: the camera operators, producers, editors, production crew and writers who used their time on the show to hone in their skills or get some experience.

These shows might be easier to cut than the ones in primetime, but they get hurt in the long run if the talent doesn’t get through.

Bharti Patel, LaToya Harding, and Ben Castle-Gibb in Doctors. (BBC)
Bharti Patel, LaToya Harding, and Ben Castle-Gibb in Doctors. (BBC) (BBC Studios)

Screenwriter Philip Ralph wrote a (now viral) Twitter/X thread reflecting on its cancellation. “There is no other show in the UK industry that offers such a variety of storytelling,” he wrote. “Everything from high drama and tragedy, to farce, dream sequences, stand-alone single plays, themed weeks on important subjects, you name it, we wrote it.”

And he’s right. Doctors tackled everything from homelessness and drug abuse, to an episode where a patient can only see comedian Joe Pasquale (so they got Joe Pasquale to play all of the characters.)

Another shock to the system this week has been Hollyoaks. Not long after the soap disappeared from the Channel 4 schedules, with new episodes now airing on YouTube and the Channel 4 website before airing on E4, the broadcaster announced that from September episodes are to be cut back from five episodes a week to three. The reason? A continuation of its ‘streaming first’ model, Channel 4 says, with its own research suggesting that three episodes reflects the number of episodes viewers typically watch. This change will also inevitably lead to job losses, reportedly more than 130.

Soaps have been in a challenging situation for a while now because of the changing way we watch television. They used to be at the heart of evening routines because of their position in the schedules, but thanks to the rise of streaming, that time is more competitive than ever. Soaps are now competing not only against the likes of Netflix and Amazon's Prime Video, but also all of the shows on iPlayer and ITVX that you haven’t got round to watching yet.

EastEnders continues to deliver high drama for the BBC. (BBC)
EastEnders continues to deliver high drama for the BBC. (BBC) (BBC/Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron)

Time for viewers is sacred, so soaps need to be nimble and reflect these changing viewing habits, and fast. EastEnders has come back fighting with strong writing, moments that go viral on the internet, the return of notable characters and the conclusion of a near year long whodunnit airing on Christmas Day. For Hollyoaks, Channel 4’s research may suggest that yes, three episodes might be right for Hollyoaks viewers.

The channel has also said that the soap remains at its heart of the whole channel’s strategy towards streaming, but a concern is that if you lean into digital too heavily, and swerve a primetime airing, it risks the next generation of viewers not stumbling into it and getting sucked into episodes in the same way we did when we were younger.

Soaps are fantastic at being at the heart of our national culture, reflecting important issues and introducing us to the next generation of acting talent, but digital can risk it just getting lost.

For instance, will the younger generation of viewers get into Neighbours when you literally have to go out of your way to watch them each day on Amazon Freevee? Probably not. And that is what is so concerning.

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This article originally appeared on Yahoo TV UK at