The soaps are on the ropes as networks axe venerable daytime dramas

With the axe falling on venerable daytime dramas, an American television institution is becoming an endangered species.

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As the name suggests, The Daytime Emmy Awards celebrate excellence in American daytime television. With a category for outstanding game show, regularly won by a quiz hosted by the same man for more than 25 years, they're also an unlikely barometer of taste. But this year's event - perhaps unwittingly - confirmed that American daytime viewing habits have changed for good. Despite The Bold and the Beautiful winning best drama series for the third year running, falling ratings and cancelled shows were the story of this year's awards.

So much so that the recognition on Sunday of two of the longest-running soaps in television history was just a little bittersweet. Michael Park won Lead Actor in a Drama Series for As The World Turns, and Brittany Allen took home a gong for her work in All My Children, but it would be their last hurrah. Both series have been axed.

In the case of As the World Turns, the decision to call time on a soap that was first broadcast in 1956 was seismic stuff - if, in the end, not exactly surprising. The show, which chronicled generations of doctors and lawyers in the fictitious Oakdale, Illinois, was haemorrhaging viewers - but more grievously, losing its gloss for advertisers greedy for the precious dollars of young American women. Unfortunately, those same American women were now at work during the day rather than eagerly tuning in to the latest instalment in the lives of the adulterous Janet Donovan or the enduring matriarch Kim Hughes.

The end of As the World Turns last September was notable for another reason. The term soap opera is derived from the original drama serials on early 20th-century American radio, sponsored by major soap manufacturers. As the World Turns was the last soap opera still owned by Procter & Gamble - even, surprising as it may sound, in 2010.

As for All My Children, it began "only" in 1970. During its 40 years, the series, set in Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, has been labelled the "thinking man's soap", an accolade handed out by Time magazine in the mid 1970s thanks to some judicious Vietnam storylines and an impressive commitment to social issues. It was estimated that 30 per cent of its audience were male - unthinkable for a soap at any point before or, indeed, since. It helped, too, that it was funny - particularly when the villainous Erica Cane, played by the doyenne of American soaps Susan Lucci, was up to her scheming tricks. Well, it was until storylines became more and more ridiculous, and viewers drifted away.

They didn't really come back, and on something of a Black Thursday for US soap fans last April, the television network ABC not only announced that All My Children was to end in September, but that One Life to Live was also for the chop. The latter is actually older than its stablemate, and had been regularly pulling in viewers, intrigued by the life of Viki Lord, since 1968. And who wouldn't be; this enduring character has been widowed three times, seen her children abducted and suffered a stroke, breast cancer, heart disease and a brain aneurysm. Oh, and she was shot.

Bizarrely, the domestic appliance manufacturer Hoover was so incensed at ABC's actions that it pulled all its advertising from the network. But it was to no avail. The show will go the way of the oldest soap opera of them all, Guiding Light, which CBS mercilessly axed after 72 years in 2009.

Interestingly, both All My Children and One Life to Live were created by Agnes Dixon, who was also a head writer on Guiding Light. She's now 83, and it's tempting to conclude that both viewers and networks have grown tired of her vision. It was noticeable that on the day CBS announced its soap opera cull, it also revealed its replacements - a cookery show and a weight loss programme. Neither will be burdening the networks with expensive stuff such as script-writing, costume or set design, or big contracts for the stars.

So what's left? ABC has General Hospital, which has taken over the mantle of longest-running US daytime drama and, as the title suggests, tracks the lives of the doctors, patients and nurses of Port Charles. But, perhaps worryingly for its fans, the days when General Hospital was popular and interesting have probably passed. A staggering 30 million people watched the wedding of the soap's "super couple" Luke and Laura in 1981; these days, General Hospital is lucky to get two million viewers. A few Daytime Emmy wins last week won't stop what many consider to be inevitable - the cancellation of the show within the year.

All of which leaves the family drama The Young and the Restless (38 years old) and its sister soap set in a fashion house The Bold and The Beautiful (24 years old) flying the flag for daytime drama in America. In between them is Days of Our Lives, which has been telling the stories of the Horton and the Brady families (yet more doctors) since 1965. Although not in a traditional way - to combat falling interest in the 1990s the producers tried some supernatural and science fiction storylines, and, astonishingly, found that people liked them. Oddly, it's actually bucked the trend for falling viewing figures and has been renewed up to 2013.

Does the success of Days of Our Lives give daytime soap hope? Sadly, all the evidence says no. The wide availability of digital recorders means the likes of Grey's Anatomy (essentially General Hospital with more edgy themes) can now be easily recorded and watched during the daytime. Reality television has also given us real-life soap opera (and is, happily for the television networks, much easier and cheaper to produce). More and more, we're moving towards season-based storytelling which can be packaged up in box-sets and has a focus and conclusion: Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, even The Sopranos, are all soaps, really. It's just that their more compact storylines make them more satisfying.

But perhaps the biggest factor is the internet. Where, in times past, those stuck at home may have switched on to a soap, now they are reeled in by all manner of online distractions and social media. So pity the poor Daytime Emmys. At this rate, they won't have any awards to bestow.