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Struggling Soaps Seek New Niche

May 30, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Soap operas may be borrowing from one of their favorite plot lines–patient is in a coma, on life support, hanging on by a thread–but they aren’t dead yet, and networks and studios are working to find ways to keep the genre viable.
Most recently, the cancellation of “Guiding Light” on CBS renewed fears that daytime TV dramas are fated to be written out of television’s scheduling script.
“I think daytime soap operas as we know them–the regular five-day-a-week, long-running serialized stories–are going to be a quaint vestige of yesteryear,” said television historian Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV Shows.” “I don’t think they have a future in that form.”
Even though daytime audiences have dwindled, advertisers still covet those highly engaged and loyal audiences that are still watching. The question is whether the genre can overcome the social changes that have led to soaps’ difficulties, particularly the migration of female audiences away from the TV during the day.
TelevisionWeek spoke to some of the experts in the field and zeroed in on the top ways networks and studios have been exploring to keep the genre alive, and what to look for before another long-standing title is cut.
1. Explore online video as a delivery method and marketing tool.
Taking a nod from prime-time content delivery online, ABC (“All My Children,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Live”), CBS (“The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Guiding Light,” “The Young and the Restless,”) and NBC (“Days of Our Lives”) all offer online access to their daytime staples, whether as clips or full episodes. Offering content online ensures that dedicated fans can stay up to date with the shows and remain loyal to the series, while the network and its site reap the benefits of those viewer numbers.
“It’s never been easier to watch a television show, with all the digital technology available,” noted Ed Martin, a TV critic for JackMyers.com and blogger for the Huffington Post who covers daytime dramas. “I’m not sure overall the situation is as dire as people thinks it is, it’s just that people are watching shows in crazy ways that aren’t being measured.”
Online access to content can also help increase title awareness through the viral explosion of a particular clip or storyline, such as the Luke and Noah storyline on “As the World Turns.” The fan channel LukeVanFan on YouTube, dedicated to providing updates on the gay characters’ love story, has drawn over 3 million channel views, with its most popular clip nearing 2 million viewers to date.
2. Increase audience reach through cable network distribution.
Disney-ABC Television Group’s SoapNet airs ABC’s “AMC,” “GH” and “OLTL” in addition to NBC’s “Days” and CBS’ “YATR” and some of the other networks’ daytime dramas throughout the day, including prime time. That allows access for viewers who aren’t watching during traditional daytime hours.
According to Brian Frons, Disney-ABC TV Group president of daytime, viewership on SoapNet accounts for about 25% of those titles’ total impressions.
Using cable as a means to maintain or possibly increase viewership, however, may not be the solution for those titles that are struggling more than others.
“I think that if you took a successful soap to the right [cable] network that had broad distribution, high CPMs and a high subscriber fee, it certainly could work,” said Mr. Frons. “I think if you have weak show, and it’s weak on broadcast, then it’ll be weak on cable.”
Mr. Frons said Disney-ABC has no plans to move any of its soap operas exclusively to cable.
3. Keep story quality as priority No. 1.
While exploring different delivery methods and production models is important, it is vital that the writing quality doesn’t decline, alienating viewers.
“It’s all about the writing,” said Jonathan Reiner, Emmy-winning writer for “Starting Over” and former editor at TV Guide Online and Soap Opera Weekly. “One of the reasons ‘Guiding Light’s’ revamp failed is because the writing was too weak to overcome the amateurish production values. It really is all about the writing–the characters, the emotions, the relationships and the payoffs.”
In the late 1970s, the advent of the Luke and Laura rape-turns-romance story line on ABC’s “General Hospital” changed the game for daytime soaps and the way the genre told its stories. The show became a phenomenon through its controversial storylines. Some 30 years later, however, audiences may view those as clichéd topics.
4. Find new ways to expand the creative talent pool.
Bringing new writing and creative talent to daytime dramas seems like a quick way to bring a fresh voice to any title, but it is very difficult due to the nature of these shows’ production models.
It’s difficult to find new talent that can begin contributing to stories if they don’t already know the extensive and intricate backgrounds of many of the characters. To begin anew and disregard the past would be insulting to viewers and potentially drive away more of them. The five-day-a-week episode model is also difficult, and it takes a certain kind of writer that can successfully work under those constraints.
5. Cut costs of production without sacrificing quality.
While it is important to retain characters on any series for the sake of story continuity, it becomes expensive for soaps to keep some of their long-time personalities on the show.
Some soaps, however, are finding themselves letting go of on-screen talent left and right for the sake of cutting costs, in addition to scaling back on location shoots and using fewer sets.
There will be a point of diminishing returns, however, when cuts can no longer be made without damaging a program’s quality.
“Guiding Light” changed its presentation model to a hand-held, grittier and more realistic feel–an experiment in budget reduction that failed–and “Light” paid for that choice with the ultimate cost.
6. Leave soap operas alone entirely.
As one industry insider noted, it may be that the only way to keep the genre alive is to leave all shows alone, especially when the reasons for all drops in viewers may be completely out of networks’ and producers’ control.
“For all the DVRs, and the taping, and the SoapNet–attempts to find ways to move them around–the problem is that women, the target audience, don’t have the time to devote to [soaps],” said Mr. Brooks. “When something is in decline, it might be unrealistic to say you can restore it to its previous glory, but you can delay its decline–you can stabilize it sometimes. The underlying social changes would be very difficult to reverse.”

54 Comments

  1. So many of us fans have been discussing the viability of online-based programming for ages. It’s totally doable, would be accessible and attractive to a wide demographic, and the fact is that internet-based, consumer-targeted advertising is the way to go, anyhow. I almost never get to watch my soaps first-run on television – it’s always dvr or, more often, on the net. Back in the day, these shows were for women who didn’t work outside of the house. Today, the sky’s the limit: career men and women (such as myself) can afford to indulge their soap addictions because the internet and dvr technology make it possible to watch whenever it’s convenient.
    I’d love to see GL pave the way in this area, and it would be fitting: the granddaddy of all tv soaps, whose roots are in radio, being the innovator by making the move to cyberspace. We know the audience is there – Big Purple Dreams, alone, has over 4,000 members…and that’s a tiny fraction of GL viewership.

  2. I don’t know if GL failed in its transition. It was a little rough, but they have perfected it. They have proven it can be done AND look great! I don’t want to watch the old skool soap anymore, not now that I’ve seen what GL is doing today. Its also a look that is drawing in new, not previously soap fan viewers.
    Online content is huge. I haven’t turned on my tv in over 3 months. I watch online. Problem is, this doesn’t bring in ratings or much ad revenue for the show. The audience is working during the day and no longer watching live. The transition to online is happening with viewers but the ad dollars are a little slow to catch up. I’d love to continue watching GL online and would even pay a small fee per month to do that. I hope proctor and gamble can be on the forefront here in creating a new business model to transition their soaps into the future.

  3. I think is has to do with time slots. The Young and the Restless are on at 11am here before any of the other soaps so there is nothing to run up against. GL is on at 2pm and so is GH. Puting GL on at night would help them out alot or on the Web. We don’t want the light to go out on GL, we are dedicated fans.

  4. I’ve never been one to tune into American soaps. As a Latina women I once in awhile will watch spanish novelas; but the writing quality of these novelas have gone down hill and the stories have become far fetched and unappealing to me.
    I recently came across Guiding Light because a friend suggested that i should watch the storyline between Olivia and Natalia better known as Otalia now. I won’t ever regret tuning in because i’ve come to love this soap and Otalia. The writers of the Otalia storyline are doing an undeniably flawless job and have got me glued to me seat week after week wanting more. It is so gratifying to finally see a lesbian storyline being handle with care, decency, and true dedication. I can finally relate to a story line on tv and it as changed my life.
    I hope and pray that Guiding Light will find a new home. GL can rest assure that i and thousands of other viewers will fellow it wherever it goes.

  5. Well, I for one will not watch daytime tv any longer if that happens…period! I’m already sick at the fact that CBS has pushed Guiding Light to the curb. I don’t get into reality shows nor game shows, nor definatly talk shows. Guiding Light has been a part of Tv history for many generations. My grandmothers used to listen to GL on the radio and my parents talked about it. It was a big deal. If the rating system worked as it should, GL would be in 1st place! People from all over the world don’t count to them, which S**ks. Gl has the best actors/actress’ hands down. I so hope that Gl gets picked up by a network that realizes all this and continues to keep the Light shinning! Otalia all the way!!!
    Crystal Chappell is a Goddess
    Nuf said,
    24

  6. I am one of those many fans that still believes that Guiding Light can and will be saved. And if an online option is the way for that to happen then I’m all for it. I watch most of my shows online anyway. Since I live in Sweden and don’t actually get to watch Guiding Light on television I also think that there must be a way to make these shows available to a worldwide audience online and that way make more money out of them.
    On another note I have to say that I don’t think that Guiding Light has failed with the transition to the new production model. Since I’m a new viewer of the show, like so many others I was drawn in by the Otalia storyline, I never really knew the old production model. But while I had no problem getting used to the one that is being used now, I have to say that when I watch old episodes to catch up on backstory the old production model doesn’t do it for me at all. Sets that are supposed to look like you’re outside but really don’t just annoy the hell out of me. Whereas in the new episodes there are some gorgeous shots that have actually been filmed outside, Natalia’s love confession during the snow storm being one of them.

  7. I agree that GL new production model was a bit hard in the beginning but I’ve grown to love it. I have hard time watching other soaps, they seem flat to me now and not as well written either. GL really should be able to find a new home on Cable or online. I will follow it anywhere it goes and so will alot of other fans. We need to save the Light!!!

  8. I would have to respectfully disagree that Guiding Light’s new production model and writing is ineffective. When the new production model was introduced, everyone needed time to adjust…cast and crew alike. It was an extremely steep learning curve for them, but I believe that they have come through that period bigger and stronger now. As for the writing…over the last 12 months it has continued to improve, and I am constantly amazed at the writing talents of Co-headwriter Jill Lorie Hurst, especially on the Otalia storyline.
    Guiding Light may not have the flashiest of sets but it will be the extraordinary writing and acting that I will remember in 20 years time and not the sets. Guiding Light is doing everything right now, and they still have a lot more to offer the viewing public. As one of the many international viewers (Ireland), I view the show online from various channels, and I definitely think with people’s change in the way the view programmes, that the internet should be considered a possibility for the future of soaps. I personally watch very little on tv, and I watch a lot more on the web. As for the production model Guiding Light uses, I think that the rest of the soaps will need to adopt it in order to survive. On this side of the pond, we are used to this production model for our soaps. Apart from soaps changing the production model, they may need to also consider shortening each episode from an hour down to a half hour. All of our soaps are on for half an hour, apart from when they air special episodes of one hour. At the end of the day, we watch a show for entertainment value, regardless of what medium we view it through.

  9. The Guiding Light has returned to the quality of story telling and character building that they had when I used to watch. It’s great to see a show that has several great stories at one time. No fillers. The OTALIA story is one of the most incredible stories that I have a the pleasure of watching. It’s a story that transcends all except Love. Great Soap.

  10. TV viewing in general has changed, most of the shows I watch are after the fact..my dvr is close to full as we speak…and I watch just as much ‘TV’ online as from my DVR advertisers/TPTB take note.
    Soaps moving to online/cable would work for me… and Guiding light goes from radio to TV to NET just seems fitting now doesn’t it.

  11. I’ve watched GL for many years and I love it more now than in the past because of the Otalia storyline being made in to a beautiful love story! Ellen & JL are doing an awesome job with the writing! I hope GL finds a new home because there are lots of viewers that are going to follow it no matter where it goes!! It is worth saving…GL, Otalia, Josh, Reva, etc.!
    Don’t replace GL with another game show that people aren’t going to want to watch anyway…we’ve got too many game shows and talk shows now!!
    Always will be an Otalia4Ever fan,
    Cheri

  12. The soap world is changing and does need to look at alternative ways of delivering their product. But I disagree with most of the comments about Guiding Light. I feel as if Guiding Light was cancelled prematurely by CBS. Yes, the new prduction model was rough at first. but if you watch now and compare their outdoor scenes to any of the other soaps, everyone else looks fake and ridiculous.
    Jill Lorie Hurst is writing a magnificent show now and we all know it takes time for a new head writer to get things going in the right direction. Ellen Wheeler and the actors of GL should be applauded for delivering an amazing show. And as for the actors, Crystal Chappel is delivering an acting showcase – no one is better.
    I think GL will be picked up somewhere and that lucky outlet will be gaining a huge group of passionate and loyal viewers.

  13. I have watched daytime drama for over 40 years, and they are as much a part of American television history as “The Tonight Show” or “60 Minutes.” It is sad that numbers only seem to drive their demise. In the case of “Guiding Light,” has anyone considered the number of people, like me, who work and record the show for later viewing? We are the people who buy the products advertised, and there are many of us in this silent majority. “Guiding Light” is the only soap that draws my interest now, and it’s because of the fabulous writing, the now-perfected production model (everything else pales in comparison), and the incomparable acting (Have you watched Crystal Chappell?). GL went from radio to television; please…let’s find it a home in on cable or the internet. I, and millions like me, will follow it anywhere.

  14. As a fan of GL & OTALIA I know I’d follow them anywhere they went.

  15. As a soap ‘lifer’, I’ve managed to witness all the changes in GL. Some good, some not so good, but it was a learning experience and needed patience amongst the viewing audience. That didn’t happen right away, but with some great story as of late, and using the new production model to its full potential, we have seen many returning to the soap, and even more new viewers watching, from ALL OVER THE WORLD, mind you. The internet has brought us together in a way I never would’ve dreamed of 20,30 years ago. Well, the net could be the future of soap, it would work, the fans would watch. Ratings can’t tell you this, but they are there already, watching with all their hope that the Light can be saved. We have Otlaia(the perfect love-story), Bizzie, the return of Phillip, and even Alan’s ever present meddling…and we love it. There’s a lot thats been built into GL, and its too hard to think that we could lose it. If the nnewspapers can transition to internet, why can’t soap? GL is obviously all about big changes, if any one show could pull it off, its Guiding Light…for the win.

  16. I love Gl and I think the writing has gotten great over the last three seasons. I also like the camera work. Do otalia! What a refreshing story! Also, i think the internet would be a great home for GL. The ratings systems suck! Lots of ppl from all over the world watch tvand all its shows online now. I would follow Gl anywhere

  17. In my opinion, I believe that Guiding Light is a exceptional source of entertainment. I have tremendous hope that it will find a new home. I would be happy to watch it on a cable channel, web TV, or PPV. I am invested in the storylines and I would follow regardless of the destination. I prefer to focus on the positive opposed to deliberating on the reasons why CBS cancelled the show. I have a great appreciation for the wonderful changes and adjustments that GL has made to make the show what it is today!

  18. I think American soaps should explore the Mexican model of soaps. Mexico is the most successful importer of soaps in the world. They are fully contained with a beginning, middle and end. I wouldn’t mind seeing a great soap that lasted a year. It is hard for the writers and producers to maintain quality over time.

  19. Essencialy american soap opera´s and mexican ´novelas´ are two different species. However, GL as already begin the transition to the future of soaps and do what the ´novelas´did on their time : a more organic,realistic,down to earth storylines. There´s nothing wrong with that,and because is new, somemistakes are a mather of logic. Nothing more. Either way, the acting is always more important along with the script, so why jugde the entire show because a part of the whole?
    What is true is that the system to meassure the rating´s sucks. Im from Mexico,Im an international viewer. I care. I care enough to be patient and wait till I can see the show online because there´s no other way. I don´t even watch mexican novels. If there´s gonna be a middle point between a classical soap and a mexican novel, GL is the answer. Excellent script, actor´s, use of the set´s and outside takes, good angst yet leveling, soap for the sake of a soap without being soap trash, unrealistic, with dumb plots to justify spent millions of dolar´s in expensive travels for the character´s. Those who find entertaining watch a group of people in fancy clothes, in eternal parties, eating caviar, living in mansion´s without breake a sweat, seriously need a reality check because really,with a poor storyline like that i would feel better if they spent the money to feed the homeless. That´s why i love GL. They do so much with less and yet their storyline get´s better everyday,their actor´s are awesome, their scenarios are breathtaking, that I can wait to see how more good can get when they find a new home.

  20. Right now Guiding Light and Procter & Gamble/TeleNext are on the forefront of soap innovation. With the kinks of the production model now worked out, with the great writing, and the superb performances, Guiding Light is now putting on a production that is beyond the bounds of typical daytime drama.
    Now Procter & Gamble/TeleNext are working to get Guiding Light onto a cable network or the internet. For me, the most appealing is the internet. Procter & Gamble is a corporate powerhouse who is innovative enough to support a transition to the internet.

  21. I stopped watching soaps after GH-Luke & Laura as a kid—until GL and Otalia sucked me right back in with superior writing and amazing, nuanced acting. It is inconceivable to me that CBS would cancel this show just as it made a successful transition and transformation. It needs a new home-and I would follow it anywhere. Thank you Jill Hurst for your writing and most of all, Ms, Leccia and Ms. Chappell.

  22. Great writing and acting and telling superb stories will never go out of style, and that is what Ellen Wheeler, Jill Lorie Hurst, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia have accomplished with the Olivia Natalia story line on Guiding Light! Stories and shows like this simply need an outlet that appreciates the job they do and what joy they provide to the viewing audience!

  23. I can’t really comment on GL’s change in format, since I started watching the show a few months ago for the Otalia s/l. I would say that the writing is certainly superior to AMC, and for the most part it seems to remember that characters drive stories, not bizarre plot twists that are patently obvious ploys. The cast is stellar; Crystal Chappell, in particular, simply rocks my world. I’ll follow this show anywhere, in any format. Give us credit for some intelligence, as GL has done, and we’re still out here!

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