Struggling Soaps Seek New Niche
Nets Work to Maintain Audiences, Ratings and Quality
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."