Hello Again at Seventy; Goodbye at Five

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This past January, the daytime soap opera community marked two major milestones. Guiding Light celebrated its 70th anniversary on CBS, making it far and away the longest-running dramatic broadcast in U.S. history. Meanwhile, over at NBC, Passions, the most recent major network entry in the daytime soap sweepstakes, was canceled to make way for a fourth hour of the lucrative Today show. Passions’ five-year run will end this September. This juxtaposition of success and failure speaks to the ongoing “problem” of the ever-shrinking soap audience—a problem that has existed for more than fifteen years and extends beyond daytime programming. The major networks are not quite ready to give up on the genre, but are still struggling with what needs to be done. 


The lament is a familiar one. With the rise of cable and the vast expansion of viewing options, the major networks have lost their monopoly on the eyes and ears of America’s viewing public. I am not convinced this is a tragedy—I am not prone to believe that any monopoly is generally a positive creative or business force. (Indeed, we are in the midst of a “golden” age in U.S. television, driven in large part by a truly competitive programming marketplace.) But the increasingly crowded dial also means lower individual ad revenues and Nielsen numbers. Soaps were once a network cash cow; this is no longer the case. And their numbers will never again approach the magnitude of the 1970s and 1980s. Network executives must accept this new reality and adjust accordingly. The best solution with regard to the daytime soap opera is not cancellation. I happen to have some suggestions for the Powers That Be.


So. Accept the new bottom line. Adjust costs and anticipated profit margins accordingly. Be creative. And continue to innovate even if the innovation does not always work. Soaps are now niche programming. Maybe it’s time to shrink back from the sixty-minute format to a thirty-minute format. Learn from past mistakes: fans want multigenerational casts and storylines, yet adore their veteran cast members. More experienced, talented, and award-winning actors are more expensive, so some of them may have to go, but tread carefully; soap fans have long memories. And most importantly, identify, understand, and respect your devoted and often long-suffering audiences.


And the last shall be first: why squander an historic, durable, unique, and valuable broadcast genre with a uniquely devoted—if also exacting and voluble—fan base? What self-respecting television executive does not eagerly embrace and celebrate slavishly devoted audiences? (Consider Star Trek in its many incarnations, which in this viewer’s opinion is soap opera as science fiction. Also Arrested Development, The X-Files, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls…the list is endless.) But most executives have not figured out what to do with the people they consider the “average” soap fans. Indeed, the networks seem embarrassed about this fan base. (Accordingly, this fan base is often sheepish about their own viewing habits.) It is, I think, the perceived profile of this fan base that has created considerable bias against it: older, female, relatively uneducated, not upwardly mobile, middle American. (In other words, not young and male or cool or hip.) While this is, no doubt, one component of the audience base, it is in no way its sum total. (And so what if it was? Who do you think watches Live with Regis and Kelly (as in Ripa, formerly of All My Children) and many, many other shows? But the viewer profile is also much broader.) Boys and men and girls and women of all ages and from every socio-economic segment of the population watch soaps or have watched them at some juncture or junctures in their lives. Even celebrities do it, though only the women seem willing to cop to the habit—Oprah, Julia Roberts, Rosie O’Donnell, to name a few. In the non-celebrity universe, many people, of all shapes and sizes, have confessed this to me. After all, if you cannot confess your soap viewing to a soap devotee with a PhD who studies popular culture, than to whom can you confess it? 


For many viewers, the “habit” began with a mother or a father or a grandmother who watched; and they watched right alongside them. Certainly that is how my lifelong habit began: tuning in with my mother—a habit and a kind of community we shared even as the miles stretched between us. Indeed, as she waged her battle with cancer, the soap “world” provided comfort, conversation, shelter, and continuity in the face of death. Others picked it up in college or somewhere else along the way. For some, soap viewing is sporadic; that is perhaps the greatest strength and weakness of the genre—it is quite easy to reacquire the habit given a brief rundown of intervening developments, since many of the same faces (or at least names, in the case of multiple recasts, as very few actors are indispensable and irreplaceable given the longevity of the genre) and new faces somehow connected to old faces and stories continue to be told. While this can lead to boredom and frustration on the part of daily viewers (and routine mocking from everyone else), it can also provide continuity and comfort in a mobile and ever-changing society. For the most skilled actors, soap work offers the challenge of keeping things fresh; but also the opportunity to create a character of depth, shading, and nuance not possible in any other performance venue. Soaps can and do knit viewers together across time and space in a most unique way that is largely derided and seldom fully appreciated for all it can offer. 


Indeed, the generational viewing patterns of the soap audience is continually underestimated and/or misunderstood, even within the industry. This was perhaps a fatal weakness of Passions, which came out of the gate with an interesting (if not wholly original) gimmick—the supernatural—and with a relentless focus on that Holy Grail—the “youth” demographic—via an almost exclusive storyline focus on a tween-to-twenty-something cast. This soap became much more intergenerational and less supernatural (and much improved) in its ultimately losing battle out of the ratings cellar. Yet even this failed show had a vocal and strong fan base and an estimated 2.3 million average daily viewers. Indeed the Passions story may not yet be finished, as another platform or network for the show is being sought. How many young viewers must write in to soap blogs, boards, and publications that they enjoy watching a multigenerational cast with multigenerational storylines before this lesson sinks in? 


ABC has been most successful—if not entirely consistent or consistently successful across its three shows—in identifying, embracing, and not condescending to its soap audience. ABC has figured out how to brand and merchandize daytime dramas and produce major fan events that demonstrate the lasting power and appeal of these broadcasts. ABC has done a decent job in retaining talented veterans who anchor the shows—with the notable exception of the recent loss of Julia Barr, a nearly thirty-year star of All My Children, whose character’s exit was only fleetingly addressed onscreen, to the continued outrage of fans. ABC’s General Hospital has successfully brought back fan favorites from Luke and Laura’s 1980s heyday, including Laura (played by actress Genie Francis) herself. These short-term stints please fans while maintaining the bottom line, as beloved veterans come with much higher price tags. 


Finally, I implore CBS and Proctor & Gamble to keep the ratings-challenged Guiding Light on the air. As the only daytime soap to weather the transition from radio to television and remain continuously on the air since the presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this show—while it has weathered rough patches—remains creatively vital and boasts one of the most talented casts in daytime. It is a living artifact of a bygone era that is also available as a Pod cast and has launched a major online initiative to celebrate its 70th anniversary year. Surely this valuable and vital broadcast should outlast the courtroom morality plays and chat/fight fests that have imperiled its existence and that of its fellow soaps.

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