Soap opera ratings have declined steadily for years as once-enamored viewers drift away, and there is concern among media buyers about the health of the genre.
Ad dollars have leaked away as well. Ad spending on the eight network soap operas fell to about $1.04 billion in 2006 from about $1.15 billion in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence, at the same time TV prices and spending have seen double-digit increases.
But despite declining ratings, soap operas still reach a concentrated base of female viewers -- an important audience for makers of consumer package goods, the same marketers for whom soap operas were named in the first place. Top sponsors of the big network soaps in 2006 included Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, S.C. Johnson & Son, Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser, Sears Holdings Corp., Nestlé and Novartis, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
"There are still reasons to invest in the daypart," said Shari Cohen, co-executive director of national broadcasting at WPP Group's MindShare. Even so, soaps are "struggling for ways to keep themselves relevant."
Reinvention is just what is going on at "Guiding Light," a CBS soap filled with enough potboiler story lines to give prime-time twisters such as "Desperate Housewives" a run for their money. During one recent taping session, characters feared someone would sneak into a hotel and steal their baby -- but that hasn't helped keep audiences glued to the tube. Nearly 4.8 million people watched "Guiding Light" from Sept. 22, 1997, to Sept 20, 1998, according to Nielsen Media Research. About 2.6 million have watched it live or on the same day between Sept. 24, 2007, and Jan. 13, 2008. The show continues to produce original episodes despite the writers strike.
"The reality is that daytime shows are still a vitally important part of the network, but you have to look at the issue of audience erosion and take it seriously," said Barbara Bloom, CBS's senior VP-daytime programs. "The way daytime looked was becoming a barrier in terms of bringing in new audiences."
To tape an episode of their venerable soap opera, the cast and crew of "Guiding Light" did it the old-fashioned way: with bulky 300-pound cameras that shoot the action from a distance. Most soap operas are produced in similar fashion.
On Feb. 29, however, "Guiding Light" will have new flicker. The crew is dumping the $1 million pedestal cameras and outfitting itself with 8-pound digital minicams that cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 each. That will enable Ellen Wheeler, the show's executive producer, to shoot over characters' shoulders or across a table and follow people as they descend stairways or walk around town.
Research showed that audiences were turned off by the old production methods, said Brian T. Cahill, senior VP-managing director of Televest Daytime Programs, which manages "Guiding Light" for Procter & Gamble's P&G Productions. "Some of these soap-opera production conventions were distracting for people, and it's because we live in an age where prime-time programming is very authentic." Years ago, soaps had little daytime competition. Now cable networks run repeats of popular prime-time dramas that are filmed with high-quality special effects in realistic settings.
"Guiding Light," which made the leap from radio to TV in 1952, will have a considerably different milieu when episodes featuring the new production techniques begin to air. Filming a car pulling up often would involve moving a camera toward the vehicle, said Ms. Wheeler, a soap veteran who has also been an actress and director. Now the show has struck an agreement with the town of Peapack, N.J., that allows the crew to shoot autos more naturally; shooting outdoors has long been a rarity for soap-opera productions.
Keeping those story lines aliveThanks to the continuing writers strike, original episodes of prime-time comedies and dramas have become rare beasts. Fresh episodes of soap operas, however, continue to run wild.
From "Days of Our Lives" to "General Hospital," the broadcast networks' soap operas continue to run with new episodes every day. Insiders attribute the feat to select writers declaring "financial-core" status, which allows members of the Writers Guild of America to return to work without necessarily being punished, and to certain producers taking on more of the work themselves.
Soap operas have seen their audiences erode over the years, which is cause for concern among the people who keep the programs going day in and day out. "Whoever is involved in these shows realizes that, from a creative standpoint, they have to put original product out there, because they are concerned about the longevity of the daypart," said Shari Cohen, co-executive director of national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "They are concerned about their survival."