Daytime TV's New Entries Push Soaps Toward Drain

Why the Once-loved Genre Is Losing Viewers, Marketing Dollars, and What's Replacing It

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Heartbreak? Betrayal? A long-lost friend once thought dead now found among the living? Sorry, the latest daytime-TV drama is all about who's got the best mother.

Soap opera timeline
Enlarge

Soap opera timeline

Starting Monday, ABC will revive a promotional campaign in which the various hosts of its popular daytime series "The View" emphasize their experience as moms. This maneuver comes after CBS said it would launch a daytime talk show this fall featuring such hosts as Sara Gilbert, Julie Chen and Sharon Osbourne chatting over contemporary issues through the eyes of mothers. The daytime duel has all the drama and sniping that marks a good soap opera. "It certainly feels lovely to be emulated," said Brian Frons, president-daytime, for Disney-ABC Television Group. But it also points up the fact that a host of programming options introduced over the past few years -- talk shows, a CBS revival of "Let's Make A Deal," the introduction of more hours of "Today" on NBC -- are washing away the soap, that once-dominant genre of boob-tube programming. "Our take on it is there is room for soaps, but we feel our strength will lie in having a diverse slate," said Barbara Bloom, CBS Entertainment's senior VP-daytime.

CBS's new chat show, "The Talk," will take the place of the venerable "As the World Turns," a Procter & Gamble production that has been on the air for 54 years and more than 13,000 episodes. CBS canceled "Guiding Light," which started on radio in 1937, last fall. And Walt Disney recently announced it would transform its SoapNet cable channel, which has aired daily reruns of the most-watched soaps for people who can't watch during the day, into an outlet for preschoolers and their parents in 2012.

"We are seeing the end of a genre, I think," said Tim Brooks, a former NBC, USA and Lifetime research executive who is also co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows." Where the soap opera was once a sturdy building block in any TV-network schedule, he added, "the daytime serialized drama is an artifact of the past."

For decades, the exact opposite was the case. Secure in their ability to reach the majority of American consumers -- particularly women -- three broadcast networks transmitted everything from "The Doctors" to "Young Dr. Malone," from "Search for Tomorrow" to "The Edge of Night" and made tons of money at it. Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and many other consumer-products titans advertised on the shows -- and, in the very early days of radio and TV, often produced them as a vehicle for selling soap and other household necessities to the stay-at-home female member of the family. In the 1970-1971 TV season, the big three broadcast networks aired a whopping 18 soap operas.

These days, they're down to six -- with just one, "Days of Our Lives," on NBC. Advertising, once so plentiful for the format, has accordingly winnowed down over many years. Measured spending on network TV for soap operas totaled $764 million in 2009, according to Kantar Media, down 27.3% from $1.05 billion in 2005. Advertiser spending on the genre continues to wane: Measured spending on network soaps tumbled 19.4% in the first five months of 2010, compared with the same period a year earlier.

Viewership has swooned -- and not because of the cute doctors and romantic scenes that are so much a part of the various programs. An average of 6.5 million people tuned in to watch daytime dramas during the 1991-1992 TV season, according to Nielsen. By the 2009-2010 season, that average dropped to 1.3 million.

Why is the genre, once such a reliable and important way for marketers to reach the masses, fading? Theories abound:

The shows are hitting much less of their target : In June 1952, as "Guiding Light" debuted on network TV, women represented 31% of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure stood at about 46.7% as of June 2010. Not only are more women working; more of them are the breadwinners of the household and may not have the time required to watch a five-day-a-week TV program. In 1987, 24% of women earned more than their husbands. In 2006, that figure rose to 33%, according to BLS. As a result, fewer women are watching soaps as they air -- and, in a break with activity seen in previous generations -- fewer are passing the habit down to daughters and other young women.

The gratification of watching soaps has gradually been replaced by attachment to other media properties. Soap operas taught viewers about everything from crisis management to gender roles, and also created a community of fans through which avid watchers could express their reaction to the storylines, said Susan Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor of media and culture at Villanova University. Thanks to the rise of reality shows, Facebook and the web, she said, TV viewers can get the "fix" they once got from watching "Passions" or the like from somewhere else.

Daytime TV is no longer monolithic. Viewers of prime-time TV know they can find a good drama on AMC or TNT just as easily as they can Fox or CBS. The same is true of daytime TV, which is filled with newsbreaks on Fox News Channel and CNN; reruns of dramas with soap-opera elements to them; and tons of programming aimed at smaller niches of audience (TLC, Food Network, etc.) "The competition includes medical shows, cooking shows, fitness shows, judge shows and everything else, both on traditional television and cable," said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Soap-opera viewing hasn't been the same, in the estimation of Shari Cohen, executive director-investment at WPP's MindShare, since coverage the ballyhooed O.J. Simpson trial blanketed the airwaves in the mid-1990s. That event "disrupted what was a very habitual kind of thing," she said. "When people realized they can do without, they find other things in their lives to consume the time."

Not everyone hears a death knell for the genre -- just a call for fiscal prudence in managing survivors. Unlike CBS and NBC, ABC owns its soaps -- "General Hospital," "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" -- and Mr. Frons believes they have a future on the network. "Like all TV, the strong survive and the weak are replaced," he said. Although viewership patterns have changed, soaps remain "very strong performers," he said, capturing a large and passionate audience. CBS also sees a place for the programs, but also realizes that daytime TV "is in a challenging time of transition," said Ms. Bloom, "and we need to have the strongest players doing that battle."

ABC has tested a raft of ideas to keep viewers interested while keeping costs low. The network moved shooting for "All My Children" from New York to California, taking "about 20%" off production costs by allowing for easier storage and transport of sets. The network is bringing back fan-favorite characters, including Alicia Minshew as Kendall Hart Slater on "All My Children" and Vanessa Marcil Giovinazzo as Brenda Barrett on "General Hospital." ABC has also generated some buzz by enlisting actor James Franco to take part in the medical soap.

Others have experimented, too. The producers of "Guiding Light" in 2008 replaced massive "pedestal" cameras for hand-held devices that gave the serial the look of a reality show -- and saved money, to boot. But those efforts didn't keep CBS from overlooking "Light's" ratings issues and scrapping it last year.

In the future, TV networks and stations are likely to fill more of their airwaves with programs that get people talking but don't require them to watch an hour-long show five days a week. Viewers these days want to dip in and out of shows, media analysts suggest, so talk shows, quiz shows, health-and-wellness programs and even infomericals might better fill the bill.

"Just as soaps celebrated a fantastical, fantasy world of relationships run amok two generations ago, self-help, reality and advice shows will fill the void in the future," said Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University.

So what will ultimately happen to the soap? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

In this article:
Most Popular