Soap Operas Battle the Suds

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Get out your hankies. American daytime soap operas have been suffering a decades-long decline — with sagging ratings, aging viewers and multiple cancellations. When Another World, one of NBC's heritage soap operas, got the ax in 1999 after 35 years on-air, it was replaced by the younger, sexier, campier Passions, which features stories about talking dolls, poisoned brides, and a witch that transmogrifies into a dog and a mouse.

Passions capitalizes on a formula popularized by Spanish-language soap operas, or tele-novelas, which have proved widely successful not only in Latin America where they're produced, but in living rooms across the United States. These novelas air during prime time, much like a miniseries, and typically run about six months. The tenor is different from American soaps, with plots that are — if possible — even more melodramatic. Stories recount tales of good versus evil, justice and retribution, while ghosts and angels add an otherworldly dimension.

Network executives in the U.S. have started to pay attention to tele-novelas because they capture the viewer demographics American advertisers want: young — their median age is 26, compared with 35 for the total population, according to Census 2000 — multicultural and with money to spend. Tele-novelas also appeal to Americans' lifestyles: Many viewers don't want to invest years tracking the slow-moving plots of the typical American soap. At the same time, with the younger Hispanic population rapidly growing in numbers (about 35 percent of Hispanics are 18 or younger, compared with 26 percent of the total population, according to Census 2000) with rising incomes (the median household income for Hispanics has risen from $29,000 in 1990 to $33,000 in 2000, adjusted for inflation, according to the 2000 Current Population Survey), CBS, ABC and NBC are eager to sway these viewers to their networks and get them hooked on the all-American soap.

In varying degrees, the networks are increasingly featuring Hispanics and blacks as regular cast members, as well as prominent Latino stars in guest roles; offering Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) technology, a Hispanic simulcast service begun in the U.S. in 1980; mimicking tele-novela formats, plot lines and themes and presenting Spanish-language content on their Web sites.

To further capitalize on this surging Hispanic population, last October NBC purchased Telemundo Communications Inc., the Miami-based, Spanish-language television network that reaches approximately 20 percent of the 10.2 million Hispanic TV-owning households in the U.S. (as measured by Nielsen). And NBC announced plans last November to add English-language tele-novelas to its lineup, most notably a version of Telemundo's hit Betty the Ugly (which will become a half-hour comedy in its American incarnation). Los Angeles-based Univision, the No. 1 Spanish-language network in the U.S. and the fifth largest network overall for prime-time viewers, with approximately 80 percent of the Hispanic audience, has been investing in its tele-novelas for a long time. Back in 1992 the network locked in a 25-year exclusive deal with Mexico's popular Grupo Televisa network productions and Venezuela's Venevision network, both of which produce the most popular novelas.

The troubles facing American daytime soap operas need to be put into perspective. Despite their recent woes, soaps still have high overall household ratings. The No. 1 rated The Young and the Restless is seen in an average of 5.6 million homes. Even constant last-place finisher Port Charles captures nearly 2 million households on average. NBC in particular has managed to attract a younger audience. Everyone cheering Buffy might take note that NBC's daytime shows beat WB's prime-time fare by 43 percent among females age 18 to 24, during the 2000-01 season (and Sarah Michelle Gellar says she's a huge fan of Passions).

But soaps are still in a perennial struggle to maintain their status. The average ratings to date (as of November 2001) for all soaps are 3.34, compared with 3.55 the previous year. According to Lucy Johnson, senior vice president of daytime programs at CBS, the network's goals are threefold: to maintain the current viewership; to bring back lapsed viewers and to attract new viewers. “That's the hardest task of all,� Johnson explains. “To ask someone to start on a daily program, with 30-plus characters, with shows that have been on for up to 50 years, is a huge commitment.�

Although they're not yet headed for extinction, soaps are seeing a rise not only in the average age of viewers but the age of the soaps themselves: As the World Turns, 45 years old; Guiding Light, 50 this April; The Young and the Restless, not so young anymore, almost 30 years on the air. The median age of soap viewers is up seven years since 1991, according to New York-based advertising agency MindShare. In the same period, the median age of ABC soaps All My Children, General Hospital and One Life to Live climbed from 37 to 46.

The absolute number of viewers has been decreasing for years, a trend many experts say was worsened, first by the televising of the OJ Simpson trial in 1994-95, which pre-empted soaps and weaned many fans off their habit. This falloff was then exacerbated by the expansion of cable television and the rise of the Internet, which gave viewers an array of soap-free options. Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, executive in charge of production for Procter & Gamble's Guiding Light and As the World Turns, notes that the networks are suffering across the board — not just during daytime. Yet prime time's troubles reverberate in daytime by leaving soaps with fewer promotion opportunities during the prime viewing hours.

Most experts cite lifestyle changes as the most powerful reason for soaps' slip in the ratings. “The No. 1 reason the demographics of daytime soap viewers are changing is the more mobile female population, with younger women in particular more likely to be part of the work force,� says David Poltrack, executive vice president of research and planning for CBS. Mothers traditionally introduced their daughters to their favorite soap, passing shows along to the next generation. A more modern mentality has also had a discernible impact: In an era of instant gratification, audiences are impatient with plots that don't play out until three years down the line.

An appeal to the demanding Gen Y attention span is a strategy all soaps have adopted. Many are adding teenage characters and plot lines, particularly during the summer when most teens watch soaps. “I think that at NBC, ABC and even CBS there's a current philosophy that the younger you get a viewer, the greater chance you'll have them for the long haul,� says Linda Susman, editor of Soap Opera Weekly. “There's a tremendous effort to get the teens.�

NBC has been most successful, with a particularly aggressive strategy to target younger viewers. Sheraton Kalouria, senior vice president of daytime programs at NBC, claims the network's daytime lineup is “dramatically younger� than that of its rivals. Of their two-hour schedule (the other networks offer four), Kalouria says, “We've focused on our flagship soap, Days of Our Lives, and invested in the future with Passions. With Days, we had a No. 1 show with women 18 to 34, for five years, and we knew we had the opportunity to leverage that younger audience when we introduced Passions.� According to MindShare, the median age of Passions viewers is 36, the youngest among network soaps.

But it's CBS that has made the most forceful moves to woo Hispanic viewers. In June 2001, the network's The Bold and The Beautiful became the first American soap to be simulcast in Spanish using SAP technology. Erik Estrada joined the cast in October 2001, and Los Angeles-based publicity firm Orci Public Relations was hired on a full-time basis to coordinate and promote the changes. “We knew we needed cultural and public relations guidance in order to reach the Hispanic market,� explains CBS's Lucy Johnson, who doesn't expect to see clear results for at least a year.

ABC originally planned to add a Spanish-language soap using SAP technology by August 2001, though the network has yet to make a final decision. “We know that 25 percent of our audience is Hispanic and it's growing every day,� says Felicia Minei Behr, senior vice president for daytime programming at ABC. She cites the daunting financial costs of converting to SAP, the current ad marketplace and research showing that Hispanic viewers aren't yet aware of SAP programming, as just a few of the challenges to immediate changes. In the meantime, the network has hired Los Angeles-based Latino production consulting firm, Galán Inc., added more Hispanic actors on its soaps, and incorporated a different approach to the tele-novela premise: ABC's Port Charles, one of daytime's two half-hour soaps (CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful is the other) has been last in the ratings and thus ripe for more daring experimentation. In January 2000, the soap changed its fundamental format, deviating from the traditional soap opera plot structure. Story lines, modeled after tele-novelas, now run for 13 weeks, as opposed to the much longer plot lines endemic to American soaps. The stories are also faster-paced and more outlandish, featuring vampires and other supernatural phenomena.

But experts say there are caveats to applying the tele-novela formula stateside. Indeed, the format of short story lines can be risky in a world where long-term plots are part of the established and cherished form. “Tele-novelas have a limited run, while soap operas are ongoing by definition,� explains Stella Bednarz, deputy editor at Soap Opera Digest. Furthermore, tele-novelas are prime-time programs, with a prime-time viewership, whereas English-language prime-time soaps haven't succeeded for a long time — not since the 1980s reign of Dynasty, Dallas and Knot's Landing. Despite its sexy young cast, NBC's most recent prime-time soap offering, Titans, was cancelled during its first season. TV Guide's soap columnist Michael Logan says that in many ways, prime-time has become soap-like, thus diminishing further need for the format at night. “So many prime-time shows have become serialized,� Logan explains. “Those of us who love the ongoing story can find those ingredients on almost every other prime-time show — The Sopranos, The West Wing, Boston Public, even comedies like Friends.�

Yet if tele-novelas can't be copied outright, they can be used to reinvigorate the old soap formula. Several soap executives say novelas offer some valuable lessons: the importance of quicker plot payoffs, clear beginnings and endings, faster pacing and traditional storytelling. ABC has a year-old writer development program that recently placed Hispanic writers on each of its soaps. “We're being extremely aggressive about recruiting new talent — finding new ideas, new stories, new people,� says the network's Minei Behr.

Although the onslaught of cable television and the Internet, coupled with changing lifestyles may have spurred the slide in soap ratings, they might also help turn those numbers around. Digital video recorders, like TiVo, might change the soap opera viewing landscape. Studies show that so far, soap operas are the most watched genre among DVR users — just as they are among people with VCRs. In addition, with the widespread adoption of digital cable, ABC/Disney's digital cable offshoot, SoapNet, launched in early 2000, may bring soaps to new viewers. The network already features old reruns of soap operas around the clock and the current day's ABC soap lineup during prime-time, and may soon add other network soaps.

The networks are also starting to get more creative with off-air promotion and publicity stunts, both to maintain their base of viewers and to attract new fans. Early this year, CBS's Guiding Light will introduce 3- to 5-minute streaming videos for its Web site. NBC already places advertisements for its soaps in publications like The National Enquirer and Star; runs promotions on networks like BET, MTV and Nick at Night; and hosts nontraditional events like a Fan Fair, held last June in conjunction with the Country Music Association. In August 2001, ABC sold All My Children jewelry (as worn by cast members on the show) via, the Home Shopping Network and, supported by on-air promotional spots during the show.

NBC is also exploring new merchandising opportunities. The network started using product placement in December 2001, first with JCPenney and then Swatch. “Product placement is new on soaps,� says NBC's Kalouria. “It's one of the things we're all doing with regard to ratings erosion and to escalating costs.� The network's first major success was with a companion book to Passions, published last January by HarperCollins, which quickly reached the best-seller lists. Says Kalouria, “We're absolutely going to do more of that. And it won't be just books. It may be beauty products, fashion products and lifestyle accessories, like furnishings for bed and bath.� Soap opera-branded bubble bath, anyone?


Overall soap ratings are down 7 percent season to date.








Current season to date 3.0 1.2 1.7 2.3 2.5 2.6 3.0 1.5
Last year, season to date 3.2 1.7 1.9 2.3 2.4 2.5 3.0 1.4
Difference year to year -6% -29% -11% 0% 4% 4% 0% 7%
Current season to date 4.0 1.5 1.6 2.0 2.2 2.2 4.1 1.4
Last year, season to date 4.2 1.6 1.9 2.1 2.2 2.4 4.1 1.4
Difference year to year -5% -6% -16% -5% 0% -8% 0% 0%
Current season to date 2.6 2.5 2.4 2.0 1.9 1.9 2.0 1.3
Last year, season to date 3.0 4.1 3.1 2.2 1.8 1.8 2.2 1.5
Difference year to year -13% -39% -23% -9% 6% 6% -9% -13%
Weighted Totals
Current season to date 181.8 85.1 97.4 115.6 123.5 125.7 178.0 77.5
Last year, season to date 194.9 114.5 115.7 120.0 120.5 127.2 180.2 77.4
Difference year to year -7% -26% -16% -4% 2% -1% -1% 0%
Source: MindShare, Nielsen Media Research


The Young and the Restless continues its 12-year reign.






1 The Young and the Restless CBS 5.3 19 5.6 6.9
2 The Bold and the Beautiful CBS 4.1 14 4.3 5.4
3 General Hospital ABC 3.5 12 3.7 4.4
4 As the World Turns CBS 3.5 12 3.7 4.6
5 All My Children ABC 3.4 12 3.6 4.2
6 Days of Our Lives NBC 3.4 12 3.6 4.3
7 One Life to Live ABC 3.3 12 3.4 4.1
8 Guiding Light CBS 3.2 11 3.4 4.2
9 Passions NBC 1.9 7 2.0 2.3
10 Port Charles ABC 1.8 7 1.8 2.1
Source: Nielsen Media Research, 9/24/01-11/08/01


Fans complain that soaps can either be too slow or too wacky.


Story line 21%
Drama/action 9%
To escape reality 8%
Characters 7%
Continuous story/fast pace 6%
Entertaining/fun 5%
Actors 4%
Always watched it 4%
Realistic 3%
Romantic 3%
Conflict/fights 2%
Easy to catch up if missed 2%
Story line (dull content/slow) 20%
Outrageous/unrealistic 20%
All the same/predictable 9%
Too many ads 6%
Immoral/too much sex 6%
Boring/silly/annoying 4%
Always unhappy endings 2%
Changed characters/actors 2%
Too addictive 2%
Bad actors 1%
Have to watch every day <1%
Source: ePoll, August 2001 online poll of 700 women 18 years +


The top rated Spanish-language soap captures almost 30 percent of Hispanic TV viewing households.


Amigas Y Rivales 28.7
Por un Beso 26.2
Carita de Angel 23.6
Derecho de Nacer 22.0


Uga Uga 5.5
Pedro El Escamoso 5.1
Fuerza Del Deseo 3.9
Provocame 2.9
NOTE: Ratings are ranked daily. Above are for Wednesday prime-time.
Source: Nielsen Media Research
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