Saturday, June 21, 2008

Soapnet's unwinnable battle: Part I

At the 2008 Daytime Emmy Awards, ABC heavily promoted the debut episode of the failed Canadian primetime soap MVP. The show would be a new primetime "jewel" for the Disney sister channel, Soapnet. Construed as a hockey-players-wives tale, many viewers decried that it was further evidence that the network, and its' runner (Brian Frons) were out of touch with what soap viewers wanted.

To be clear, Soapnet is a very different network in 2008 than it was when it debuted. The network started with "classic soaps" (notably Another World), which it eventually canceled due to near-zero ratings (after moving it to the wee hours of the day). The network had a lot of original content about soaps and stars (SoapCenter, Soapography, Soap Talk, One Day With, They Started on Soaps)...but all of this content eventually went away. It was replaced with rebroadcasts of failed, youth-oriented soaps (One Tree Hill), and new celeb-reality offerings (The Fashionista Diaries, Relative Madness). A "Sunday Night Movie", having nothing to do with soaps, was introduced. In the process, Frons tried to expand the meaning of "soap" to include all the drama that occurred in the world--especially with celebrities like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. In other words, the network wanted to include gossip and "reality" as part of its imprimatur.

Indeed, the website was rebranded as a celebrity/fashion site, with little soap content.

Now, the lifelong soap fan in me decries this. I feel violated. Viewers of classic soaps lobbied to get Soapnet on their cable systems...and now the network is...well...not very related to soaps.

But I can forgive this when I wear my business/analyst hat.

Well, I actually watched MVP. It is what it is NOT a show I loved, but it was okay. Fair disclaimer; I am an ex-patriate Canadian, I was looking forward to seeing a CBC production, and this wa pretty much what I expected. All the promos have been about abs and sex and...well...that's largely what we got.

As I understand it, though, there IS a fair contingent that likes and misses that kind of show. Let me also say that, in broad strokes, I accept this as a "primetime soap"...and therefore within the appropriate scope of Soapnet.

Alright, with all those disclaimers, here is why I'm not jumping on the "bash Frons" bandwagon:

1. EVERY SINGLE nostalgia network is rebranding and changing. TVLand now show programs from the 90s. Game Show Network is now GSN and is featuring many new shows. American Movie Classics is now AMC...commercialized, colorized, recent content. VH1 is now Celebreality.

The near universal move away from nostalgia programming would suggest that "classic" shows bring neither the numbers NOR the "coveted demographic" if 18-49 year olds.

Thus, in the current market, I do not see that classic soaps can be economically or demographically viable.

2. It goes without saying that soap ratings are in free fall. The steady downward trend in both # of viewers and in household ratings for the soaps began almost at the beginning of the (televised) genre, and where we are today is a straight linear function. So, if you extrapolate it out, all shows will reach a 1.0 rating (which seems to be the point of unsustainability and cancellation) between 2010 and 2016.

Since the 'same day' soaps are the bread and butter of Soapnet, THEY HAVE A PROBLEM. They have an eroding audience that DOES NOT care about watching their soaps in primetime any more than in daytime.

This isn't just domestic. Internationally, countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Australia are ditching their US soaps. Often, the shows migrate to another network (sometimes a specialized cable service), only to do more poorly in their new home than in the old home. Recent attempts to bring General Hospital to France led to cancellation in weeks. Young and Restless also only last weeks during the recent attempt to bring it back to German airwaves. The Bold and the Beautiful was announced as number one international daytime soap this week, with 25 million viewers. But the REAL story is that that number was between 35-50 million (I don't have the ACTUAL figure in hand, I'm sorry) about a decade ago.

INTERNATIONALLY this is a dying genre...and so Soapnet has a REAL problem. Its CORE is a terminal patient.

3. Showing classic soaps is tricky...very tricky. MOST people will not watch unless they had a history with it.

Take Another World. My era with that--the one I would LOVE to rewatch--is from the early/mid 1980s. Soapnet started after that point. I wanted my Catlin and Sally and brand-new-Jake and introduction-of-Ellen-wheeler and so forth. I tried to watch anyway, but it just didn't grab me (just as it never did during its original run).

Even a show I'm die-hard about, Young and Restless...the nostalgia doesn't really call me. When SoapCity let me pay for old episodes, I did pay for the debut episode. I found it slow and amateurish. I was not motivated to watch more. Now, Sony's "mini-sode" network shows HIGHLIGHTS from the past. There are some really juicy moments there...but I have still only watched a few minutes here or there.

Nostalgia is, in the main, not a draw for many people.

4. A related point is that these are CANCELLED soaps. So figuring out what period to program is tricky. Assume people only want to watch the era that they ORIGINALLY watched. (I realize that may not be true, but I think it is). If you go back too far, you have larger bodies of viewers, but they are OLD. (Old > 49). The networks have NO interest in that. In the case of AW, if Soapnet had programmed the Harding Lemay era...that would have been creatively the best...and the era where the show was number one...but all it would have drawn in were viewers in their sixties and fifties. Madison Avenue (short sightedly) sees ZERO value in that.

But, if you come too close to the present, almost all of these shows were neither at their creative nor viewership zeniths. AW in the 90s, for example, was already well on its' cancellation trajectory (you call it "sick soap syndrome") THAT is not the way to build a healthy Soapnet.


In the context of all this (nostalgia brands failing, global viewership hemmorhage, the fact that the shows' creative and ratings heights were too far back to draw in desirable demographics), I see no way to win.

I UNDERSTAND why Frons is trying to rebrand the meaning of soaps. I say "more power to him"...because, honestly, there is no future in the narrow definition of soaps (daytime, serial drama).

In that sense, I encourage MVP and even (I am shuddering as I say this) "Relative Madness". It is all experimental. But it is time for radical experiments...because the scent of death is around the corner.

My prediction is that by 2010, Soapnet will have a new name, and it will no longer play even the ABC same-day soaps. That is actually an essential step for ABC to decide that AMC/OLTL are not viable and cancel them by 2012, with GH following in 2013. (You read it here!).

By the way, by this math, I think Days will be gone in 2010, GL in 2011, ATWT in 2012, B&B in 2014, and Y&R in 2016.

So, I give Frons full license to find a NEW audience. I think that audience, sadly, has zero interest in anything we might call a "soap".

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