Saturday, June 21, 2008

What does the plummet all mean?

A common urban legend is that OJ killed the soaps. The argument is that so much of daytime was pre-empted for his trial, and when it was over, many lapsed viewers had been broken of their habit. They didn't come back.

I've heard the same kind of thing said about the loss of African American viewers at Y&R, after Shemar Moore left.

I don't buy it. I think each of these events led to temporary BLIPS in the ratings, but it is the overall trend...the universal, monotonic linear decline that matters.

There is no question that the 1994 dip in the above ratings figure coincides with the OJ trial.

But if you look at the summary graph, there are other big dips and valleys. 1961-62 (Berlin Wall), 1964 (Kennedy assassinated), 1968-69 (MLK and RFK assassinated; Vietnam and the Summer of 69), 1973 (Watergate). In each of those eras, pre-emptions caused huge dips, but viewership rebounded TO SOME POINT.

Now, if you look at the 90s, around the OJ trial, there is no doubt an accelerated decline slope.

But see--here's the thing. All these dips and valleys are just that: dips and valleys. The deeper story is told in following the TRAJECTORY from the mid 1950s.

Look at the STEEP decline slope from 1952-1960. Now, that isn't really a meaningful decline, I don't think. Here, we see more and more TVs coming on line, a growth of choices (even over just 3-4 channels), and so the ratings look like they're in free fall. After 1960, there is a more consistent trajectory that follows from that point forward.

If you smooth over the dips and valleys (literally, print out the figure, and use a ruler to draw a line from 1960 to 2008) what you'll see is a STRAIGHT LINE. It is the same straight line, more or less, now, that it was in 1960! That is meaningful. It means that the "process" that initiated the decline slope in 1960 is very likely the SAME process that continues the decline slope now.

OJ, in that sense, may have caused a short term steepening of the decline slope, but he had no discernible long-term effect beyond the slope that was already in place since 1960.

How can this be? Well, if you think about it, the factors that lead to declining soap viewership (and to declining general TV viewership) are the same now as they were in 1960. It's just that the process is "further along" now. What are those factors?
- more women working out of house during the daytime
- more TVs...less intergenerational watching
- more entertainment options beyond soaps (initially more networks and, internet, DVR, etc.)
- cultural devaluation of soaps as "uncool" or "low quality" or "unworthy" (remember, even 'soap opera' was meant as a's just that we've all appropriated it as a good thing--in much the same way as GLBT community members have appropriated "queer")

When you add this all together, you can see that by 1960 (and possibly as early as the mid 50s...when soaps were at their height), they were already on a relentless death trajectory. The slope was always the same.

It's just that now, we're in the "end times". At this point the viewership is low enough, and profitability is low enough, that we FEEL it and KNOW it, based on the crap we see on the screen. But we're at the point of low viewership/profit because we were always destined to come here.

I consider myself, as a male, a proud feminist and a devotee to equality across many different lines. BUT, that said, there is little doubt that feminism, and the movement of the family out of the "house" and out of the nuclear family construct, a process that soaps began to parallel very early on, is the process that has killed the genre.

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