Monday, July 7, 2008

Ratings = quality? enjoyment? Nah...just habit

We had this thread over at Soap Opera Network, in which I picked up from Kay Alden's talk at MIT last year (where she equated soaps with "habit"). I thought I'd post a bit of that here:

It all started when poster Jess said:

Ratings may not equate to quality, but the do reflect what people find enjoyable to watch. In that sense ratings certainly equate to viewer enjoyment. Santa Barbara was in my oopinion a good show, but it got cancelled because others did not like it. Because soap critics and other experts declare a show high quality certainly does not mean that the unwashed masses follow behind and sing its praises.
Now, I don't think ratings reflect (certainly in their weekly variations) either quality OR enjoyability.

I do not think so. I mean, clearly that is a part of the formula...but I think only a part.

Ratings equate to promotion, to what else is on in the lineup, and to HABIT. Some people will watch their show everyday, even when they are not enjoying it, because they know or hope it will get better, or because their favorite characters are on.

When we talk about quality or even enjoyability...but then see it fails to show up in the ratings...some people act surprised. But it doesn't work this way.

Soap watching is a habit for most loyal viewers, and the habit exists independent of day to day quality. It is only if a show maintains excellent quality over a long haul that you may help people develop the habit...because they know the show is good and it will pay off. Quality and enjoyability DO matter, but only in the LONG haul.

It is here that I think we may see a generational divide. I think older viewers may be more likely to watch out of habit. I think younger viewers have less patience and less history with the show...and they are somewhat more likely to watch based on what is currently happening. I still think--even with young viewers--that this weekly variation in quality or enjoyability is not a huge factor, because the weekly variations in ratings are quite small.

The ratings trends from year to year tell us that more and more people are "getting out of the habit". That is the real story. So, if executives want to strengthen the shows, they have to stop thinking about stunt casting and short term story arcs. They have to think about how to get people in the habit, and then keep them trapped in the habit.

GHJunkie4Life disagreed and said:

If ratings are due to people just watching out of "habit" then why are they decreasing across the board for ALL soaps? If it were this unbreakable habit that some people claim they are then shouldn't the ratings be roughly the same week to week?

The way to explain this is smoking. Social forces (public health messages, public disdain for smoking, smoking prohibition laws, and rising taxes) worked together to inform people that smoking was a habit that should be broken. Consequently, you see a trend of smoking decline ACROSS ALL SMOKING BRANDS. Because it reflects a so-called "secular trend".

So, the same thing is true for soaps--and I find this illustrative with regards to the deeper problem we are seeing with the genre. Soap across-the-board trends are JUST LIKE cigarette trends. Which means, for decades now, people have been abandoning the habit.

We have speculated elsewhere about why, and that is multi-causal...working women, less intergenerational viewing, abandonment of TV for new media, etc.

Another way to say this is that "soaps have gone out of fashion". And when we say that, it means that quality and satisfaction are kind of irrelevant. I can make a very well made set of flared jeans (i.e, wide at the boot). I can make them excellently, and the people who wear them can be very satisfied with them....but if they are out of fashion, sales will dwindle to zero.

The "out of fashion" indictment is serious...because that is not easily repaired. WHY did soaps go out of fashion? WHAT FACTORS became unappealing?

To me, that is a fascinating question. We know the serial format, per se, is alive and well. Most primetime drama and comedy now follows the serial format, and "dramatic elements" (serious stories, no laugh track) even characterize the sitcoms. So is it the daily thing that is killing the soaps? (Probably in large measure).

But I really suspect it is two other things: (a) the conceptualization of soaps as "grandma's stories", the inability of people to get past that, and the (cool.gif from-the-beginning stigmatization of these shows as melodramatic and unworthy of thinking viewers (hence, the perjorative term "soap opera" that drips with disdain). The soaps beget eye rolls from most normal thinking people. They will not get past their biases.

So, what we're left with (and I don't think this board is typical) is a viewer base of aged viewers that got "hooked" DESPITE stigma...and they stayed hooked...but they're dying off. And mostly their descendants can't stop holding their noses long enough to try and get hooked...or if they do, they find the high concept nonsense to silly to captivate their interest.

Soaps = paisley

Soaps = lava lamps

Soaps = avocado appliances

Soaps = lace doilies

So maybe it is not just people getting out of the habit, as I asserted before. Maybe it is also the fact that people who got in before the habit became TOO uncool are dying off, and nobody younger is willing to "disgrace" themself and get into these aged melodramas?

Therefore, we don't have a "replacement generation" of people who will contemplate picking up the habit. For them, the thought of watching a soap is odious. This is the same problem tobacco growers are facing...which is why they have searched so aggressively overseas for new markets.

A regular correspondent of mine at a usenet newsgroup talks about how she loved her soaps, and started watching with her parents. She said when her kids were at home, they always had the shows on (because she watched them). They would roll their eyes--especially as they got older--but they might even get interested for brief periods of time. But once they grew and left home, they never had an interest in picking them up again. Indeed, they only ever talk about the soaps now with disdain.

I think there are analogies to this in music. Young fans of hip hop often have NO INTEREST in their parents' rock and roll. It is "uncool". They use the rejection of their parents' music as a way of individuating themselves and establishing identity. The parents (and their music) were uncool, which renders the kids (and their music) cool. If you can't think of rock music as uncool, think of "country and western" or "big band" or "disco" or "folk".

For each of those genres, there are young fans who will REFUSE to listen or sample, because the very idea of those genres is uncool.

Now, if you repackage disco and give it a new name ("house" or "techno" or whatever), suddenly it can become cool again. But it has to be different and completely relabelled for a younger generation to endorse it. It is not just a relabelling. It is a reinvention.

You know those "music of your life" radio stations? Young people don't listen to them. They are old people stations...and when enough of the old people die, suddenly the format changes. Instead of the music of the "40s-50s-60s" it becomes "60s-70s-80s". Now, soaps are the "music of your life" for people who, on average, are in their fifties. New generations don't want to listen to that music...they want their own life music.

It is not just the soaps. As we have discussed elsewhere, nostalgia brands across the tuner are changing: Nick at Night/TVLand, GSN, AMC...all of them have had significant format changes because their core audiences are dying off/advertisers don't like their aged demos/their numbers are shrinking.

Soaps are the same. They are a nostalgia brand, and a habit from a bygone era. Not disco. Those who still make them are a little like KC and the Sunshine Band...they still make their rent with small town fairs, but they'll never be a relevant hit again. Those who still watch them (me! you!) are relics from a bygone era, who value yesterday's entertainment. That makes us quaint but--and I say this with enormous sadness--it does not make us meaningful consumers of the future. Future consumers have moved on. Tastes in entertainment have changed.

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