Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Applauding the experiments

It has become quite conventional to deride and complain about ... well ...everything on soaps. For me, though, this past year has also been a time of optimism and hope. The powers in charge are NOT giving up. Indeed, they are doing the opposite. They are still experimenting, and seeking new ways of making soaps viable in the modern era. I think this is laudable. Here, I want to briefly give thanks for some of the many innovations from this year...and the past...that I think we could look at as "glass half full".

Soapnet still broadcasts soaps in primetime

Many have decried the fact that cheap reality shows and old reruns (90210!) and bad TV movies proliferate at the modern Soapnet. Gone are classic soaps (Port Charles doesn't count, and is anyone waking up at 5 am to see Ryan's Hope?). Reduced are weekend marathons.

But here's the thing: From 7 pm - midnight, PRIMETIME, we still see same day soaps. These are timeslots that help soaps flourish in many other countries in the world. Soapnet has remained committed to them.

We cannot fault the network for the fact that soaps have proven, in the main, unprofitable. It is to their credit that they are being flexible, adapting the brand to bring eyeballs to the network (and stay solvent). Indeed, if they succeed, their promotions may bring eyeballs back to the "mothership", the daytime brand. I do not understand all this Soapnet anger. It seems people WANT the network to be unprofitable.

Night Shift

I haven't been a regular GH viewer since the mid 1980s. But here I struggling to stay awake every Tuesday at 11 pm. Night Shift is a revelation. Emotional stories, intergenerational canvas, veterans, guest stars with high relevance to a daytime audience (Kathleen Noone!). Is it perfect? No. But it is a much more watchable GH than the "love in wartime" carnage on in the daytime.

I personally think Night Shift is one of the paths to the future. Our soaps won't survive...not daily...not in daytime. If we can hold on to their core, shrink them down, make them less frequent, get them in primetime (when the audience is home)...some remnants may survive. Bravo to Lisa Hesser, Sri Rao and team for showing us that it can be done.

Promotion off network and out of the daypart

Sudden Impact, Y&R's August umbrella story, had boffo ratings. The story was good enough (and killed off characters/stories the viewers hated), but the promotion is what did it! CBS spent serious coin to run primetime ads on E! and their own network. I saw banner ads for the show everywhere. (In the same time frame, ATWT bought "Perez Hilton" ad space for a day). It worked! Hype, well placed, backed up by an exciting worked.

Thus, I'm kind of sad that CBS hasn't kept at it a little while, to rebuild the brand.

It is a marked contrast to the failure of the 'Out of the Ashes' promotion during LML's Y&R era. That failed, I think, because it relied heavily on print (e.g., TV Guide), and was not backed up with a story most viewers wanted to see. Indeed, numbers were LOWER during that story.
Bravo too to ABC, for including soap stars in the Fall network promos, and for planning an expensive promotion aimed at luring back lapsed viewers.

Indeed, even CBS and NBC announced that they would be placing soap stars on primetime attract lapsed eyeballs. Bravo! Maybe they finally realize that investing back into the soap brand might have some benefits.

Peapack, NJ and the new production model at GL

Let's face it...Canadian TV Guide has all but told us this: GL is in its' final months. But, rather than view that as failure, I think GL got 12 months more than it would have otherwise.
They are going down TRYING. They cheapened the production costs (and some of it looks pretty dang good). They tried to build a new audience. Sadly, it is a failure (GL experienced the largest and most consistent declines during 2008...something the last-ranked show could scarcely afford to do). But I view it akin to someone dying in a motor vehicle crash donating their organs to science. The show was dying, so they used it to explore/experiment with new ways of making soaps.

The experiment was doomed to should have been done with a NEW soap. You can't dress a 70 year old lady in a teenage tart's clothes and hope that people will find her young and sexy. She is STILL 70! But they tried! They bought a year! They refined a production model! Hopefully, when CBS cancels the show, they will use what they learned to make a new soap, for new audiences, using the best of GL's waning days.

A three-day work week

EP Chris Goutman says the audience doesn't have patience for "this" show more than 3 days a week. I think he is right. I think most people don't have time for a 5-day a week daytime habit.
I think Night Shift is the model. (Wasn't Peyton Place on 2-3 days a week in primetime?). I think CBS should explore Chris' model. Take the current ATWT down to 3 days a week. Use the other two days to do all or some of the following:

- classic reruns
- classic reruns packaged as weekly clip shows ("Let's look at the best of Lucinda's marriage to John Dixon")
- Night-Shift style spinoffs that run, in the daypart, once a week. This latter would be a way to explore building the new brand. The spinoff could be truly continuing, or it could be more 13-week telenovela style. If the latter, it means that new ATWT "spinoffs" could be explored, once a week, every 13 weeks or so. Using the ATWT crew and sets (that is working less due to the reduced ATWT main schedule), it ensures that a fairly low incremental-cost product is produced, and few lose their jobs.
Change is not the enemy. Experimentation proves that you're not willing to let the genre go.


Marone Macaroni said...

Another great post... you are the thinking soap fan's friend :)

I really like your positivity, given the backlash the ATWT's writer "3-day-a-week" comment has generated.

One thing (and there are several) that would worry me about that kind of model is the clip shows. While I think they're a great idea, what if they proved as popular as original content? Wouldn't it encourage TPTB to think, well... if we can get those numbers without production costs, why not? Could it lead to a barrage of clip shows/repeats?

Anyway, keep posting, we'll keep reading.


Sam Ford said...

Well, I'm less certain that soaps are just automatically doomed. Part of it is the spin as well. WWE airs five hours of programming each week, and while some will debate whether it's overkill, there's no doubt it is still considered a strong and impressive TV franchise. Meanwhile, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report air a total of four hours per week, and they are still considered hot commodities as well. That's not even to mention late night personalities and a variety of other daily shows.

But all those other shows have developed a consistency of understanding their audiences that many soaps lack, plus many of them are cable properties, where there's somewhat less pressure, perhaps.

I think that all the experimentation is a good sign as well, Mark. I look forward to what it could mean. I hope it leads to continued futures for the current shows rather than new soaps, since there's no way to replicate the kind of history these shows bring along with them.

On a totally unrelated note, the best one-hour-a-week soap opera on television came back last night, Friday Night Lights. I wonder how this DirecTV model will work for them, considering it only lasted for a short time with Passions. I think experiments on alternate forms of production and distribution are also worth watching...