Here, in the past, I have put up ratings graphs that show the ratings (household, per Neilsen) for our soaps in historical context. I updated the graph with season-to-date ratings. Showing only currently-living soaps, here are the ratings trends as of 11/2008:
If you ignore the 1950s (where rapid expansion of televisions and television options meant the ratings fluctuated widely, and really aren't so comparable to the "saturated market" ratings we've had since the 1960s and beyond), you see a very clear general trend of growth through the mid-1970s, and then a very clear decline trend ever since. Now, there are some interesting local peaks (GH in the early 1980s; Y&R in the early 1990s), but for the most part all the soaps have moved in lockstep, downward, since the mid-70s.
This is so relentless and universal a trend IT CANNOT BE BLAMED on the creative state of any show or any regime! We really can only blame things like the growth of tv (cable) and non-tv (internet, games) options, the movement of women out of the house, the reduction in intergenerational viewership due to multi-TV households, etc.
The eye does not lie. That is pretty much a STRAIGHT LINE, and it began in the late 70s or early 80s. THERE IS NOTHING SPECIAL about the decline we see today. It is nothing but a "dying off" process (loss of viewers without replacement, at a fairly steady rate) that began almost 3 decades ago.
Oh, if only I could have a nickel every time someone said "the creative state of soaps today is so lousy, and that is why we're losing viewers". Uh uh! The rate of loss is no more significant now than it was 20+ years ago--when some shows were thought to be at Marland-esque, Bell-esque etc. creative heights.
Oh, if only I could have a dime every time someone said "if only TPTB would do such-and-such, ratings would go up." (This probably includes promotion...although I think more promotion might be able to be the one thing that built slight audience growth). Uh uh. NOTHING--not even the blockbuster of Luke and Laura--could stem the trend. If you look at GH in the early 80s, you see that it definitely spiked TEMPORARILY due to that incredible storyline. It clearly brought new viewers into the system. But it COULD NOT LAST (and it didn't), because larger demographic trends were dragging the shows down.
And I want a dollar everytime someone blames OJ Simpson! If you focus your eyes on the early-mid 1990s in the graph above. I defy you to find any significant deviation in HH ratings decline trends! If OJ had not existed, the declines would have been EXACTLY the same. I'll try to show this more clearly below.
The table below tries to show the phenomenon in a different way. Averaging across all shows that were on at any given time, the figure shows the minimum and maximum ratings in each decade. Again, don't trust the 1950s data, because the new technology (TV) and explosive growth of households and viewing options really messes up those numbers
First, focus on second-last column, annualized ratings change. Note that, in every decade, the trajectory has been decline. Second, note that the rate of decline has been EXACTLY THE SAME in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The rate of decline DOUBLED from the 1960s to the 1970s, and it DOUBLED AGAIN in the 1980s. Since then, it has been a fairly CONSTANT loss of 0.15 per year.
From this perspective, it again reminds us THAT NOTHING SPECIAL is happening now. Soaps are not in some "sudden freefall". They are in a constant decline.
On the other hand, the far right column shows us the consequences of this steady viewer loss in the face of a smaller-and-smaller shinking base. This shows us the % of viewers lost annually in each decade. (In other words, of the viewers who started the decade, what percent of those viewers were lost, on average, in each year of that decade?). As you can see, because the number of viewers is smaller and smaller, the steady loss of viewers represents an ever larger proportion each decade.
The current decade evinces about an annual 5% loss...which means (in the 2000s) the steady viewer loss indicated that, of those who started the decade, only about half remained as viewers as we near the end of the decade.
We see this most alarmingly in another post I shared recently, that said GL/ATWT lost about 30% of their viewers in the last year. (Canadian TV Guide further added that GL lost about 21% of its desirable demo during the same period). Those proportions seem apocalyptic...but they are really only that large because of the steady rate of viewer loss over a smaller and smaller viewer base.
Does that mean, for example, that Ellen Wheeler is NOT the anti-Christ? Well, from a long-haul perspective, GL is not visibly declining at an appreciably faster rate than the other soaps. However, if you take a magnifying glass to that "yellow line" representing GL in the graph above, you see that GL was never really above the middle of the ratings pack, and tended to the bottom of the pack twenty years ago. Whoever oversaw THAT relative loss of ranking is much more responsible for where GL is today than Ellen Wheeler. On the other hand, if you peer at 2007-2008 with your magnifying glass, you'll see that the distance between bottom-ranked GL and the next highest soap has widened just a bit. GL has declined just a little faster than the other soaps. (From the beginning to the end of this year, GL lost 30% of its viewers, but Y&R lost about 25%). That doesn't actually seem like an impeachable offense.
Seriously, the overall market trends are driving this. I honestly believe Douglas Marland and Beverley McKinsey could return from the beyond, and GL ratings would still be where they are. The production model could have stayed the same or become more sumptuous, and still the ratings would be where they are. That is because demographic and social forces outside of soaps are causing all of this. In that sense, Wheeler's new production model is a bright strategy! By reducing the cost of producing a soap that would do no better if there were more investment, she at least keeps people employed a little longer.
Sorry for this long-winded post, but there are two final conclusions.
A. Follow the lines, and draw your conclusions. Those of us who love the soap genre MUST prepare to let go SOON. The trend is unmistakeable, universal, continuous, and is based in at least 30 years of history. If we want our soap fix, we'll have to find it online, or in primetime, or in books, or whatever. This TV business model for soaps is utterly unsustainable.
B. We have now reached the point where the ratings are so low, most soaps have needed to implement austerity plans. The cost-cuts are so deep that viewers are noticing (GL's production model, ATWT's minimal sets, ABC's 50% cuts, Days' 40% cuts and firing of its' signature stars).
It may be time to send a different, activist voice to the networks...which is to let our "loved ones" die. We understand that the business is no longer sustainable, and we'd much rather see our shows go out on a strong note, than dwindle into local-access-cable-amateur levels.
Even if active decisions to pull the plug do not happen, our soaps will be gone very-very soon. GL and ATWT are rumored to have 2009 contract extension possibilities (bringing them to 2010), but a September-2009 sayonara for GL is widely rumored. So, too, Days' contract renewal has been much publicized as going to September 2010, and Ken Corday seems very pessimistic about further renewals. It seems to be dependent on certain performance benchmarks that seem (given the figure above) unlikely to occur. If GL/ATWT/Days are all gone by 2010, that leaves us the ABC lineup and Y&R/B&B. With ABC is massive cost cutting (50% cuts and the cancellation of SuperSoapWeekend), these numbers strongly suggest that it hardly seems likely that they can lag much behind in cancellation.
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