Saturday, December 6, 2008

Failing to re-invest: Another reason for the decline of soaps

How did we get here? I have shared my obsession with ratings charts, and I hope I have been slightly convincing to at least some folks that the linear ratings decline we have experienced in the US since at least the late 1980s is trans-genre, and not really related to any particular show or creative team.

Some good skeptics have written me to say "But some of this decline has been due to VCRs and then DVRs, which never got counted". That is totally true! Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that when you add Y&R's CBS broadcast plus 7-day DVR numbers plus Soapnet plus legal online streaming (fancast, msn, youtube, it is actually plausible that Y&R might have 8-10 million US viewers per episode.

Still, that monolithic decline can't be ignored. One irate correspondent wrote me privately to ask (I'm paraphrasing) what I was smoking, and if I was twelve years old and completely unwise. OBVIOUSLY, it is the decline in QUALITY (which may be attributed in part to the youth-grab...the desire to tell quick stories with young newbies, and to chase a more juvenile taste) that caused soap decline. Honestly, I'm not so sure. I'll accept the quality decline, but I remind myself that correlation is not causation. We don't know what is chicken, and what is egg. I'm inclined to think that some of the quality decline is due to REACTIONS to declining viewership and loss of dollars. Newbies are cheaper, for example.

In the end, it is probably non-sensical to have the quality-ratings debate. Clearly, ratings loss has many factors (viewing choices, women out of the home, overall decline of TV, loss of intergenerational viewing, social perception of soaps as 'dated' and 'uncool', etc.). Quality may be a part of that, but the direction of causation is undoubtedly reciprocal. Quality never really reflects ratings...otherwise, shows like St. Elsewhere and Boomtown would have been top-rated (or Masterpiece Theater), and shows like According to Jim would only have lasted a single season.

Anyway, the point of this post is something different. On some soap boards, I (and others) have expressed the idea that a key problem with modern soaps is that they are often 30-70 years old! As much as I love my 35 year old Y&R (and would mourn if it disappeared), I'm also 43...and not the desirable demographic. It would be fine if my Y&R could continue, but there need to be new soaps for the new generation.

As a cultural referent, I mention music, movies and primetime. In none of these genres do we expect the young (desirable demographic) consumers to be enjoying the stuff of their parents and grandparents. Each new generation needs its own music (rock and roll, folk, progressive rock, disco, rap/hip-hop, punk...each was new music for a new generation). The 80s saw St. Elsewhere, the 90s ER, and the 2000s House/Grey's Anatomy. This is natural.

Note, I'm not just parroting Madison Avenue's preference for young eyeballs. For any organization/entity to be viable, it needs REPLACEMENT. As people die, others must be born. This requires that pop culture constantly evolve to be relevant.

Now, I know that some people claim that our chestnut soaps can evolve and be relevant. But honestly, I don't think so. Marceline at SON has called this the over-reliance on nostalgia. AMC shifts to film look, and the viewers complain. GL shifts to the new production model (I realize that show has other problems) and people call it cheap. Y&R shifts to a more primetime feel (thanks, LML!) and viewers call it sacrilege. Part of the reason there is an ENDURING audience for soaps is the familiarity of our soap worlds. Familiar characters, actors, sets, stories...

What this means, I think, is that we need a regular sequence of retiring old soaps, and building new ones. Indeed, during the salad days of soaps, the networks agreed! Of course, making new soaps is a financially risk endeavor. There is a lot of startup cost. And history shows that MOST soaps don't survive very long. The long-term survivors are quite few and far apart. But without that constant new investment, the chance for a new show to "stick" and become relevant is nil.

The consequence of that is what we are seeing now: More deaths than births. Eventually, the genre dies off.

This is not a new argument. The incomparable Irna Phillips said this in a Time Magazine article in 1940, archived by the equally incomparable SteveFrame here:

Today's Children ran for six and a half years. It was still number one with Crossley when Irna stopped writing it. She based her move on the belief that her characters had run through all possible logical situations.

"When you have saturated logic," she says, "you should take your show off the air."

The chart below illustrates the problem.

Look at the 60s and 70s. There was a huge number of premieres (blue), and a huge number of cancellations (purple).

"You can't succeed if you don't try".

I realize that even a decade ago the networks were still trying. Not much--purple begins to outweigh blue by the 80s. Now, we're in a solid purple stage. Maybe I should have colored that red...the bleeding out of the genre.

How do I end this with hope? It's hard. I do note that new forms of soaps (e.g., Roger Newcomb's Scripts and Scruples, all the remarkable fanfic that SteveFrame's SoapsWeb is now honoring--at places like Soapoperanetwork and DaytimeRoyalty) is emerging. But that form is labor-of-love, not labor-of-profit.

I hope, someday soon, the financials might change...and broadcasters might again try. We need more blue on this chart!

1 comment:

Sam Ford said...

Another key question we could ask, Mark, is how properties that HAVE continued to exist, uninterrupted for decades, to somewhat greater success have thrived. Professional wrestling is one I've written about, although I worry for its long-term health because of a lack of places to promote the craft with only two national promotions in the U.S. (WWE and TNA) and no robust regional circuit anymore. But, likewise, sports in general has kept franchises--and their history--alive for many decades now. The issue with both of these "genres," if we should call them that, is they have a natural aging process that forces people out of the spotlight eventually; however, many of these franchises do honor their pasts.

Another area to look at is comic book characters, who live on through decades, remaining quite strong. The difference here, I think, is the ability to remake the characters.

For soaps, seems that TPTB's penchant for cheap newbies is matched in its destructive power for the genre's health as some fans' aversion to anything different. Part of the fan reaction, I'd wager, is based on a complete lack of faith in those who run the show to a.) pick talent and b.) weave them into the tapestry of the show.

I still contend, as I know you feel, that there's much to be lost with these eight shows in particular, but I think you're right that survival of the genre should be considered somewhat apart from survival of specific shows.