Monday, December 22, 2008

Go for classic, not for fad

GL, you cannot know how much I am pulling for you to succeed. I truly feel you are the canary in the coal mine. You've perfected, in my opinion, the production model. Now, bring the writing along!

I wasn't planning to write this, but I stumbled on this item. I don't usually mention Perez Hilton here, but in this case...

In a pst today, the gossip blogger writes:

Viewership for The Hills is down.

Way down!

Original episodes have tumbled 26% in the coveted 12-34 y.o. viewer demographic in the fourth quarter, compared with the same period last year.

Okay, now...sigh...

This is actually a lesson soaps (should have) learned after Gloria Monty elevated General Hospital to all-time highs. As Roger Newcomb's blog reminds us today, the viewers attracted for a pop culture phenom were not the "foundational" audience that stays with a show for decades. Two years after the Ice Princess, GH was in freefall.

The lesson then, as now, is that you have to program for mom and grandma, but do it in such a compelling way that they suck their daughters (and sometimes sons) into watching too. That is not the MTV model. But it is how soaps are built.

So how is this relevant to GL? Remember this article about GL?

The villain in this piece is the reality show. When veteran soap-opera producer Mary-Ellis Bunim created The Real World for MTV in 1992, soap opera’s exclusive grip on emotionally manipulative programming began to loosen.

Notice the Laguna Beach mention in the next quote. That is, ahem, the progenitor of that falling morass mentioned by Perez, The Hills!

Where other daytime producers are amping up the supernatural plots and onscreen text messaging to attract viewers, Wheeler has given her show an extreme makeover, reality-show style. For the first time, fans can see the actual streets of Springfield, a midwestern town in an undisclosed state—which look suspiciously like the streets in Peapack, New Jersey, where one-fifth of the scenes are being shot, all with handheld cameras. “We finally get to come into their world,” says Wheeler, who was inspired by shows like Laguna Beach and Friday Night Lights.
The elusive quest for 12 year olds....

With its face-lift, Guiding Light is banking on pulling in a whole new generation of viewers. “I do think if you were flipping through the channels you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is a soap opera, I’m not going to stop,’ ” says Wheeler. “You wouldn’t know what it was.”

...leaves 39 year olds behind...

When the “new” show debuted on February 29, there was the expected backlash. Fans immediately hit CBS with online complaints about the artsy flourishes (producers have toned them down). “These shows are created to be romantic fantasy and fantastical adventure,” says TV Guide’s soap columnist, Michael Logan. “We don’t want reality when we’re watching a soap. We want a ‘Calgon, take me away’ moment.”

I wasn't planning it, but I think this blog post serves as a kind of companion for the other one I wrote today.

I deeply believe that Ellen Wheeler/GL's production model can and should work. It produces a cheaper show to make, and it looks pretty darn good on my (computer) screen. I applaud the show for conducting the experiment! Michael Bruno said (in last week's SOD) that GL is actually making money! So, by that metric, GL is a success. And these shows have to make money to survive! (If you don't like conceding to the commercial demands of television, go to some art house film or an experimental theater).

GL has exemplars that show it can be a storytelling success too, even with this lower-cost production model. We know there are pop culture hits (critically and/or box office) that use a similar style, it can work! It is now time to invest, though, in some writers of immense vision. Don't let the inspiration be MTV's Real World. Even if you draw in 12 year old viewers...they won't stick around. It doesn't work that way anymore. Let your models be Cloverfield or the Office or both. Those things entertain.

The secret is to stay away from the pedestrian (e.g., a routine conversation in an autumnal field), and give us the exciting. Give us big stakes that are in our face. Let the narrative make use of the intimacy and immediacy of the form, and the shaky anxiety of its hand-held cams, and write to that!

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