Sunday, April 26, 2009

Y&R: "Rating" the headwriters

[Click on the link below to see the full version, if it is trucated]

ETA. SON User Paul Raven was able to give me 1999 ratings, which fleshes out data for Kay Alden. The pattern of data was identical to what I had published in an earlier draft, but it gives me more confidence in the Alden results.


Last week at Daytime Confidential, writer Jamey Giddens wrote an eloquent review of Tom Casiello's first breakdown at Y&R. It was a terrific review, and I agree with almost all of it.

But a funny thing happened in the comment thread. Jamey and a user named Monamis got into a debate about the relative impact of Lynn Latham on the ratings. Monamis points out things really went south with current headwriter (HW) Maria Arena Bell took over, but Jamey Giddens argues that Latham lost a million viewers.

What is the truth? Well, it sounds like a data analysis, and that's my thing.

Here is what I did. I wanted to go back to the start of Kay Alden's regime as solo Headwriter, but Toups' ratings archive at Soap Opera Network only gives me weekly ratings as far back as 2000. Okay, I'd start there.

Because different tenures lasted different periods of time, I thought I should post average weekly changes. These represent the slope coefficients that result when the household (HH) ratings are regressed on week. They represent the single best way to express ratings change in a common metric, despite the varying writing tenures on the show.

The figure at the top illustrates the data graphically. You can see that, as always, there was a lot of week to week variability. So, I am just extracting the linear trends from these data.

I divided the tenures this way:

Alden = Alden solo, before the arrival of Jack Smith
Smith = any period after Smith returned to the show, but before Latham joined
Latham = any period after she was formally named HW, even while Alden and Smith were still there
ArenaBell&Griffith = the disastrous (for ratings) period that began with the WGA writer's strike of 2007, and continued until Griffith's ouster in early 2008
ArenaBell = the post-Griffith period, in which she led a team that included Hogan Sheffer, Scott Hamner, and mahy others.

I further broke Latham's tenure into two pieces. 2006 was when she still had the legacy team (Alden, Smith, Ed Scott and many others) for most of it, and 2007, when she essentially had absolute control over her team without any "legacy" interference.

The table looks like this:

HW regime
Average weekly HH ratings change
Kay Alden
Jack Smith with Kay Alden
Lynn Latham (overall)
Lynn Latham (2006 with legacy team)
Lynn Latham (2007 without legacy team)
Arena Bell/Griffth
Arena Bell

What do these numbers show?

It means the worst regime for the show was that Arena Bell/Griffth collaboration, that coincided with the WGA writer's strike and the sudde dismissal of Lynn Latham. Story-wise, the rushed introduction of Sabrina and her whirlwind romance with Victor seems to caused so much disgust that viewers tuned out in droves.

Alden's solo regime was next in problematic ratings. On average, she lost about 0.5 HH ratings points a year, which is a lot.

What that means is that the most disastrous period in the Toups/SON ratings archive is the several month period in which Arena Bell was writing with Josh Griffith. During this period, which encompassed the writer's strike and brief period thereafter, there were non-trivial declines on a week-by-week basis. "Bleeding". Many internet bloggers/message boarders blame this on the "damaged ground" that these writers inherited from Latham, but the descent was so precipitous, I have to believe that the introduction the much-younger Sabrina and Victor's whirlwind romance with her provoked a "disgust" response that led to massive tuneout.

More impressive is that in the time since Griffith left, Arena has actually stemmed the bleeding, and she is the only HW since Bill Bell to show ratings GROWTH.Now the growth is actually fairly anemic (.004 HH ratings points per week, on average), but in this climate, any growth is breath-taking.

Ratings-wise, the second-most difficult period in the post-Bell era was Kay Alden's solo regime, at least in the period beginning with 2000. Every ten weeks, on average, the show could be expected to lose 0.1 ratings points, or about 0.5 ratings points a year.

It seems that Alden's collaboration with Smith stemmed the tide...during this period, a much slower rate of decline set in.

And here is where it gets interesting. Latham was brough into shake things up. But, overall, her weekly rate of ratings decline (-.003) was only trivially different from the Smith & Alden era. She was not any more destructive to the ratings than her predecessors, but she was also not helpful. The truth, of course, is that Latham's era can be broken into "early Latham" and "late Latham", with these distinguished by when she had Alden/Smith/Scott around and when she didn't. If you compare these periods (roughly delimited by 2006 versus 2007), you find this:

In 2006, Latham and the legacy team achieved a weekly ratings change, on average of +.001...or slight gain. But in 2007, when Latham was solo (i.e., no legacy team) her ratings changed, on average, to a weekly decline of -.006!

Thus, Latham-solo was almost as negative as Alden solo.

Jack Smith's addition did stem the flow, and the rate of decline was much slower...but continuous. Interestingly, overall, Latham's weekly rate of decline was almost identical to Smith's, even though she was brought in to "fix things up". Ironically, a closer examination shows that when she worked with Alden/Smith and other legacy team members, she was actually experiencing slight ratings gain. But, once she let go of the team, her solo rate of decline was actually almost twice as bad as that experienced by Jack Smith.

The optimistic closer, of course, is Maria Arena Bell's current trend, which is actually positive. There has been a slow but steady very slight ratings gain. A little hope for the future....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rafe: And so it begins...

ETA: The incredible Anthony D. Langford has started a "Rafe's Story" series on Youtube. I have embedded the first video just beneath the photo.

If you watched the Friday 4/24/09 episode of Y&R, you heard this dialogue:

Lily: Hey, you're gonna find someone. You have to just get back out there. I thought you were gonna go on that, um, that dating site.

Colleen: (Scoffs) yeah, I have.

Lily: And? What do you think so far?

Colleen: Eh.

Lily: (Whispering) hey, do you remember the lawyer that helped ana?

Colleen: (Whispering) yes, I remember. He's cute.

Lily: (Normal voice) hey, rafe.


Lily: Yeah. Thank you. Um, so, what's a, uh, a good-looking guy like you doing all alone on a friday night?

Rafe: Um, I'm heading to a, uh, friend's birthday party.

Lily: Uh, are you going with anyone?

Colleen: (Clears throat)

Rafe: Actually, no.


Colleen: Bye.

Lily: Bye.

Rafe: Good seeing you.

Colleen: (Chuckles) she's subtle, isn't she?

Rafe: Obviously, she doesn't know I'm gay.

Colleen: Well, matchmaker Lily strikes again.

Rafe: Hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

Colleen: Right. But, you know, we should still check out that bar. We could look for guys together. (Laughs)

Rafe: (Laughs) definitely. It's a date.

and later:

J.T.: That rafe seems like a pretty cool dude.

Colleen: Yeah, he is.

J.T.: It's good to see you dating again.

Colleen: (Chuckles) we are just friends.

J.T.: Oh, give it some time. I'm sure he won't be able to resist you.

Colleen: Oh, I'm sure he will. You, on the other hand...

J.T.: What about me?

Colleen: Much more his type.

J.T.: Uh... oh. Oh. (Chuckles) hey, you taking off?

Rafe: Mm. I got court tomorrow.

J.T.: All right.

Rafe: It was good seeing you, J.T.

J.T.: Yeah, you, too, man.

Rafe: Good night.

Colleen: Bye.

Rafe: Bye.

Colleen: This was fun.

Rafe: We'll come back soon, go trolling together.

Colleen: (Clicks tongue) it's a date.

Rafe: All right. See you guys.

Colleen: (Laughs)

And with that, Y&R launched it's first gay storyline since Katherine Chancellor took a liking to Joanne, back in 1977.

The introduction of the story was...subtle. Rafe's gayness was introduced without is an aspect of him, like hair color or eye color. Moreover, although there was a moment of discomfort with Colleen and JT (both of them were a little surprised...the default expectation still reasonably remains "straightness"), it quickly passed. There was no judgement.

Some critics have complained that making a recurring, non-central character is a "cheat", and demonstrates a lack of commitment to the show. But which of their hitherto-straight characters should they turn gay?

The proof will be in the pudding, as we see which characters Rafe hooks up with, and how truly committed the story seems to be to telling his story.

I'm not worried about Rafe's current status. The Williams family was originally introduced in the same way (on the back of recurring island character Paul Williams). So too was the Winters family (Olivia and later Dru were introduced around recurring Aunt Mamie, the Abbott maid...and went on to become a key family for Y&R for many years). So, since Rafe is already tied to the Newman concierge, Estella, I'm hopeful this could lead to the introduction of a whole hispanic/latino family. If the story flows, the character will grow.

It is delicious to speculate where Rafe might find love. My picture at the top of this post sort of signals my part because I'd just love to see the boys in bed together. I'm being truthful. It seems like it'd be a delicious sight...for male and female fans :).

The trick will be tying Rafe to a family we care about.

If it is Adam, many of us like him, and he is tied to the Newmans. Maybe finally being honest about his (bi)sexuality will free Adam, and bring him to the light. So it works.

If it is Billy (my wild speculation, since he and Rafe were school friends), it means Rafe is on a wild ride with the town man- whore...again, that will make many of us care.

If it is Phillip IV, that works too...because while we don't know adult Phillip, we saw him conceived, born, and fought over. He's a real lynchpin character, and returning into the maelstrom of the Abbott-Chancellors these days will be interesting. He's already been defined as interesting, because he's a returning soldier. We know he didn't go to Iraq for money (Nina's loaded), which means he did it for "call of duty"...and that makes him instantly interesting to me. If he's a gay "don't ask-don't tell soldier"...and a "hero"...what a truly interesting and innovative character. If, then, as P-IV is introduced to us, he also finds love .. with Rafe...well, I'm popping the corn for that as we speak!

I doubt it is JT. That would be a hard pretzel to twist. On the other hand, we saw Thad play gay (or, maybe, opportunistically bisexual) on Nip/Tuck, and the boy has glutes-of-steel. So, if that is the ride we're going on, bring it on.

The only one I refuse to believe it will be is Kevin (Michael's too old for this arc...they're not going there...he's happy with Lauren). I am totally in agreement that Kevin COULD go that's clear he has spent his life confused, and a lot of his emotions for women were animus, not love. His best female relationships (Mac, Amber) were pure platonic friendship with no real sexual overtones (though I intuit that will change). And Jana...well....there isn't a lot of sexual chemistry there. The actors (Emily O'Brien and Greg Rikaart) even admitted that...they're not the couple that are shown in bed together. And with Jana's headaches, it seems either the couple has more of a "soul connection" (her headaches are his pain), or it's a doomed romance. Either way, it could be Kevin.

But here is why I don't want it to be Kevin. 'Cause Kevin is SCREWED UP. What a message to perpetuate..."the screwed up guy is the fag". That just feeds into too much stuff. On the other hand, I suppose if the arc is "when Kevin admits his sexuality, he is finally free", I will buy it. But I'd really hope not.

Right now, my hopes are (1) Adam, (2) the to-be-seen Phillip IV.

The question is whether we'll get gay bed scenes on Y&R -- something ATWT has so far avoided. (Brothers and Sisters, finally last week, showed a bona fide shirtless kissing/foreplay scene, and I admit even I was scandalized...simply because we'd NEVER seen something like that on primetime before). I doubt Y&R will go there...but they were so beautifully nonchalant about Rafe's was like eye color...I'm hopeful everything about this arc will be natural, realistic, not so unhealthy.

My one worry is the Bell family experience with "disgust" and massive viewer tune-out in the late 1970s. Let's see how they deal with that this time. I think it means there will be a cautious, subtle introduction to this story...and activist gay viewers need to be patient and just go along for the ride. There is much to be rewarded by trust.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Daytime and primetime ratings: Pas de deux?

A user over at SON asked “how tied have the fortunes of daytime and primetime been?” Is there any truth that as primetime declined on a network, so did daytime? The answer seems to be “yes, the fortunes of daytime and primetime have been tied together”. But it is somewhat more complex, because the ratings have shown stronger and weaker associations, depending on the network and decade. Data sources for primetime ratings are, and for daytime ratings are contained in the two threads linked below. Thanks are due to SON users dmarex, ReddFoxx, AllMyShadows and Sean, who helped me figure out which soaps aired on which networks.

I once previously examined primetime/daytime ratings overlap, but this is different. This analysis is more accurate, in some ways, than the overlapping slopes I presented before, for two reasons. First, this analysis breaks it down by network, and second, by now having coupled ratings for daytime and primetime in each season, we could more accurately examine actual year-by-year correlations.

We examined the association between primetime and daytime ratings (aggregate, averaged over all shows) for all networks from 1965 to 2009. I eliminated seasons before 1965 because, particularly for ABC, there was enormous initial variability as the networks grew.

What you see below is an analysis of variance table. The upshot of it is “the story is complicated”. The association between daytime and primetime ratings varied by network and by decade. But, look at that “R-squared” value, which says how much of the variance in daytime ratings we explained with this model: 94%. The legend, for the statistically minded: Dependent variable is Daytime Rating (D_Rat). Independent variables are Network, Decade, and Primetime Rating (P_Rat), and all possible interactions. (Click on the figure to see the full version, if it is truncated)


So, next, I examined the daytime/primetime associations separately by decade and network. The results look like this: (Click on the figure to see the full version, if it is truncated)


Now this is initially confusing, because it shows that the trends really varied by decade and network. “Green” means they changed together; “Red” means they did not or that primetime and daytime actually moved in opposite directions. The best way to visualize this is to look at the ratings, year-by-year, for daytime and primetime together. The next graphs show these: (Click on the figure to see the full version, if it is truncated)


Let’s note, overall, that a story I have told before – that soap ratings really began to decline almost from the beginning – is palpably obvious. ABC soaps grew through the early 70s, rebounded again with Gloria Monty’s GH, and then have declined ever after. In the 70s, ABC’s primetime lineup was growing at a faster rate than daytime…which was struggling with up-and-down. Just as ABC primetime was reaching heights (with Charlie’s Angels and Happy Days) its soaps were in descent. But then, beginning in the 1980s, ABC’s daytime and primetime lineups were yoked, falling in tandem. That association has broken a bit in the 2000s, as ABC primetime has experienced some upticks (Lost, Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars) while the daypart has been on a linear decline trajectory.

For CBS, the story is quite similar. Remarkably, as you can see, the soap ratings were in decline through almost the entire period. That’s as close to a straight-line decline, for CBS daytime, as you’ll ever find. “OJ killed the soaps”. BALDERDASH. That slope of decline is remarkably constant since 1965, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In contrast, CBS primetime was moving in almost the opposite direction all through the 1980s, as Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore and Archie Bunker and their network compatriots created a grand era of gain and maintenance… There was a late 80s fall, then a massive early 90s rescue, then freefall in the early 1990s from which CBS primetime has never recovered. Thus, from about 1993, daytime and primetime fell together. But again, by the 2000s, as with ABC, we see a separation of trajectories. Primetime has managed relative stability (CSI anyone?), while daytime has been in linear decline.

Except in the 1970s, for NBC, daytime and primetime have been a pas de deux. NBC daytime has been in decline, steadily, since the early 1970s. So has primetime, except for slow growth and decline in the 1970s that was followed by the mid-80s revolution that Cosby, Family Ties, and Cheers achieved, along with the early-mid 90s rebound that ER brought.

Looking at both the graphs, and the table above, we see that daytime and primetime had yoked trajectories, more or less, in eight out of 15 “decade-by-network” cells. Moreover, the overlapping trajectories were greatest in the 1980s and 1990s, as larger forces of global, systemic decline drove both sets of ratings down. This association has actually been weakened a bit in the 2000s as, for two networks, the rate of decline for daytime has been somewhat steeper than primetime (for ABC and CBS).

This last fact is, in my opinion, somewhat ominous for daytime. Although viewers are being lost all over the dial, if primetime is has declined at a slightly lower rate, it would seem to suggest extra vulnerability for the soaps. Indeed, I think that may be part of the reason CBS lost patience with Guiding Light.

Ratings in context: Soaps near bottom, but slower decline

Roger Newcomb recently linked an article reporting the recent March Sweeps ratings performance (both household rating, and one-year or season-to-date trends) of syndicated daytime and early prime shows. I decided to ask the question of "where do soaps fit in?". I had two questions. First, compared to other genres, how does the average ratings of soaps compare? Second, how does the one-year change rate compare? The answers follow in detail, but in summary, soaps really aren't doing very well in the overall daytime landscape, but their bleeding seems to have slowed. Other genres (judge shows, sitcoms) declined faster in the past year, but because they are cheaper and pull better numbers (sitcoms, anyway), I imagine they might still be more viable.

These answers were a little surprising to me, because I don't pay much attention to other genres. As a caveat, I am showing brute averages, and it would probably be more correct to do weighted averages that adjust for numbers of viewers, etc. In addition, these focus on household ratings numbers (which is all I could get, for the most part)--when we're constantly told it is that 18-49 or 18-34 demo we care more about.

Sitcoms: HH = 3.3
1st Hour morning news (e.g., Today): HH = 3.2
Game Shows: HH = 3.2
Entertainment news (e.g., ET): HH = 2.6
Soaps: HH = 2.2
Talk shows: HH = 2.1
Judge shows: HH = 1.6

That's pretty striking. In terms of delivering eyeballs, the relatively expensive soaps are in the bottom half of daily stripped programming! Yikes! If you were a bean counter, what genre would you pick to deliver eyeballs? Probably not a long-running drama that skews old in the demographics.

Now, the one-year decline trends tell a slightly different story...but this is again a bit of a problematic analysis (because it mixes new programs with long-running shows, and it doesn't control for things like affiliate clearance rates and the like). Still, I think several interesting stories emerge from these numbers:

Sitcoms: -13%
Game Shows: -7%
Entertainment news (e.g., ET): -3%
Soaps: 0%
Talk shows: +3%
Judge shows: -13%

First, in the short term, the soaps seem to have bottomed out, something Sara Bibel has also recently wondered. While we have still seen declines in many shows (B&B, GH, ATWT, GL), these have been offset by minimal decline and gain for others (Y&R, DOOL, AMC, OLTL).

Second, the highest decline rates seem to be for judge shows and sitcoms...but both of these are so relatively cheap. The judge shows, both at the bottom of the ratings pack and with the steepest descent, would seem to be at greatest risk...but they cost so little. The sitcom decline is more interesting to me, since the era of the "grand hit" (Friends, Cosby, Seinfeld) is over, and so I don't know if that genre can flourish without another big primetime hit. On the other hand, since there are no incremental production costs for repurposing and stripping primetime shows, I think all it means is that affiliates will be able to license syndicated shows at a lower rate.

Third, there is enormous variability within genres. That talk genre has some shows that show big to huge gains (Oprah, Ellen, The Doctors, Steve Wilkos, Bonnie Hunt), and these all suggest the talk genre still has momentum. On the other hand, no sitcom, judge show, or game show showed gain...and that suggests that some of those genres may be even more stale than soaps. Still, because those other genres are cheap, I'd still predict they have a better shot of persisting than soaps. The celebrity fascination is still viable, with several gossip/entertainment news shows showing growth.Maybe Soapnet is right to bet on more celebrity-oriented fare? It is somewhat surprising that 'reality' has still not found a foothold on daytime.

Wheel of Fortunea









Two and a Half Men



Judge Judy



Entertainment Tonight



Today Show (1st hour)b


Family Guy4.0-13%
The Young and






The Viewd


Dr Phil



Good Morning America (1st hour)


Everybody Loves Raymond



The Price is Righte3.0

Inside Edition



George Lopez



King of Queens



King of the Hill



Live with Regis & Kelly



Today (2nd hour)


The Bold and



Who Wants to Be a Millionaire



Ellen Degeneres






Judge Joe Brown



Access Hollywood2.2-4%
Days of
Our Lives



CBS Early Show (1st hour)


All My



One Life
to Live

General Hospital

The Doctors



People's Court1.9-17%
As The World



Rachel Ray












Deal or No Deal



Judge Mathis1.6-20%
Guiding Light



Judge Alex



Family Feud



Today (3rd hour)


Divorce Court






Cristina's Court



Jerry Springer



Steve Wilkos



Bonnie Hunt



Judge Karen



Morning Show with Mike and Juliet0.9-10%
Judge David Young0.80%
Martha Stewart0.7-30%
Trivial Pursuit0.60%
Family Court0.5-17%

a Ratings and change data taken from; where the show had been on for less than a year, ratings reflected change since premier

b Morning show ratings taken from One year change data were not readily available.

c Soap opera season to date ratings taken from Soap Opera Network, One year change rates computed from one-year change in total viewers as reported at SON

d The View ratings taken from ABC daytime press release, total viewers = 4,100,000. HH rating estimated by linear regression (Rating = viewers), using data from Soap Opera Network (see footnote c above). The conversion formula was Rating = .096 + 7.081E-7*Viewers. One year change data were not readily available.

e. The Price is Right ratings were averaged over Part 1 and
Part 2(first and second half hour), and reflect season-to-date as reported in January at, total viewers = 4,800,000. HH rating estimated by linear regression (Rating = viewers), using data from Soap Opera Network (see footnote c above). The conversion formula was Rating = .096 + 7.081E-7*Viewers. One year change data were not readily available.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A good "Break" for the future of the serial?

One of the reasons I'm not so disappointed about the apparently sunsetting of the daytime soap genre is because I think I have seen the future...and I love it.

This post was motivated by last night's episode of Breaking Bad, which is (for my money) truly the best show on television right now. But more on that later....


When I was a child, primetime drama was all procedural, all episodic. Even long-running shows, like Gunsmoke or Bonanza, really had no continuing stories or themes. A guest star this week would likely never return to the show least not playing the same character. Marcus Welby, Owen Marshall, Columbo, Barnaby Jones, Mannix...on and on. There was a heavy dose of cop/lawyer/doctor shows, and they also seemed to retain no threads that ran through the series. Only the regular characters and their consistent reactions provided continuity to the shows.

Thus, for continuing, character-based, emotional drama or melodrama, daytime was it.


I'm not being unique when I parrot the idea that Hill Street Blues changed primetime drama forever in 1981. Suddenly, we had a show that -- on the face of it -- was another cop show. But embedded in it were continuing characters with narrative threads that extended over many episodes. Scenes were written simply for character and atmosphere (e.g., close-of-episode intimate moments between Furillo and Davenport).

The melodramatic serial clearly had bits of life in prime time (Peyton Place being the most obvious 1960s exemplar), but serials were uncommon. Dallas had debuted a few years earlier (1978), but it was not until it connected more fully with its soapy identity (melodramatic tales, episode-ending cliffhangers) that the show took off. "Who Shot JR?", in the summer of 1980, launched the birth/rebirth of the primetime soap. Hill Street Blues would modulate that a year later, when it provided a less sensationalistic, more thought-provoking, more cinematic template for the serial a year later.

From these two auspicious beginnings, the primetime landscape was transformed. On the melodrama side, we had Flamingo Road, Knot's Landing, Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and later 90210 and Melrose Place, and these days Gossip Girl and ... On the serious adult drama, we got St. Elsewhere, Thirtysomething, and LA Law and, later, ER, and still later, the Sopranos and Six Feet Under. As I write this, three unconventional serials (24, Lost, Heroes) are at least moderate TV successes, and both are noteworthy because they curry favor with a large male audience.

The serial has become so common place that even the primetime procedurals (NCIS, CSI, Law and Order) have small snippets of continuing narrative and character history that recurs throughout the shows, making the characters more relatable and themselves (outside of the situation of the week) more interesting to follow.


No better exemplar of the wholesale transformation of primetime can be seen than in the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek was a complete episodic. Never once did Kirk, for example, remember a girl he met in Season One when he encountered a similar girl in Season Three. It just didn't happen. By the time Captain Picard and gang came along, all kinds of multi-season arcs were in play, including the Crusher-Picard romance, the Troi-Riker-Worf triangle, Worf's troubled family history, Data's enduring quest to become a "real boy" (i.e., have an emotion chip). The serial had become commonplace.

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that what the serial uniquely does is create a sense of home. Familiar characters, familiar situations, narrative throughlines that (like any good novel) make you want to read the next chapter. Serials make you want to come back, to see how it will turn out. (In contrast, procedurals make you come back to see how they'll solve the puzzle "this time"...but there is nothing in the story itself that compels your return). I cannot wait to see what will happen to Nora and her children on Brothers and Sisters. I simply cannot wait.

So, we have come to place where you don't just have to look to daytime for that "sense of home". Instead, you can find it in primetime...all over the dial.


Now, as we are the cusp of the demise of broadcast TV (in favor of some kind of more pay-as-you go cable/internet model), it seems that cable television has appropriated the serial and made some delicious motivdations of its own.

HBO and Showtime have been playing with serials for some time. But it is commonly held that the one-two punch of HBO's The Sopranos and Sex and the City really remade the serial for cable. Uncommon, envelope-pushing premises ("the domestic travails of a mobster and his consorts in New Jersey"; "the romantic travails of a fashionista/columnist and her girlfriends in the big city"), but with clear serial narrative elements. It was a grafting of the ordinary quotidien life onto words that we, the viewers, would never experience directly. Suddenly, the serial format let us live with these unusual, surprising characters and situations. We followed them, and vicariously joined them.

But HBO (with Six Feet Under and Big Love and Rome and Deadwood and John from Cincinnati), and later Showtime (with Weeds and Queer as Folk and the Tudors and the L-Word) effected another transformation: Serials were no longer meat-and-potatoes...they had become confections--not filling, but satisfying.

There is nothing more "meat and potatoes" than a daily serving of soap opera. Day in and day out it's there. Not particularly special; indeed, the soap's very ordinariness, blended into the daily life of the housewife, meant that you could skip a day...and catch up again. Like a meal of staple foods, it gets you through the day, but you probably won't remember it next week.

What HBO and Showtime did was transform the serial into 10- or 13-week nuggets. Little appetizers that kept you breathlessly tuning in from week to week...and then they were gone. If the show was renewed, you might have to wait 39 weeks or longer for your next serving. Instead of the long hiatus breeding boredom and disconnection, the long breaks between seasons served to frustrate, a growing lust for fulfillment.

(In passing, I also note that HBO and Showtime have worked hard to build "appointment TV"...a fixed time, usually on Sunday nights, when you just have to watch the show can't delay the next installment for another minute).

Of course, the HBO model has been so successful, they've had a hard time topping it. And better yet, "basic cable" has stolen the methdology. The Shield, Damages, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. Whole networks are now being built around these "nuggets". Come for the treat, and our promos will keep you coming back for other offerings.


Which leads me back to Breaking Bad.

The premise is this: An embittered high school chemistry teacher, Walter, who feels cheated by life, has been living just-at-his-means in a working class Albuquerque suburb with his wife and disabled son (Walter Jr. -- one of the most attractive, engaging new young men on television today). In a drab house with olive-toned kitchen appliances, the "rut" of their daily lives is interrupted by the dual traumas of his wife's unexpected mid-life pregnancy, and his own terminal lung cancer diagnosis.

What to do? How to provide for his family after he is gone? (Walter seems to have little confidence that his wife and son will manage; he has control issues and seems to need to 'fix' the situation). The answer is "become a manufacturer of crystal meth". Walter pairs with one of his worst former pupils, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who is a revelation).

As the series spins out, it compares favorably to the Sopranos. We're plunged in a life of addicts and dealers and DEA agents...seedy and grim and violent...but the serial drama and the "ordinary" protagonists serve as our passport into this surprising and shocking world. The writers also creatively shift the rooting dynamics. Jesse Pinkman is an irresponsible stoner...but as time goes on, we see he is hurt by his failings, and that he has a good heart for children and ... even insects. Walter, on the other hand, the "noble" science teacher has serious issues of wounded pride, deceptiveness, and amorality. Who knew Jesse would turn out to be the good guy?

Like the best of the HBO dramas, the unrelenting drama is leavened by humor, and there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments in every episode. In addition, most episodes end with a breathtaking dare not miss the next episode.


One thing the Sopranos and Deadwood and Lost and Breaking Bad all share is that they stay with me. After the episode is done, I cannot stop thinking about them, cannot stop quoting key lines. The episodes compel re-viewing, to catch nuances one missed.

I cannot remember (outside of Y&R these days) when a daytime soap last engaged me thus.

Maybe this is the level of investment and respect that the soap always deserved? Maybe the ending of the unsustainable daytime dinosaurs--deprived of their "specialness" by being so unrelentingly available, day after day--means that the actors and writers and characters get a deeper, more loving treatment? I'm still getting my "soap" fix, but in a very different way.

This is why I am optimistic. The serial is alive, well and ubiquitous. It has evolved into short-term gems that consume the imagination, and that satisfy the viewer long after the closing credits have rolled.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Should-less and savor more?

One the topics I mentioned wanting to address a few weeks ago was “Damon Jacobs and "Shouldless". That is only tangentially related to soaps, and yet I really think he has an awful lot to tell us all.” I’m going to meander just a bit to get there, ‘cause that’s what I do.


Back in 1988, I think, when I was in graduate school (and scraping by on about $500/month), I was shocked when I saw a new (to me) magazine at the grocery store, Soap Opera Weekly. I could scarcely imagine spending the money on it, but I did. It was not the last time.

As the magazine evolved, one of my favorite weekly features was “Marlena Delacroix”. In that era, there was precious little criticism available (in magazines, and I never even heard of e-mail until 1987…I didn’t discover Usenet as a soap community until 1989), and even less that was as erudite and well-argued as Ms. Delacroix. Wrapped in a humorous package of “moi” and “toi” and “mon ami”, it was addictive and thought provoking.

Therefore, several years back, when Marlena re-appeared on Jack Myers’ website, I was delighted and, being the true fanboy I am, sent her an email of gratitude and welcome. As she established her own site, I cheered and have visited regularly since.

In the best tradition of soapdom, Ms. Delacroix has used her own “veteran” status to nurture young talent. In this case, she introduced me (and many others) to two fabulous new voices (at least, voices we hadn’t heard before)…Patrick Erwin and Damon Jacobs. I’ve cited Patrick here many times (including in my penultimate post, before this one).

Damon, on Marlena’s site, works as the “Soap Shrink”. In that role, he tries to provide a cogent analysis of how our favorite dysfunctional characters have come to be as they are. For me, the insights he tries to provide into possible motivations and origins only deepens my enjoyment of the characters. Spinelli has Aspergers? I’m not sure, but it sure is fun to think about.


Soap Shrink led me to Damon’s own site, Absolutely Should-Less. Now, fair disclosure: Damon and I kind of share a profession (not really…but I work as a psychologist and methodologist in a university) as well as a soap obsession, so I’m probably especially interested in his insights.

I’m not alone. Just last week, the Canadian TV Guide’s Nelson Branco featured a list of “Should-less” guidelines for daytime.

Totally paraphrasing (and probably mis-characterizing…I hope not), I read Damon’s core message as having two key pieces: First, fight the triumph of the super-ego. Let go of the excessive shoulds and oughts that rule our behaviors (and bring us guilt and shame and all their attendant consequences), and live authentically and concordant with one's goals. Second, live in the now. Don’t focus on what should have been or what ought to be; take the current and controllable circumstances of your life and optimize your happiness and goal pursuit within that context.

From Damon’s site:

If you have ever experienced any stress or sadness from looking in the mirror and telling yourself you should lose weight, make more money, think smarter, look better, or be any different than who you are today, then you are suffering the consequences of devastating "shoulds" … What makes this book different from other self-help books is that it identifies the role and responsibility of media and culture in the creating and sustaining of harmful "shoulds." It recognizes how institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia play a significant role in determining one's self-esteem, and how the "status-quo" stands to benefit from individuals feeling bad about themselves.

A visit to Damon’s current site shows that in March he did a series on having the “Best Recession Ever”. With insights like “Lose the "should" about your least for now,” and “Resist holiday gift-giving ‘shoulds’” and “Recognize the Recession in your mind”, Jacobs’ entries really show how the many expectations and obligations of our social world can really work to make the current economic crisis even more difficult, phenomenologically, than it needs to be. Consequently, closing one’s ears to media and social influences that shape our expectations, as well as taking a firm inventory of what we really need and want, can really help us weather the trials of these economic days.

Important messages! For any one of us who have laid waste to vast portions of our lives by listening to the “other” and not to ourselves, there cannot be better advice. Damon leads us to life than can be relatively free of the self-judgment that causes us to miss so many happy moments. And that is my segue back to the world of soaps….


...I am a regular participant on several soap opera boards and blogs, and there is a persistent place where I disagree with many of my colleagues. It goes something like this:

OTHERS (this is a mini-compendium): Soaps are in the current state they are because of creative bankruptcy. The “suits” made bad decisions to increase the ‘shock value’ and ‘youth appeal’ of the soaps. We can lay the blame at Gloria Monty’s feet. She started the disregard of veterans and history – the “youthquake” – that has ruined daytime with sensationalism. Moreover, the writing teams and executive producers of these shows should listen to the fans more. They should write genuine happiness more often. They should…

And on it goes.

ME: Soaps would be, more or less, where they are today regardless of a single creative decision. There are larger demographic and viewership factors at play. These factors have led to the ratings and economic decline of all of network television, not just soaps. Soaps would still be where they are because women no longer work at home as much, families don’t watch together as much. Moreover, each generation needs to identify its own cultural signposts, and soaps – sadly – are the signposts of our mothers and grandmothers.

So how does this relate to “Should-less”?

Take the cancellation of Guiding Light. I have read people say they would turn off CBS for cancelling the show. (Ignoring the 72 years of investment CBS has made). I have seen desperation to continue the show elsewhere (and that worries me that anticipatory socialization, to prepare for the show’s passing, is not being done). I have seen so much anger directed at a host of past creative types (Jill Farren Phelps, John Conboy, Paul Rauch, Mary Alice Dwyer Dobbin, Ellen Weston, Ellen Wheeler, David Kreizman, and on and on).

In all the blame and rancor, it seems likely to me that for some fans, the light might go out in a blaze of anger and recrimination.

Therewith goes the joy.

I think, whether in 2009 or 2016, the Guiding Light would have been extinguished sooner than later…even if Nancy Curlee or Douglas Marland had never stopped writing, and even if Gail Kobe had never stopped producing, and even if Ed Trach were still at P&G. It would have happened. Because forces outside of daytime and outside of creative influence are bringing us to this place. The genre is gradually passing, as all genres must.

What if we just threw the shoulds away? What if we savored what we were enjoying (Otalia! Phillip happens here! Shane and Dinah! Rick and Mindy! Might Reva survive and reunite with Josh before it is all over?)? What if we treasured these final days, and looked back on the 72 or 57 or whatever years of enjoyment? And let the rest go?

Instead of focusing on the myriad shoulds that might have given GL a tiny bit more of (maybe lower quality) life, what if we looked back in gratitude and thanks? What if we used the rich gift of a lifetime of GL, and used it to inspire our next creative pursuit? What if, in stormy times, we looked back on moments we once enjoyed, and took comfort in having known Springfield?

Let me also say, this is not specific to GL. As I have expressed elsewhere on this blog, I think every one of us soap fans will experience this in the near future. Shall we repeat the litany of blame and anger each time? Or is there another way? "Thanks for the memories"?

Damon’s lessons for living, I think, can help us through this sunsetting of the genre. Indeed, with regard to GL, I think there may already be some good models, like DaytimeDirect and the GL Appreciation thread at SoapOperaNetwork. I'd encourage those who are angry to maybe look at these sites. I think they might help.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Using the GL evolution as an experiment

As a non-GL viewer, my reaction to GL's apparent passing is not emotional, but intellectual. I do view the loss of the oldest soap, one of the last Irna Phillips soaps, the only soap to make it from radio to the present, as a major symbolic loss for the genre. GL bordered on "sacred cow", so when we're ready to kill that one...

In this post, though, I want to focus on a more optimistic future, and some personal "brainstorming" I have been doing to think about what a next-generation GL might look like.

The rumors are that GL is looking for a new home. DaytimeConfidential suggests that the most serious talks are with the Lifetime Network.

Since Lifetime is "Television for Women", I don't watch that a seems to be the new home of women-in-peril movies (what we used to call "Movies of the Week" or "Sunday Night Movies"). In principle, such an emotional, women-oriented platform seems ideal for soaps.

But there is also a fundamental difference. The two-hour movie is self-contained. You get your emotional fix and then you move on, never again to revisit those characters. That is the antithesis of a soap.

So, how to graft the two together? My feeling is that the secret is to move in the direction of a telenovela...a self-contained story that is fixed in time. (I know this has been tried and failed...OLTL was reviled when Michael Malone played with short arcs, and Port Charles is no longer around -- a testament to the failure of that experiment. Indeed, some attribute GL's most recent fall to its lack of melodramatic and serial elements during the first year of the new production model).

So, what if Springfield/GL is used as the fictional universe (with all the history back there, but maybe not front and center), and a series of 13-week 30- or 60-minute ensemble dramas (set to play once a week...not daily) were set there?

For example, using the current buzzworthy tale, what if for 13 weeks Lifetime presented: "Otalia" (with, in smaller letters, at the bottom of the screen, "A Guiding Light/Springfield story").

Now, let's pretend that for the first 13-weeks, the "A" story of "Otalia" is about these two women becoming open and committed lovers (say the last episode of GL = Otalia getting married, so the new series picks up on their married life). As an ensemble show, there could be "B" and "C" stories anchored in Otalia (their co-workers, relatives, friends), but distinct. Some of those "B" and "C" stories could come from the rest of the GL universe--AS LONG AS THEY WERE THEMATICALLY TIED IN (e.g., Doris tries, finally, to open her heart to love while her daughter has a hard time coping; Frank tries to move on in the world, looking for a woman who can finally appreciate him for what he is).

At the end of the 13-week arc, Otalia would rest. Maybe it would come back "next season" (next year), or maybe not. That would depend on fan response.

Meanwhile, after the 13-week arc is over, another 13-week novel would begin. For example (don't roll your eyes...I'm trying to play to a Lifetime audience here): "Healing Hearts: The Story of Dinah and Shane". Again, at the bottom of the screen, it would be signalled as "A Guiding Light/Springfield Story".

As that couple plays out its 13-week drama, again supported by related "B" and "C" stories (I really think these shows have to be tighter and more viewers MUST be able to sample without getting lost), there could be weeks with "Special Guest Star Kim Zimmer" or "Special Guest Star Maeve Kinkead" (spelling fixed per comment below). At that could be the link to classic GL.

Soap opera towns and universes are fictional places that we love to return to over and over again. In the new financials and the evolving universe, where the patience and time for a daily experience may not longer exist, and where the "burden" of decades of history may actually serve as a turnoff for viewers, can GL pioneer (as it has before) the evolution of the form? Can Springfield and the 70 years of history that went before serve as the "franchise" in which self-contained short arc stories...featuring people we know and people we don't know...keep the town alive?

Maybe returning to Springfield and Guiding Light in a different way would be the method of achieving this "place to come home to" while building something that requires a little less commitment?

I note that the GH:Night Shift experiment did something very much like this. If anything, it was too tied to the "mothership", using too many characters from the daytime show (enough that discontinuities between the two series annoyed some fans). Night Shift I was a ratings success for Soapnet (but not a critical one). Night Shift II was a critical success but ratings failure. I know that a version of this experiment (ATWT's Eileen Fulton spinoff, Our Private World, penned in part by Bill Bell) did not succeed in the 1960s...but that was not so fully situated in the Oakdale universe. It was a true spinoff, and those are always risky.

Maybe Lifetime (or whomever is lucky enough to participate in the evolution of the GL franchise) can find a way to tell new stories rooted in Springfield. If lightning strikes, this new GL might satisfy both the commercial needs of the network, and storytelling needs of hungry fans, all of whom believe there is still life in the "old girl".

For all of them, I wish that the genre trailblazer continues to push soaps forward into the new media landscape.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Soapnet and SyFy and Guiding Light

In this entry, I want to briefly acknowledge the reality that cable networks, including Soapnet are fickle things. They have to constantly evolve to survive. With that being the case, there is little reason to believe that Soapnet is going to be a viable home for the future of daytime--certainly not Guiding Light. Personally, I think P&G/Telenext has the exciting -- and risky -- opportunity to create its own new exclusive-content online distribution channels. These channels will connect them directly with their intended ad recipients. If P&G shows leadership here, they may in fact have figured out a way to be the leaders for the third major soap evolution (TV to online), just as they blazed the trail from radio to TV in the 1950s.

Here's how I think:

a. Soapnet continues to evolve, and it has to to stay alive. As an advertiser- and subscriber-supported network, they have to run the stuff that gets the coveted eyeballs (18-49 women) and makes money.

b. All cable networks seem to do this. The template for cable network evolution is all over the board...Nick at Nite, TVLand, MTV, GSN, Bravo, A&E, TruTV. Every one of these networks started with one identity and programming concept, but has now become somthing very different. Some have had wholesale identity shifts (TruTv which started as CourtTV), others have tweaked their program mix away from what was their core brand (MTV now barely plays music; GSN has minimized the classic game shows; AMC has banging original shows and newer movies...not the black and white commercial free classics they started with).

So it is with Soapnet. Another World is gone. Ryan's Hope is stuck in a perpetual loop at 4 am. Weekend marathons of most soaps are gone. Original soap-related programming (Soap Talk, Soapcenter, Soapography, One Day With, Night Shift) is gone.

Many feel cheated by the brand evolution, but it is very clear to me that it is a survival strategy.

Why should we hate these companies for doing what they need to to make money?

SyFy is one of the most glaring recent examples. Their recent evolution from the network for Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who into the network for ... something really different ... simply shows that being the niche sci-fi channel couldn't work for them anymore.

Let me say, though, that while I'm kind of blase about these brand switches, they INFURIATE a lot of my fellow viewers. With regard to Soapnet, specifically, viewers feel betrayed. "We called our cable provider to put Soapnet on so we could watch Another World, and then they took it away!" or "Brian Frons hates soaps, so he minimizes their presence on his network".

Honestly I do not believe it is anything that malevolent--or specific to soaps.. I just think that these cable networks are so fragile and marginal that they have to quickly evolve or die. Why would we expect less of a soap network? It is clear that this is a survival strategy that has affected most of the viable networks out there. Anyone remember "Outdoor Living Network?" Oh yeah...they're called VS now. Where is the Nashville Network? Oh yeah...that's Spike.

3. Soapnet, though, may be kind of screwed. Why? Because despite their attempts to revise their brand, their big numbers still come from same day primetime reruns of daytime of soaps. What to?? Your big numbers come from the "granny shows". You're screwed!

That suggests to me that Soapnet may not fully evolve until it dumps the daytime shows and rebrands (Reality-and-Celebrity-net).

4. What about soaps, then?

The rebranding of Soapnet actually may portend hope for soaps -- but not on TV. Soapnet itself seems to be moving into the online distribution world...and its inhospitable (to soaps) broadcast platform may help more quickly move soaps onto the internets. It is there -- if anywhere -- that I think survival can be found. (Once we figure out how to properly monetize and protect these streams)

For example the network just recently acquired online streaming rights for Days of our Lives...which is interesting, because their website currently doesn't stream shows...and DOOL has been uniquely available via I-tunes.

Maybe the online portal -- where infrastructure costs are much lower -- will be the place for daytime soaps and classic soaps. That fits in well with the rapid emergence of an on-demand on-line television culture (Hulu, Fancast,, etc). Indeed, perhaps Soapnet should strive to become the exclusive online distributor of soaps (all other services have to license content through them...and use their advertisers).

5. What does this have to do with Guiding Light?

Well, Brian Cahill of TeleNext is talking about finding new homes for his show.

I would not urge him to talk to Soapnet. Not only does that network not have real-estate for the P&G shows, but history shows they are not loyal to original programming (few last more than a season). And the network clearly wants to get One Tree Hill/Gilmore Girl viewers and Lifetime Movie women...who seem to be a little different (younger?) than soap viewers.

Indeed, I think P&G should just bite the bullet and create its own online distribution channel. They have already been going great guns to create online niches that deliver content to the viewers they seek to advertise too.

"If you build it, they will come". P&G should just continue to control GL, and use it as the experimental vehicle to build a new "soaps" channel. GL continues in that way to be the leader (just as it moved from radio over 50 years ago, now it can be the first mover to the internet). Initially, this GL might be a loss leader...but eventually it could build an intriguing new online brand that might represent the future of soaps.

6. Is this pie in the sky?

On April 1, I would have said there was no hope for GL to continue to exist. Now, I'm starting to get the sense that P&G/Telenext might be serious about trying to do something to at least explore whether the brand can be revitalized and made more relevant off of CBS.

If so, I want to remind P&G: A big part of your GL problem was that you could not fully control the creative product (thanks to corporate overseers) or the distribution (thanks to recalcitrant affiliates that either refused to air the show, or put it on at goofy times). I urge P&G to retain control of the content during this next evolution, and to control the channel. It is from that control (let's call it "protection") that I could imagine that a 'safe harbor' for the evolution of daytime might actually emerge.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Patrick Erwin's Domino hypothesis: Wacky?

Patrick blogged on his website today, reacting to a TVWeek columnist who apparently felt that Patrick's "domino thesis", expressed thusly

”Understand that if GL is canceled, it will start a domino effect. If/when GL and/or DAYS disappears, you can expect other shows to follow quickly in their footsteps.”

was "wacky".

Since I'm all about understanding causal factors and modeling them, this domino hypothesis (what some statisticians would call a Markov chain) is very intriguing to me? In the end, I do not believe that the proposition that the fall of GL will contribute to the fall of other soaps is a testable one. Intuitively, I think he has a point, though.


1. Per se, the cancellation of Guiding Light will have no necessary effect on any other soap. Just like canceling, say Jericho, had no effect for CBS on Criminal Minds or CSI:Everywhere, I don't think that cancelling GL will necessarily impact any other show.


2. Will cancellation lead to more or less promotion for other soaps? It really doesn't matter. The loss of GL, in principle, costs a promotion venue for other soaps, pitched at soap watchers. But the reality is that a daytime replacement (say Pyramid) could have soap promotions, and they might actually be more effective, because they might court new non-soap viewers. Moreover, with one recent exception (CBS' promotion of Y&R's Sudden Impact arc), there is no evidence AT ALL that promotion influences short-term ratings. In October 2007, for example, CBS bought ad time on other networks to promote its Y&R Out of the Ashes arc...and ratings actually went down.


3. It is the "taint of death" that may kill them all. I think there is much greater risk to the genre in further heightening the widespread understanding that daytime is a dying genre. Phil Rosenthal writes in today's Chicago Tribune that

The laws of physics don't change: Mass times acceleration still equals force. But with audiences splintering across an ever-widening spectrum of content, individual mass media outlets simply don't have as much mass as they used to, leaving acceleration to pick up the slack—and it's the speed with which word of that content travels rather than the content itself that creates the impact...."Light" has its own devoutly faithful followers, to be sure, although that number has declined. When it comes to daytime drama, people are far more likely to be talking about the latest blowup on ABC's "The View" which averages 4.25 million viewers.
Translation: "buzz" matters. And the cancellation of Guiding Light, he would argue, is in part because it was no longer buzzworthy. (That's wrong, by the way. Proof: Otalia).

But, in support of Patrick's thesis, the cancellation of Guiding Light produces a followup negative buzz. If "Grandma's soap" or "the oldest soap" or "the only soap to survive radio" dies, it doesn't take much for some cultural consumers to further understand that soaps are a dying genre. And that WILL influence their likelihood of sampling other soaps.

Case in point: "Disco Sucks":

Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity and restore the holy dyad of cold brew and undemanding sex partners. Disco bashing became a major preoccupation in 1977. At the moment when Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 achieved zeitgeist status, rock rediscovered a rage it had been lacking since the '60s, but this time the enemy was a culture with "plastic" and "mindless" (read effeminate) musical tastes. Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, it's clear that the slogan of this movement--"Disco Sucks!"--was the first cry of the angry white male. -- Peter Braunstein

The 'Disco Sucks' campaign was a white, macho reaction against gay liberation and black pride more than a musical reaction against drum machines. In England, in the same year as the 'Disco Sucks' demo in America, The Young Nationalist - a British National Party publication - told its readers: 'Disco and its melting pot pseudo-philosophy must be fought or Britain's streets will be full of black-worshipping soul boys.'...Then WLUP-DJ Steve Dahl is credited by many with singlehandedly ending the disco era. On July 12, 1979, after several smaller anti-disco events, Dahl's "Disco Demolition" between games of a twi-night doubleheader at old Comiskey park, ended up with the field completely trashed, and the White Sox forced to forfeit the second game.
It is this reinforcement of soaps as a dying genre ... in the minds of ad executives, network leaders, and cultural consumers that could, in effect, be a Donna-Summer-style-soap-killer.


4. But here's the thing: Soaps are dying. Short of holding on to GL as some kind of public/historical service, soaps are dying. My recent post with some new prediction models kind of illustrates that inescapable conclusion, I think (albeit, with a little hope thrown in).

In that sense, I really think it is important not to over-inflate the significance of the GL cancel.

Really, truly, rationally, we knew this was coming. Some of us thought it might wait till 2010, but Ellen Wheeler talked candidly about this with the GL bloggers late last year.

Moreover, as that figure above shows, most of us kind of know the pecking order of impending cancellations, and that hasn't changed since GL's cancellation. It is "foreordained" by the numbers and the trends...and the sad fact that for most of the population soaps are now as hopelessly out of date as disco and Lawrence Welk and manual typewriters.

Cultural obsolesence, coupled with changing daytime demographics and changing advertiser economics is what did this.


5. Whither soap opera? Maybe that is more correctly asked as "what is the future of the serial?"

The future is not in the daytime. The future is not melodramatic. The future is not necessarily woman-oriented. The future is not daily. The future is not on broadcast TV.

The evolution is being televised.

Friday Night Lights. ER. Brothers and Sisters. Lost. True Blood. Continuing themes in NCIS. The serial is really alive and well. Adult drama is live and well (well, thanks to Jay Leno on NBC...maybe not so well right now).

The soap -- a particular commercial form for women to "listen" to at home while ironing and cooking -- that is on the way out. For those of us who loved it, that is lamentable...but we can take comfort in all the contributions soaps have made for most of the 20th century and a smidgen of the 21st.


6. Wacky? Not at all. Not one bit. But the use of that word "wacky" is a fundamental one--and it displays the kind of cultural bias that soaps have had to work against from the beginning.

  • Too commercial (e.g., James Thurber's "Anacinville")
  • Too women-oriented (melodrama produces eye rolls in the network executive)
  • Too emotional and relationship oriented (that's basically misogyny and, in more recent times, homophobia)
  • Too old (When we call them "grandma's stories", we're basically buying into both ageism, and the prevailing belief that generations can't share popular culture)

Wacky is just the latest line of insults that soaps and their supporters have had to endure. So, as we have for the better part of a century, our best course of action is to ignore the insulters. Because they do not understand how these "worlds without end" have given us a sense of home and narrative throughline that runs through our lives. They cannot know what we will be missing, because they never had the joy of experiencing it for themselves in the first place.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jess Walton "hysteria"? I think not!

I adore Sara Bibel's blog. She has this no-bullshit way of cutting through the melodrama (a task I fail at) and sort of offering an incisive analysis. She is usually spot-on, because she blends industry knowledge, phenomenological experience from the Y&R creative team, and a history as a ratings analyst. That ivy-league education doesn't hurt either.

But Sara espoused something about the recent Jess Walton contract negotiations that I disagree with. (For those not following every twist, Y&R issued a recasting call for "Jill", ostensibly because Walton was 'under the weather'. Sources indicated, however, that it was really part of a tense negotiation between Walton and Sony/Bell/Y&R in which TPTB sought to lower Walton's episode guarantee and/or rate. The recast notice was publicized by Soap Opera Digest last Friday, but by late Monday, initial word came that Walton had re-signed. In other words, one side or both blinked).

Sara said this:

Jess Walton is leaving The Young & The Restless because she’s sick! No, it’s because the show is going to cut her appearances to once a month and her salary to minimum wage! Deidre Hall is going to take over the role. No, Anna Stuart. Actually, Jessica Lange and Goldie Hawn are going to dye their hair and split the role in a casting coup. Even though the show can’t afford Walton. Wait, Walton just signed a new deal. Nevermind.

As for l’affaire de Walton, it seems like it was a standard contract negotiation that unfortunately played out in the press. Unfortunately, everyone in daytime is being asked to take pay cuts these days. Hell, everyone in America is. Nobody likes them. Rest assured, your favorite soap star won’t be showing up at your local food bank anytime soon. They’re still making six figures, just less than they were before. Soaps often take the step of putting out casting calls for recasts when actors balk. It isn’t a friendly tactic. Sometimes it backfires (see Byrne, Martha). But, it often makes people sign on the dotted line. That’s what happened here. The winner, in this case, in the audience who gets to keep watching Walton in the meatiest storyline she has had in years.
Hmmm. Internet over-reaction? Excessive support for an actress during 'customary' negotiations? After all, she won't go hungry (says the previously self-titled 'unemployed' writer).

My view on this is completely different. I think that "l'affaire Walton" demonstrates the new engaged, activist audience, and there are many lessons in the furious weekend of Walton scribblings. At Soap Opera Network, half the posters changed their avatars to Walton images for the weekend!

For the record, the word "hysteria" I use below is the connotation I took from Bibel's piece (and other writers and posters from the same period), and is NOT a quote.

1. Fans had a right to mistrust. A frequent term was the "ABC-Dification of Y&R"...used to refer to the fact that veterans on ABC have been set to recurring or low guarantees...and then become non-viable. This has happened trans-genre.
2. It was compounded by the fact that the LUMINOUS, REMARKABLE, BEST-WORK-OF-HER-CAREER Walton was finally back on the front burner after five years of -- ahem -- misguided storytelling. Now, finally, when Michael Jordan is back and scoring, you're gonna even THREATEN to cut him from the team? This part of the fan response was simply an expression of love -- not hysteria.
3. Y&R itself has a relatively recent history of "botching" (in the fan mind) many of these tense negotiations. While opinions are mixed, the loss of Heather Tom and Victoria Rowell is attributed by many to an unproductively unflinching TPTB. Injudicious cast cutting, in the eyes of some, cost us Jerry Douglas and Don Diamont. Ridiculous inflexibility led to long hiatuses for fan faves like Melody Thomas Scott (who reportedly cleared out her dressing room), Eric Braeden, Joshua Morrow, and Sharon Case. Nobody wanted that for "Jill", the sole "legacy character" who has been there from the beginning.
4. It is true that the news about the negotiations was remarkably 'real time'. Just a few years ago, I'd get my news about 'tense negotiations' from Soap Opera Digest, and by the time I read it, a new deal had already been made. Therefore, it is quite a sign of journalistic evolution that the news now was immediate. Was the fan response "hysteria". In my opinion, the new era of real-time news means that the fans were co-participants in the negotiation! Like a papal nomination, we were thronging outside the Vatican, looking for the color of the smoke.
5. "Tense" negotiations, eh? But they got resolved over a weekend! During that period, many people -- informed by the real time news -- sent notes of protest and support to CBS, Bell, Sony and Walton. One source (another fallacious internet rumor? maybe?) indicates to me that these notes DID reach TPTB, and that some executives WERE surprised at the level of pro-Walton support.

Let's pretend the last point is true? Maybe the fan voices ("hysteria"), in some small way, shifted the valence of the negotiations. Maybe the fan voices made it just a little harder for TPTB to maintain the claim to Walton of "you can be easily replaced". Maybe, just maybe, "hysterical" fans helped prevent the kind of painful, damaging, protracted negotations (often with "bad" outcomes from a fan perspective) that happened before?

Who knows. Even if the fan voices were irrelevant, one cannot underestimate the powerful well-being benefits of a little self-efficacy and locus of control. The illusion of playing a small role in affecting an outcome is -- itself -- a wonderful thing. If that weren't true, why else would many of us go out and vote in elections?

In the end, though, I love happy endings! Glad you're sticking around, Jess!

PS: Ms Walton, I hope you have given up smoking! (A lot of us were scared by that 'under the weather' comment)

Optimism/Another Graph/GL's fate is not Ellen Wheeler's fault

A persistent irritant for me is the claim that the fate of GL (and all soaps) is due to "bad writing" and mismanagement. Ellen Wheeler is heralded as the anti-Christ. If not she, then Paul Rauch, John Conboy, Ellen Weston, Jill Farren Phelps, Mary Alice Dwyer Dobbin and a whole cast of villains gets blamed for what happened.

I have tried to prove here, elsewhere that:

- the rate of decline is virtually identical for all the soaps; excluding small variations (where soaps jockey for different positions in the rank order) they've all gone down in lockstep
- no 'resurgence' (not even GH's celebrated early 80s triumph) has had any long-term impact on the decline process that started in the 1970s or earlier (and became clearly manifest by 1980)
- indeed, in the last decade, the rate of decline in daytime has mirrored that of primetime, suggesting that the problem may be more related to "broadcast TV" than soaps in particular.

I've been called naive, immature and misguided for this. I still think I am right :). When the same thing happens to every show, you have to believe it is something about the industry or the genre or the platform.

What I believe is that the creative state of soap CAN influence its relative position. For example, I think the reason Y&R has been consistently #1 for almost two decades relates, in part, to its use of a consistent cast, production style, narrative throughline from the beginning. "Jill and Kay", two presently front burner characters, were both on the front burner in 1973. I also think CBS and her affiliates have been more supportive of Y&R, scheduling the show during a higher-viewership time (lunchtime, for many), and not punting the show all over the daypart.

But, even Y&R has declined, more or less, at the same rate as all the other shows. Which tells me, as someone who thinks a lot about "systems level processes" in my day job, that this is more about factors extrinsic to soaps.

In the past, therefore, I (erroneously?) concluded that all soaps are going to follow this death trajectory. By using some simplified projections (a linear rate of decline that is constant for all soaps) I went so far as to say the last soap, Y&R, might be cancelled in 2016.

Now, I think I might be wrong. At the behest of several posters at SON, I redid the above analysis, making a few changes: First, I did not require linear decline (that is important, because it means that if any show seems to be "levelling off" in decline, this new model will pick that up). Second, I did not impose the same decline slope for all shows -- I let the actual data from the past decade, for each show, determine the decline slope. Using that, and picking an arbitrary cancellation criterion of Household Neilsen Rating = 1.5 (which I picked out of thin air), some interesting things happened.
  • First, I replicated some of my previous findings: It would appear that ATWT, DOOL, AMC and OLTL are all on a pretty unstoppable "death" trajectory (but only if my assumptions are right!).
  • Second, three soaps (GH, Y&R, B&B) would seem to have the possibility of levelling off. Which means, if you project into the reasonable future (e.g., 2013), there is no reason to project (on strictly quantitative groups) that they will reach the cancellation threshold.

Is the rate of decline REALLY levelling off? Well, I plotted the four-year HH ratings (which I realize many don't care about, because it's all about the 18-49 female demo, but I care more about how many absolute Live+Same Day viewers a show gets), and sure enough, the slope of descent has apparently slowed from higher rates earlier in the decade.

"A little hope, a little romance, a big fat bulge in the hero's pants" (from Soaps in the Bunker).