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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

1 comment:

NC1980 said...

I am, personally, trying to deal with the current state of soaps and have been thinking about one thing in general. Your comments touch on some of it - and this has to do with the state of network television in general, not just daytime.

There seems to be so much fear and trepidation surrounding television. From new series on prime time to soap operas, the constant push to find the next cash cow has created a state of fear for viewers and it is no wonder no one takes the time to tune in. Regarding prime time, I don't want to spend three or four hours of my hard-earned free time getting to know a new show, finding out I like it, only to have the network cancel the show and never bring it back because it wasn't an INSTANT hit.

I think these feelings are compounded in daytime where you have characters and actors who have been around for years, decades, or more, and you have fans so personally loyal; fans who have taken years to invest in something they like. The fear that our favorites will be taken away, that they will be recast; the fear that, in order to make more money, the show will betray its roots and try to become something its not, make viewing and investing in a soap rather hurtful. Why would a viewer who once loved a soap but doesn't watch any longer take the risk of re-visiting a show in a new medium like DVR,or online, if there is no confidence in the consistance of the show. Why would a new viewer ever take the time to get to know a soap opera for the first time with the MASS numbers of recasts, firing, and exodus that the modern soap opera offers.

I think soap opera viewers today watch with constant fear - and the cancellation of Guiding Light only reinforces that fear. How does that begin to change?