Recently, a friend and I had a discussion about the future of soaps. What, we asked each other, will daytime television look like once the few remaining soaps are gone? What will the networks and sponsors come up with to fill in the empty space? Infomercials? Talk shows? Game shows? All of these are distinct possibilities. In my opinion, not a one of them has a chance in hell of gaining the sort of viewer loyalty that a well-written, daily soap opera can elicit. Only time will tell what the daytime landscape will look like, but there are certainly several factors for TPTB should take into consideration when making decisions about programming.
The Myth of Youth
I keep hearing about how what has killed the American soap opera is the fact that young people aren't interested in this old-school style of entertainment. People under 30, we're told, don't have the attention spans of the generations that preceded them. This may be true to some extent, but something else is true: there are more of us than there are of them. Ever heard the term "baby boom"? This is an aging population. While networks have kept busy trying to court young audiences, the writing on the wall has become clear: there are not only more older people than young people in America, but older people have significantly more spending power. And, make no mistake about it - advertisers know this.
Most young people may never be fans of a traditional, daily serial that is character-driven, requires perseverance, loyalty, and an attention span of more than ten minutes, but that doesn't really matter if networks and sponsors are trying to develop programming that caters to people who have spending power.
The Melting Pot vs. The Box of 64 Colors
Remember that line in your grade school history book about America being a melting pot? Well, forget it. It was a lie. No one moves to America, anymore, and identifies as just "American." I don't care if people like this, or not (I love it), but there is no such thing as the American melting pot. Immigrants who arrived in the USA during the last 100 years have, by and large, retained their ethnic , cultural and racial identities. This isn't a nation inhabited by one, homogeneous race of human beings. We're black, white, Asian, Hispanic....we're Christian and Jewish and Buddhist....we're straight and gay and all things in-between.
This is how America looks. It's how the real world looks. Television should look more like the real world. We notice when it doesn't. It pisses a lot of us off when it doesn't. It pisses us off even more when it's clear that it doesn't because someone is making a concerted effort to make sure it doesn't.
How We Watch
I'm old enough to remember a time when, if you missed an episode of All My Children, the best you could do was have a friend fill you in and then read the Soap Opera Digest recap. No VCRs. No Soapnet. No YouTube.
Times have changed, and technology has moved at lightning speed in the last 40 years. These days, when fewer people are at home during the day to watch their soaps in real time, there's no reason to miss them. Soapnet airs rebroadcasts of several shows during the evening and on weekends. Television networks make episodes of their soaps available via streaming video on the web. DVR technology makes it possible to digitally record and store literally hundreds of hours of programming for later viewing.
If the way we watch television has changed, it follows suit that the way television is made, marketed and evaluated for ratings should also change.
When I was a kid, growing up in a major, urban market, there were three television networks, three local stations, and one public broadcasting channel on VHF to choose from. (UHF was, in large part, dedicated to Spanish-language programming, and aimed at what was then considered a negligible demographic. See "The Melting Pot..." above.)
Today, the rare person who is at home watching television on weekdays has hundreds of cable channels to choose from. Add to that video games and the internet, and it's astounding how many choices people have when it comes to choosing sedentary entertainment.
If television - any sort of television, not just serial drama - is going to attract viewers, there has to be a damned good reason to watch. Word has it that CBS is disappointed with the ratings for Let's Make A Deal, the game show that replaced Guiding Light late last year. Is it really all that surprising that people who are home during the day consistently find something other than this low-budget, out-of-date costume party game show to devote their time to?
A Good Story
Everyone loves a good story. Storytelling is about a lot more than just throwing random characters together, and assigning them arbitrary tasks to perform. Good storytelling relies on characters who have depth and history, relationships to one another and the world they inhabit. Good storytelling revolves around conflict that is interesting on the surface, and strikes a chord on a deeper level. With so many entertainment choices available to the television viewer, this fundamental tenet cannot be ignored: human beings love a good story. Our stories are who we are.
Next: Part II - The Daily Serial: Signs of Life