Friday, March 19, 2010

Breakfast of Champions: Is there hope for The Great American Serial?

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

© 2010 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves

4 comments: said...


bl said...

This gave me a lot to think about, but I edited my response as to not be too long winded.

I don't think that the networks care about the long term investment or gaining loyalty. They are just looking for the big bucks now, and the future doesn't matter. In some ways, I can sort of understand that point of view, but it can end in ratings disaster as well. NBC's prime time line up with their Jay Leno experiment reminds me of that.

The style of television and movies changing due to young people not having the attention span has been around for a long time--the MTV generation generalization comes to mind. I can't remember when that wasn't the norm, but then again I can't remember when there wasn't an MTV even if I was alive when MTV started.

I think most young people may never be fans of traditional daily serial that is character driven, because I don't think the networks are delivering. They are underestimating the audience and discounting the younger viewers they do have. By trying to get elusive new viewers they are annoying/frustrating/angering the ones they do have. Even if they do get an increase of viewers in the prize demographic, who is to say that they aren't losing some they had before the changes were made.

Melting pot versus the box of crayons...hmmm Where I went to school it was melting pot versus a mixed salad.

For a time, Let's Make a Deal was getting better ratings than GL had. I read it on one of the game show sites. I wonder when the ratings started to decline.

Karen said...

Actually, this nation really has never been a melting pot, if you consider that German immigrants who arrived in the British colonies over 300 years ago held onto their culture and heritage, and their ancestors still maintain these customs today. I've always considered it a "multicultural stew" instead of a melting pot, because each ethnic groups does maintain some of its distinctive characteristics, and there really is no one typical "American."

And I'm from a generation that began watching soaps before VCRs, and college students scheduled their classes around their favorite soap. I even had a roommate change majors because one of the required courses for her major conflicted with General Hospital.

Snapper said...

There is so much bullshit surrounding the thinking about young viewers. Yes, they may be more used to receiving information in short bytes, but they're also the generation who sat through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy 25 times.

I think Let's Make a Deal may still be performing better than GL did in many markets, but I've heard the network is less than thrilled with it. Remember - in GL they had a guaranteed sponsor, because P&G owned the show. And I can guarantee no one is DVRing episodes of Let's Make a Deal to watch on the weekend.