Numbers don’t lie

One of the more unique voices in the soap blogosphere is MarkH. His site, “MarkH’s Soap Musings,” takes a unique path. While many of us who bitch and complain write about soaps critique them based on our emotional responses, Mark often includes a lot of cold, hard data.

In his day job, Mark is a behavioral scientist and statistician, so this approach makes perfect sense!

Mark’s been crunching the numbers a lot lately, trying to assess the impact that Guiding Light’s eviction from CBS will have on soaps as a business.

In one recent post, he mentioned how he disagrees with many soap bloggers (I’m guessing I’d be in the “Others” category):

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.

I don’t disagree with Mark’s statement – he’s completely correct.

But I also don’t think those ideas are mutually exclusive.

Yes, the 80% reduction (I pulled that number out of the air – Mark can correct me if I’m wrong!) in audience for soap opera IS about cultural changes. It wouldn’t matter if Douglas Marland, Bill Bell, and Irna Phillips were writing all eight shows from On High – they’d still be playing to an audience that has significantly shrunk, for the very reasons Mark outlines.

BUT (and you knew there was a but)…….

There are ways to engage the REMAINING audience. And on many shows, in many of the stories, those things haven’t been happening for a long time. It may be a smaller audience, but good soap opera will engage that audience every day. The Otalia story on GL is one example of a traditional story with a new twist that’s moving at a snail’s pace (at least for this era). And its traditional, slow-burn pace is what’s driving so much of the enthusiasm and love for the story.

I actually think Mark’s come to the same conclusion as I have – broadcasting for a niche genre like soaps is not going to thrive or grow in the long run. Broadcasting, in general, is becoming less and less successful, because of many of the same changes in our lifestyles and in viewing habits.

But narrowcasting is an exciting new possibility. Narrowcasting would mean that a delivery/distribution platform aimed at an audience that would watch serials would deliver new content and new shows every day. His idea of P&G launching its own online distribution channel is a valid one; I’m still hoping P&G can find a way to share (and monetize) its vault of historical material.

And of course, such a channel could also pair up well with an existing network – perhaps a shared cost structure could encourage both entities to keep programs on the air and *gasp* create new ones? (Or revive old favorites?)

But no matter how valid the business arguments are, creative concerns should never be taken lightly. Novels, dramatic theater and primetime television have all changed and adapted to our times and to cultural trends. A good story is a good story is a good story. And the integrity of any narrative is how much we’re willing to believe and invest in it. It’s hard to invest in a soap when it can’t decide whether it’s a soap, a forensics show, a horror flick, or a rerun of The Sopranos (often within the same 42 minutes). 

Y&R and GL have both shown us prime examples of great, interwoven storytelling in the last few months. That never goes out of style.

One thought on “Numbers don’t lie

  1. I love this post for two major reasons (and neither of them relates to the fact that you comment on my blog).

    First, sometimes somebody says something that is so clearly true that it just galvanizes one’s perceptions! Eureka! A-ha! So it is with this statement: “There are ways to engage the REMAINING audience. And on many shows, in many of the stories, those things haven’t been happening for a long time. It may be a smaller audience, but good soap opera will engage that audience every day.”

    Of course you’re right. In fact, I’m a testament to that segment of audience. Back in the day, I watched (don’t judge me) DOOL, AMC, OLTL, GH, & Y&R–until about 1983. With the start of college, DOOL quickly dropped out, and so did GH and OLTL, but I actually added in a new one. AW kept me riveted from about 1985-1987. Just loved that show! With the start of graduate school, it all fell away, except for Y&R. Except, Bill Bell debuted another soap…and so I have grudgingly followed B&B since the beginning.

    Expressed differently, Y&R and B&B are the only shows I still regularly follow. But why? Part of the reason is demographic: I got a life, job, relationships, etc. But, honestly, I choose to make an hour a day (with fast forwarding, I confess) for Y&R/B&B…but not other shows.

    And IT WAS THE CREATIVE ASPECT — WHAT THE SHOWS WERE PUTTING ON THE SCREEN — that influenced the choice. Said differently, few of us are going to watch more than 1-2 soaps these days, but the “victor” soaps (no pun intended) will be those that are creatively appealing.

    The second reason I love your post relates to the blog title, “Numbers don’t lie”. The statistician in me loves that because…well…we’ve heard (from either Benjamin Disraeli or Mark Twain–attribution is not clear) that there are three kinds of lies: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics”.

    Truth is relative! Your blog speaks more truth than my numbers ever will.

    Thanks for your kind words, Mark! Your last paragraph drives home a point that I forgot to make in the original post…..Yes, there are “lies, damn lies and statistics,” but your research is a definitive in an industry where we don’t often have definitives.

    I used to do a lot of editing and shaping articles on Wikipedia, and despite its shaky reputation, I worked hard to make sure any content was verifiable. I wrote a lot of the soap articles, and it was really frustrating, because it was such a challenge to find older information we could use as a definitive, verifiable source.

    So that numbers-crunching is definitely appreciated!

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