As kingdoms fall

diary132For the last few weeks, I’ve heard dozens if not hundreds of news reports talking about General Motors and the impeding possibility of bankruptcy.

Still, I was shocked when General Motors made history (and not in the most affirmative way) by declaring bankruptcy on Monday. It was an almost unthinkable moment for a cornerstone of our economy here in America.

I spent a lot of time reading various articles and blog posts on the New York Times website. Their columnists and analysts were dissecting GM, what issues the company faced, and how GM might come out of bankruptcy.

As I read what these commentators had to say, I had a sense of deja vu.

There were two almost-unanimous comments from every analyst.

  • GM (and other car companies) became complacent. They made mediocre cars and assumed that the marketing department and the dealerships would convince the customer that the cars were what they wanted. GM’s lesson in bankruptcy is to learn to be more flexible, more responsive to what the client wants, and find innovative ways to communicate with the clients.
  • The dealership as it was is a somewhat antiquated way of doing business. Car companies could realize more profit by distributing their product directly to the consumer. Dealers could still survive, be profitable and even thrive, but they’d do so on the basis of their product, their services and the value they added to the experience, not just as a volume distributor or a vending machine for big shiny metal things.

Sound familiar? It should, because it’s the same tune many of us in the blogosphere have been humming about soaps.  The quality of the product in many cases has been questionable, and the current distribution method (affiliates) seems as antiquated as having a car dealership every two miles.

Roger Newcomb talked about this today at We Love Soaps, where he referenced a new article at TVWeek.com. The article, written by Sergio Ibarra, touches on some of the same ideas – better product, better distribution.

And it’s not just soaps, or television, that is coping with this challenging business environment. Just about every aspect of “traditional” business and traditional media has been changed and challenged.

  • Newspapers are facing a steadily declining subscriber base, but they haven’t come up with a magic solution to monetize their online operations, which almos every newspaper is providing for free.
  • The music industry was slow to respond to changes, though they did finally (relcutantly) accept one channel of monetization for digital products (iTunes).
  • Book publishing is just waking up to the idea of e-books (which can be read on e-readers like Kindle).

I know it’s not a sunny view, but I ultimately think that soaps on broadcast television will shrink considerably or even disappear totally. If I was to guess what shows would still be on the air in ten years, I would only feel somewhat safe about betting on the Bell soaps (though General Hospital and Days of our Lives still have the biggest 18-34 audience).

But the very word “broadcast” is part of the problem. Broadcasting means broad audiences, and this particular genre of serialized TV isn’t a broad audience, it’s a niche audience. Yet advertisers, showrunners and “the powers that be” still manage the shows as if they’re in charge of As The World Turns circa 1969, when soaps like ATWT and Search for Tomorrow had fifty million viewers. 

I was (and am) holding out considerable hope that Telenext/Procter & Gamble would establish a partnership with a cable network and/or a site on the Internet. I don’t say this solely as a fan; I think in order for soap fans to sustain the lifespans of existing shows and (I can’t say it enough) ENCOURAGE THE GROWTH OF NEW ONES, the focus has to change from “lowest common denominator” to “the audience that loves and watches these programs.”

I wish I could guide soaps through some of these difficult changes, like the Obama administration is doing with GM. I’m more convinced than ever that most of the shows, except perhaps The Young and the Restless, need to go back to thirty minutes.

I’d plant new content (either where the soaps live now, though almost everyone thinks that’s counterintuitive for a “dying” industry, or in a new home). There’s plenty of hunger for a good story with interesting characters. Since the departure of Kathy Brier and Chris Stack from One Life to Live has been announced, I keep thinking they’d be ideal cornerstone characters for a spinoff. Two theatrically-trained actors, playing a schoolteacher and a doctor, in a new town? Sign me up.

What I’d really like to see is a cable channel in partnership with a production company to make this content for the niche audience that appreciates it. The new production model on Guiding Light has shown us that they are more economically sound ways to film a show, and there has to be a magical number of X+Y=Z that can be reached in a matter of months or years to make the show(s) profitable on cable.

You can’t tell me family and romance aren’t profitable stories; they may not deliver audiences in the tens of millions anymore, but channels like Lifetime and Oxygen have been focusing on “chick flick” friendly programming for years and made a profit from it.

The Ibarra article (and Roger’s analysis) drives home a crucial point: The quality of the show, particularly the quality of the stories being told, must be Priority Numero Uno. This is the catch-22 in terms of the broadcast networks, because the very structure of the networks create and sustain the types of stories that we dislike or complain about.

At this point, ABC, CBS and NBC can’t assume a captive, at-home audience is going to watch their programming and advertising. As a result, the networks believe it’s in their best business interests to push for plot-heavy, attention getting stories. Broadcast networks (with few exceptions) are no longer healthy places for those shows to grow or thrive creatively.

Will television, and soaps, be able to change and evolve? It’s a tough call. Newspapers are folding, record labels are closing every day and the recession has instilled fear of the unknown in an already notably fearful programming segment. But I still think there’s a wonderful intersection of commerce and creativity here that can please the analysts and the audience alike. We just have to find it.

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