Saying it doesn’t make it true

The soap industry is an unusual one. Soaps are seen by millions every day, but most shows fly under the radar when it comes to the mainstream. As a result, we rarely hear the real deal about decision-making, creative decisions or any important research & development at any of the shows.

What we often get, instead, is a whole lotta spin. And what often happens is that if one person gives us a bit of spin, others start repeating it as gospel.

This happened recently when one of my favorite contenders for Mr. Eloquence, Brian Frons, said this:

“Some (soaps) have been on many years, so people feel the need to make sage-like statements about the future of the genre,” Frons says. “Nobody makes those statements when a sitcom or long-running drama dies. It’s the end of that program, and that’s the way we should look at it as well.”

I chalked this up to Frons and his usual wellsprings of empathy and intelligence. But then I picked up this week’s Soap Opera Digest and read this in an interview with Frank Valentini, executive producer of One Life to Live:

“People just love to say that daytime’s dying, so knock yourself out. Say it all you want; they’ve been saying that for the last ten years.”

I really like Frank Valentini. He’s a smart guy, OLTL has been an overall solid show during his tenure, and he knows what he’s talking about. So I was a bit disappointed to hear him chirp the company line…..especially since it’s not true.

Soaps may not be DYING, but only the most myopic person could believe they are still the same make and model as they were twenty or thirty years ago. Most shows averaged ten million viewers in their heyday during the 1970s and 1980s. We are now at a point where those shows have lost EIGHTY percent of their audience.

But still, so many big players in daytime seem to avoid the evidence of these changes. It reminds me a great deal of the music industry. Record labels had a pretty consistent relationship with consumers, but when the ways we listened to music changed, the record companies didn’t respond. They wanted us to continue to buy the music THEY wanted us to, in the format they made money on, at a price that became incredibly expensive. (In 2001, when I wrote a freelance article about the music industry, new CD’s by current artists were hovering at the $20 price level.)

What happened? Consumers embraced new technology. The record companies stuck their heads in the sand – and when they finally pulled them out, they realized that a huge chunk of that audience had used that technology to buy or trade music for free, effectively wiping them out of the process. Some companies have since embraced digital sales, and iTunes has definitely made a huge impact, but the fact remains that sales took a hit.

What continues to FRUSTRATE me immensely is that most mainstream soap folks have spent time pointing fingers and rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Few of the shows have tried to re-scale the shows to today’s audience and today’s economy. (Guiding Light did, but let’s face it – as much as I love that show, that was a shotgun wedding and an act of desperation to keep the show alive.)

If executives were keyed in, the VERY first thing they’d do is scale the shows back to half an hour. An hour a day is simply too big a time investment in this day and age. Almost every show has the fat to cut.

The second thing they’d do is stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and focus strongly on thirtysomething and fortysomething characters. That’s the audience who still has an emotional connection to these shows and the demographic that would be most likely to watch.

And at the risk of being a broken record, I’ll say it again: Soap operas are not telling stories for the people that have watched them or continue to watch them. They continue to tell stories to ADHD-addled adolescents, hoping that whatever drama plays out on screen will make them change the channel from Jersey Shore.

We don’t need caretakers and pallative care. Daytime doesn’t need to be a big hospice. What we DO need are bold, innovative, CREATIVE architects that can re-scale these stories and modernize the facade without destroying the heart and the soul of the tapestry.

It’s time for our creative and technical leaders in the industry to get out of their metaphorical K-cars and think of ways to keep this a profitable business at its current sustainable scale. We may have loved the huge budgets and even bigger hair, but baby, the eighties are over. There’s still life and creative heart in these stories, though. And most importantly – for whoever gets the proportions, the scale and the investment in balance – there’s still money to be made.

One thought on “Saying it doesn’t make it true

  1. Patrick, I totally agree with you. In fact, GL and ATWT might never have been cancelled if the suits at P&G and CBS had agreed to scale both shows back to 1/2 hour. Look how well B&B has done for 22 years. It would have been better than Peapack, NJ, hand-held cameras and bad-lighting. It would also have trimmed the dead-wood from these shows, lightened the load for the headwriters, and the production staff.

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