Oakdale post-mortem (Part One)

Many bloggers are weighing in with their feelings about the end of As The World Turns(and the end of P&G soaps). I also wanted to take a step back from personal likes and dislikes and try to look at it all in a more objective context.

Sam Ford is a writer and media analyst who led classes on ATWT at MIT and was a research affiliate there. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to him about soaps and about ATWT over the last few years, and get his take on things.

Sam and fellow editors C. Lee Harrington and Abigail de Kosnik compiled a series of essays that will be released later this year. The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era takes a look at how soaps are changing and evolving in the new media landscape. The book contains essays from a number of established soap academics, industry veterans, and even a few bloggers. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay about the new production model at Guiding Light.)

I asked Sam for his thoughts on ATWT’s end. He’s shared a great deal of insight with me. In Part One, Sam gives us as comprehensive and detailed an explanation about why our shows are disappearing as you’re ever likely to read:

1000WORLDS: From an analytical view, is there anything that TPTB at ATWT (or CBS, or P&G) could have done to ensure the survival of ATWT?

SAM FORD: As you know the title of our latest book was The Survival of Soap Opera, and my Master’s thesis was aimed in particular at how As the World Turns was (or was at least attempting to) adjust itself to an era of digital communication alongside a long and steady decline in viewership for the soaps. The conclusion I came to in all this work–perhaps not all that surprising for soap opera fans–is this: all television shows have fallen from ratings grace.

That’s not all that surprising, though, because, a few decades ago, not only was there only a limited number of local channels to choose from when watching television, but there was no Internet, no cell phones, no video games, and a variety of media formats which are pervasive today. We don’t have those “consensus narratives,” as some call them, these days that everyone watches, and even the most popular shows might not be watched at the same time by all audiences, with DVD viewing, time-shifting, video-on-demand, and the like.

So, when we compare daytime and primetime ratings–as Mark Harding and others have done–we’ve seen the same sorts of decline. We’ve seen the same sort of thing for newspaper readership as it deals with similar competition. That means that there’s more media consumption than ever going on, but it is spread across a variety of platforms and more texts than ever before. Meanwhile, in daytime, alongside this proliferation in media content, we also have a major change in lifestyle–the movement of a much greater number of women into the workforce.

I mention all these factors because they were all outside the control of CBS, of Procter & Gamble/TeleNext, and of anyone at ATWT. However, here’s where the mistake was made, not just for ATWT but for almost all soaps. When those ratings started to decline, I believe, the reaction of the networks and the show producers precipitated the decline rather than stopping it. Rather than looking at these various trends as an inevitability and finding ways to protect, differentiate, and maximize where this genre should stand in particular, shows began doing all they could to maximize short-term profit. Rather than looking at soap operas as a unique beast that shouldn’t be governed by the logic primetime television follows, soap operas followed some of the same models, and–in my mind– the results have been disastrous.

The single most disastrous development in television history for soaps, in my mind, was the rise in prominence of the youth demographic. To go back in time, CBS was once the #1 network, and ABC was #3. However, ABC had a Boomer audience watching its shows, as compared to an older audience for CBS. So ABC made that argument: that they had a younger audience reared in an era of mass advertising who didn’t have that Depression Era mindset, etc., and thus who should be the target of advertising dollars.

The logic made some degree of sense at the time, so the vast majority of television programming came to be focused on the youth demo, 18-34 in particular and, more broadly, 18-49. Soaps have survived since that time in part by promising to deliver younger women to TV sets, and daytime dramas have struggled for decades because of a lack of viewership in this demo in particular, when that’s what is sold to advertisers.

This logic made some sense in the early 1970s. Today, though, when those Boomers have aged out of the target demographic, the same argument doesn’t hold water. People over the age of 49 grew up in an era of mass branding. They are willing to try new things. Many have discretionary income. Yet, today, we still see most brands and television programming aimed at a younger audience and an underserved audience over the age of 49.

But the problem is even worse for soaps, because these shows shouldn’t operate by a narrow demographic mentality in the first place. Soap operas are by their nature transgenerational. The very fact that the same narrative–with some of the same characters–has endured for decades means they have been empowered as a fandom handed down from generation to generation.

I started watching As the World Turns as a child because my mother did. She watched it because it was her mom’s story. I grew up in discussion and debate with my mother and grandmother about what was happening in Oakdale. When I decided to get back into soaps in college after a few years away, I went straight to As the World Turns. Now, for the past few years, I’ve watched with my wife. My 16-month-old would have grown up with ATWT in the background if it hadn’t gone off the air. This is what brought generations to ATWT: the common ground it gave families to discuss.

And thus it’s no surprise that the vast majority of people I talked to got into soaps because of a parent or relative. The majority of those who didn’t did so because of a group of friends. And, we’ve seen online communities function in the same way.

Despite this glaring and obvious truth, though, soaps aren’t run that way (emphasis mine). They look at viewers individually instead of the social links among them. And they operate by the same target demographic logic. In the process, we have seen soaps systematically run off their audience in the past few decades, continuously creating short-term stories and stunts to appeal to new viewers in the target demographic in ways that has caused permanent erosion of the audiences they already actually had. Not only has this increased the rate of decline for their overall numbers, but I’d argue that it has hampered their ability to attract the demographic they are actually seeking.

If it holds true that the majority of people that actually stay soap opera viewers become so through social ties, than current viewers are your best chance of recruiting new viewers. Soap viewership held up fairly well considering the overall decline through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, but we have seen a particularly steep decline in viewership since, in part because these dedicated audiences have not been catered to. In the process, mom and grandma quit watching. Even if they are not the target viewer, they were important to the overall ecosystem because they were the people who recruited younger viewers in. And, as important as recruiting for soaps is the role they play in sustaining viewers. Soaps require a tour guide. They require a support system, especially if you miss episodes or start to see your interest wane. And yet soaps have regularly circumvented their system to gain and maintain viewers for years.

That’s not to mention the “zero sum game” Lynn Liccardo and others have written about: the mindset soaps get in of only competing with one another rather than thinking about bringing lapsed viewers back in, or stunts to pull viewers temporarily away from another show but without giving as much thought into how to sustain them.

All of this points toward what I consider soaps’ meta-problem: they are managed like primetime shows rather than as brands themselves. But they shouldn’t be. Primetime shows are almost always developed without this sense of permanence. They are not “worlds without end.” They can aim at a target audience that may eventually age away from the show…but that’s fine, because the show will only run a few years, anyway. When soaps follow that logic, they lose their pacing, their sense of being ongoing for generations, their continuity, and so on.

I’d blame much of this on the fact that soaps, from their very beginning as “soap operas,” were viewed as nothing beyond being vehicles for ads. The fictional world of Oakdale is not considered anything other than fodder for a TV show. Little thought is given to international rebroadcasts. Really, no viable model has been explored for making use of the archives. And there is little in the way of other streams of revenue. Compare soaps as a permanent brand to sports franchises or comic book universes or World Wrestling Entertainment. For the WWE–a soap opera in its own right–the TV show is the main driver of weekly stories, but they have PPV events, DVDs, merchandise, magazines, the Web site (which generates considerable advertising revenue), and on and on. Soaps have never had real budget to fully explore models that would pull people into the story as “transmedia storytelling,” despite some moderate success for some soap opera narrative extensions. And little has been done with the history of the shows.

But this isn’t ATWT‘s fault any more than it is any other single soap opera. And there’s no one party in this to blame. I can see the problem, but I don’t know how to fix it, because it would require the advertiser, the network, the production company, “the powers that be,” and the talent on the show to all shift how they think and what they do in a variety of ways, and no one is willing to do that. There are labor and compensation issues to consider. There are 260 hours of new shows to produce, without a break, for almost all the shows. And no one is willing to give a soap adequate budget and long-term latitude to create a 3-year plan instead of a 3-month arc (or 3-week arc these days). So, the decline of the soaps are still not completely inevitable, but the realities of the infrastructure, in my mind, make it highly unlikely we’ll be able to do much more than make small and temporary fixes here and there at this point. Add in the fact that this inevitability of decline has become so internalized, and it’s a recipe for eventual extinction.

Next in Part Two: Oakdale’s successes and stumbles of the last decade.

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