December 7, 2006
Building Soaps as Long-Term Brands: A Diatribe on Laura's Return on General Hospital

Back on Nov. 8, I wrote about legacy characters in soaps, basing much of my writing about the short-term reuniting of Luke and Laura on General Hospital the iconic couple of days gone by in the soaps industry, going back to a time when soaps carried many more viewers. The post raised spirited debate, even drawing in the former head writer of the top-rated American soap opera, Kay Alden, who is also an advisor on my thesis project.

My intent now is to start with the comments generated from that last post to move into examining the limited success of the Luke and Laura reuniting and what the industry can learn from it and hopefully not misinterpret. The show re-inventing the Luke and Laura wedding did a 2.9, above the usual average for the show but below what some projected might be possible to reach. And, what's worse for some people, the ratings were back down to a 2.6 average for the show, still putting it atop some of its competition but not resulting in any major sustained growth. However, the reunion did post the highest rating in the history of cable network SoapNet, and it generated quite a bit of publicity.

Kay Alden wrote about how unique thinking about using older characters/viewers to help "reinvent the soap opera viewing audience" was a fascinating way to think about audience-building that the genre had not thought about. "The idea of actively rejecting the consistent concern with more and more youth, and instead reaching out for the multigenerational audience is one that we would be wise to explore and, frankly, exploit."

Alden writes, "No one in my experience has said, let's bring back this old person as a means of drawing old viewers back to the show and getting them re-involved, because these old viewers might be the key to drawing in new viewers from their own families, and helping to re-establish the tradition of soap opera viewing as a family affair, passed down from mothers to daughters to their daughters."

To recap my original points from the first post:

Longevity. Soaps should celebrate what they have on their side, and one of those things is a deep history with a talented ensemble roster, many of whom have been around for years.

The WWE. I pointed to WWE's 24/7 On Demand product which makes episodes available for the archives and also markets historical footage through DVDs, etc., as proof that fans can often care about the pasts of their dramas and the character history of various characters.

Legacy Characters. I argue that legacy characters are a way to tie the current soaps products with the past of those shows and to draw in former viewers, envisioning a way to have familiar faces appear from time to time to show back up and pull them back in. I also point out that you don't have to have all the characters featured be the same age of the target viewers, as people are often interested in stories about characters older/younger than them as well.

Demographics. The problem with older viewers is that they aren't the target demographic. But most people only start watching soaps through a social relationship, whether it be a friend or spouse or parent or grandparent. So, while older viewers may not be beneficial in and of themselves for people who are looking too narrowly at a certain age demographic, they become increasingly important when the economic model shifts and they are considered grassroots marketers for the show.

The Prodigal viewers. I argue that soaps need to concentrate first and foremost on how to get the people watching their show now to love it so much they will spread the word to people who used to watch to come back. This takes time. I wrote, "And what's going to attract these fans back into the fold? Two things: first, familiar faces; and, second, good writing when they get there. I am not arguing at all that you don't need amazing new characters and dazzling young stars because you need something to get these viewers hooked on a new generation, but you have to use the old generation to do that. " However, "the problem is that this type of growth is slow growth...It's not a week or a month fix. And you have to have quality writing when fans get there and younger characters that are compelling and who interact with these legacy characters in ways that gets fans hooked on them as well." So my argument that the most important marketing tool of all is good, long-term, consistent storytelling.

General Hospital

Kay writes in depth about her responses from the way Luke and Laura still capture some of the power of soaps but wonders "can it bring in new, younger viewers?" She writes:

Thus, viewers who tune in again for the nostalgia value of Luke and Laura, will witness several things: they will get their nostalgia from the many flashbacks to the Luke and Laura romance that GH will undoubtedly play; viewers will also see what the characters are like now, today, 25 years later, as this story of undying love is rejuvenated; and finally, these old viewers may well find themselves drawn into the stories of the newer characters--the "children of" stories, as well as becoming involved with newer, very powerful characters like Sonny, Alexis, Carly, Jax, who have become more the mainstay of the show, but who would be new to viewers from long ago. In short, it seems to me that General Hospital has the potential to hit it out of the park with the return of Genie Francis and all that this could mean at this time.

Now that the return (and Laura) has come and gone, it appears that it caused a blip in the map, a short-term increase, but nothing major and nothing sustained. It seems that some viewer reaction was largely that it was great to see her but that viewers knew it was short-term from the start and that it was too ephemeral to have great impact. For instance, in one online commentary site--"Snark Weighs In"--the author writes, "In many ways, the situation mirrored the viewers real-life relationship with GH. Luke entered into this ludicrous situation knowing his time with Laura would be short--and so did we. [ . . . ] Luke and Laura's re-wedding, the centerpiece of ABC's promotional campaign, was nothing more than an anti-climactic attempt to ride the coattails of the most famous wedding in TV history. It was the least interesting part of Gene Francis' return." (The author is referring, by the way, to the drug that temporarily pulled Laura out of her catatonic state, much as happened recently with John Larroquette's character on House.)

Other fans weighed in over at Soap Central, debating a wide variety of reasons why fans didn't tune back in--largely talking about flaws in the current way soaps tell stories and the fact that many viewers wouldn't return because they both knew it was short-term and didn't want to see it poorly executed. The same discussions took place at the TV Guide Community. And I would propose another suggestion--that many people simply never heard about it nor was it done long-term enough for them to develop investment in returning to the show.

Inflated Expectations

Toni Fitzgerald with Media Life Magazine wrote about the power of this storyline back in October, when the first numbers came through surrounding Laura's return. She wrote, "That in a nutshell is what's been happening on ABC's "General Hospital," and it's driving big ratings increases. The return of Genie Francis, the actress who plays Laura, for the first time since 2002 helped the show regain the No. 1 slot in daytime among women 18-49 for the first time in six months" and went on to predict more of the same. The problem is not that the event wasn't successful but just that such a short-term jump in numbers was just not enough to get a significant number of people involved in the product once again.

This takes me back to August, when I wrote in response to all the critics after the opening weekend of Snakes on a Plane did $15 million. Even our own Henry Jenkins said he was eating crow at this "low" number. At the time I wrote, "The problem is that people fell prey to their own hyperbole and expected a campy B-movie to become a blockbuster, which I don't think it was ever designed to be. " And I feel the same way in this instance.

In the comments section of that original post in November, I wrote in response to Kay's comments that "the return of Laura for a limited time is one small incident. I am not predicting it will change the industry or anything of the sort, as one smart decision doesn't turn everything around. I just think that a whole lot of these types of decisions is the way to go and a change in the way the industry thinks overall." Instead, I advocated both grounding long-term and older characters more solidly in stories and create a budgeting shift that would allow for continued short-term returns from various characters from each show's history throughout the year, so that using legacy characters becomes established with fans as a long-term strategy rather than a one-time gimmick.

A History of Quick-Fixes

Soaps have been trying to fix the ratings problems for a while--say 20 years now or so. As cable channels proliferated and choices grew exponentially, soaps slowly lost viewership. The response was to try and appeal directly to the target demographic by drawing them in a variety of think about how to increase numbers by next week. And all these quick-fixes, even if they led to some momentary jumps in ratings from time-to-time over the years, have seen an overall trend of sliding numbers.

Some quick-fixes have been colorful. My favorites have been with Passions, the only show to not be around in the more "glorious" periods and that has survived by drawing in younger viewers and by parodying the genre in various ways. They've had an animated sequence and a Bollywood episode. Guiding Light surprised everyone with a comic book/superhero crossover, although readers and viewers seemed to fill it was lacking in execution Meanwhile, Days of Our Lives is seeking out interactivity by allowing viewers to name the baby of a prominent character. There have also been interesting promotional campaigns, such as the dance videos promoting As the World Turns and the ATWT/Tyson Chicken commercials. And yet another interesting project from SoapNet is a fantasy soaps competition, modeled after fantasy football.

Some of these were intended for varying degrees of short-term promotion, but the overall trajectory of the genre has been quick-fixes. This happens in storyline form as well, with natural disaster stories or plot-driven suspenseful moments that may draw new people in for a week but gives them little to want to stick around for.

I find Laura as another quick-fix, except this time they are using history. My argument about utilizing history is not about for some short-term gains but rather as a change in approach and in practices, in attitude. Bringing Laura back for a few weeks, as an isolated incident, is not an example of a long-term approach to building an audience back. That's not to criticize the storyline but rather to explain why it did not lead to this miraculous turnaround soaps seem to continue seeking. These are all placebos. There's no secret--just good storytelling. And soaps need to realize this and start building for the future before they slowly use up even more of the cultural cache they've built up. No one in the industry wants to see the End of DAYS.

The era of quick-fixes needs to end for the genre to survive, and networks and producers alike have to think about these shows as long-time brands rather than just weekly programming. The question needs to be how shows can tell good stories now that will lead to increased viewership in two years and do everything within that time to improve the storytelling, make shows more inclusive of the whole case, embrace the history, and empower grassroots marketers to draw more viewers back in. That takes a lot of time and a long-term vision, though.

Building Momentum

Let me reiterate--the problem with the long-term approach is that it takes a long time to get results. Sustainable growth, as any city planner will tell you as well, is not just adding new populations in droves. In the soaps industry, that seems to be unlikely to happen in the first place and--if it does--hotshotting only leads to a one-time bump. That's why the approach over the past 20 years may have led to momentary spikes as soaps steal audiences from each other and temporarily draw viewers back in, but a lack of long-term planning and looking at the show as a brand rather than a week-by-week product has led to a steady decline, caused largely by a number of new choices but exacerbated by this lack of long-term vision and miscalculation of the power of the audience and the material.

What soaps need to do is develop this consistent direction and then have the confidence to pull it off. Short-term returns by old characters are just another form of hot-shotting, although particularly more interesting than a slasher storyline.

Look at the pro wrestling world once again for a parallel. Fans of wrestling remember well the 5.5-year "Monday Night War" between Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, in competing shows on Monday nights. When Nitro debuted against incumbent RAW in September 1995, it quickly took over the ratings by presenting a better show. However, after eight or nine months winning the ratings in a row, WCW got complacent and stale. WWF improved its product to the point that, by mid-1997, it was clearly among hardcore fans considered the better show. It was clear that WWF had the momentum on its side.

However, even as that momentum was slowly building, WCW was still winning the ratings battle every week. In fact, it wasn't until mid-1998 that WWF broke what was, by then, an 83-week wining streak for WCW. The key was that the show had to get better almost a full year before it reflected in the ratings. If WWF had shifted its focus anytime during that year, their subsequent unparalleled popularity in the late 1990s and early part of this decade would have never happened. If they had gone for short-time fixes and hotshotting at some point along the way, they would have destroyed what they were building up.

The key was in giving time for word-of-mouth to spread. They started putting on a better show, but people were more dedicated to Nitro. Yet, word slowly started to pass that WWF was putting on the better program week-by-week. Fan advocacy are your best chance of permanently gaining new viewers, but that relationship has to build organically, needing a long-term plan rather than a quick turnaround. Soaps could learn a lot from the wrestling world's lesson (and the wrestling world could do some good at looking back at their own history).

Fans Hold the Secret to Success

Even if some researchers want to claim that watching soaps makes you stupid, fans have often proven to be more savvy than they are given credit for. Some fan forums are known for having intriguing discussions about their shows online. Look, for instance, at how fans discuss product placement in relation to the genre's future, such as here and here. (On a tangential note, see soaps' use of embedded public service announcements as an interesting aside to product placement in the genre.)

And modern technologies dictate that there is a shrinking distance from producer to consumer. This interactivity and the personalities of other fans become an important part of the viewing experience for many people, especially as they often become fans of other fans themselves. In other words, your most ardent fans who act as historians and resources and commentators and critics to the rest of the fan community have quite a following of their own, and shows would benefit most from interacting with and bolstering those activities rather than hiding from them or minimizing their importance by ignoring that rich history.

So, while some people will decry the use of history as useless for building audiences, this short-term return of a character does not mean that history has no place on shows or that my larger arguments are wrong. Just a good story and a long-term plan that allows for multigenerational storytelling, and these shows may be able to slowly build an audience from their diaspora.


On December 8, 2006 at 1:39 PM, Michael Bird said:

As soap operas continue to search for meaning in the brave new world of podcasting, blogs, and other electronic means, let us look deeper into the problem.

You mentioned Kay Alden's excellent point, that rebuilding the audience through multigenerational storytelling might be the best option. I wholeheartedly agree.

25-30 years ago as a youngster, I thrilled to the Friday cliffhangers, the sweeping orchestral musical scores, and the love stories that were told through this wonderful medium. Soaps got a little crazy in the 1980s, as they attempted to mimic (with limited success, as it turns out) the comic book style of storytelling made famous on General Hospital.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, to quote a great Seinfeld episode. It just hasn't been my cup of tea.

I have always preferred the slow-and-steady build favored, until recently, by the CBS soaps. But even CBS has been flirting with the monster of bad storytelling and, even worse, poor management decisions (writer roulette on once-stable shows).

The networks probably don't care what the daytime audience thinks -- after all, the soap audience has been marginalized for years in favor of banal talk shows with the celebrity du jour. But I can't help but think of Ms. Alden's point, mentioned herein...and hope for the future that someone will decide that the best way to reinvent the genre is to start at the beginning.

What was so bad about Faraway Hill on the DuMont network? Or the early stories of Irna Phillips? Agnes Nixon is still living, and the Bell proteges are still working. Why not make the most of the people who are still around? Get their ideas on what works and what doesn't, and let them do their jobs.

Michael Bird
Band Director, Southside Middle School
Tallassee, Alabama

On December 8, 2006 at 7:25 PM, Sam Ford said:

Good to see you again, Michael! I think that changing to conception of how to increase an audience and developing a long-term plan is essential for daytime drama.

The other problem is one you allude to and one I was talking to a friend who is a longtime soaps viewer last night. Each show has their specialties. As the World Turns has always been best as a show about characters and the subtleties of everyday life. That's why over-the-top storylines always play out of place, even when they've been trying to insert them in for years. ATWT only has so much room for gun-toting and people turning psychotic. It is not what the show does well and not what the really talented cast does well.

That's not to criticize some soaps who are much better at that kind of drama. Y&R is good at corporate storylines and business intrigue. That's how they are set up. Passions certainly knows its niche, and DAYS has established some supernatural elements that may be able to be accomplished on that show. General Hospital is another that has been a little "out there" when it comes to realism, but that works well for them.

The problem is that the way soaps are marketed take advantage of all the weakest part of the shows--commercials that emphasize explosions and shootings and sleaziness, emphasizing how soaps do not have superior production values, for instance--and they ignore their best virtues--the history, the pace of day-to-day life, the ensemble cast that (should) keep any character for getting stale by having so many storylines going at once so that one is always climaxing but no one is on the screen every day, wearing out their welcome with viewers...

While I don't think the answer is to live in the past, ignoring it is not the right answer for sure.

On December 20, 2006 at 9:10 PM, lynn liccardo said:

as promised, here are some comments on the specifics of the legacy post. to follow (note i do not say precisely when:), will be my thoughts on a couple of the larger issues i see underlying the current state of soaps.

i found it interesting that in your assessment of the "return of laura," you noted that the ratings fell back to 2.6 from 2.9 put gh ahead of some of its competition, but "not resulting in any sustained growth." now, that may well turn out to be the case, but it's only been a month; is this not the same kind of short-term thinking that got soaps into this mess in the first place?

you're right, "soaps should (italics added) celebrate their longevity, but as long as they (the execs and the advertisers) see the 18-49 demographic as the be-all-and-end-all, it will be difficult to convince them that "longevity" is their friend. and while there are execs who speak of how much they value the vets, remember what john mitchell said of the nixon administration: "watch what we do, not what we say." of course, some execs don't even pretend to go through the motions. i was on the set while atwt's 40th anniversary episode was being taped, and all the p&g publicist, janet storm, could talk about was how this anniversary was all about moving beyond it's history so they could reach younger and newer viewers. that episode was a cynical, crass, and particularly vulgar example of just how desperate they were. the recent 50th anniversary was certainly an improvement, but ultimately, they squandered a golden (pun fully intended) :)opportunity to fully celebrate the milestone with another short-term gimmick.

regarding legacy characters: contextually, i have a pretty good idea of what you mean, but i googled for a more specific definition and didn't find much. what i did find from tv tropes, "a legacy character is, in short, a character whose identity is descended from an older character," doesn't quite seem to fit soaps, and with so much history and so very many characters, some precision would be helpful.

regarding demographics: "most people only start watching soaps through a social network" is there any empirical evidence to support this? i know of many fans who started watching out of sheer boredom when they were home for more than a couple of days with the flu (of course, that was before cable was widely available). i know you believe that the social aspect of the fan base is crucial to the future health of soaps. but viewers experience soaps in many ways; i'll be expanding this point in a future discussion of how the soap's marginalization has been internalized by all aspects of soaps, and how that internalization manifests itself.

regarding "there's no secret -- just good storytelling": i know what most of us mean by the term, but again, specificity is useful. and, i do wonder/worry that there are soap fans out there who have a different definition. would be good to define/clarify the term.

"What soaps need to do is develop this consistent direction and then have the confidence to pull it off." my first impulse was to say, "no kidding!" of course, the real question is "why are they not doing it, and what's standing in the way?" but i got to thinking back to 1978, when gh was on the verge of cancellation, and gloria monty (and douglas marland) were called in to fix things. there is a great deal that has been and will be said about the long-term ramifications of how monty "fixed" gh had on soaps over the past 25+ years. but she was nothing if not bold, and she did save the show. reading robert la guardia's account of gh's transformation in soap world (pp 278-82), it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an executive today being called in to fix a show and given the kind of autonomy and latitude monty was able to so fully exploit. even harder to imagine is just who that person would be.

"as soaps steal audiences from each other and temporarily draw viewers back in." this is a huge point. discussing the differences between soap operas on the helium site, i pointed out that while hill street blues and dynasty are both soap operas (both use serial narrative) "no one promoting those shows expected them to compete for the same audience. unfortunately, this is not the case in daytime, where network executives see the daytime audience as a zero sum game, where only by being more like the other guy can a show capture a larger share of viewers."
until a few years ago, i would grant a certain logic to seeing a fixed daytime audience. but with the multiple platforms, plus the transmedia, TPTB should be thinking about how to exploit these opportunities to increase the size of the audience pie, not just their slice.

other than understanding that long-term solutions require patience, the WWF stuff assumes a knowledge i don't possess.

in addition to the future discussion of how soaps' marginalization has been internalized and manifested mentioned in the post, i'm planning to explore the factors that are converging to create disincentives for viewers' involvement and commitment to soaps, including a consideration of the role played by the soap media. also want to ponder the irony, if not the significance, of the 1980s rise of complex storytelling (paul levitz discussed this at futures) at the exact time soap were beginning to, how shall we put this, sacrifice their complexity at the altar of demographics. also at the futures conference, there was some discussion of fan power -- want to take a look at that as it relates to soap fans. and i know there's one more question relative to soaps raised at futures, from paul levitz: sincere and insincere mistakes as they relate to soaps.


No surprise here, Lynn, but plenty of insightful comments. And I'm always fine with waiting for a valuable perspective.

You are right, indeed, that the idea of complaining about now sustained growth a few weeks after one hot-shotted return is short-sighted, and it's easy to fall back into the industry's own mode of thinking here. The reason I don't believe that it will not have any lasting impact is didn't have any lasting impact. What I mean is that viewers will start to see it as more than an isolated short-term gimmick when writers and producers start making something other than short-term isolated gimmicks.

And you are right about the executives. I don't have anyone in particular to point to to say that they are the problem, and trying to figure out something like this feels like trying to find out whose to blame about your house getting razed in The Grapes of Wrath. Don't blame me, I work for the bank. Oh, the people at the bank have to answer to the people who own the corporation back on the East Coast. But it's not their fault because the shareholders the end, it's an overall mindset more than it is one person to blame.

As for a clearer definition of "legacy characters," you raise an interesting point. It is certainly being used differently here than the definition you found. My understanding is that it refers to a character who has a developed past on the show and who audiences are already familiar with, in some way. I don't think a random minor character from the past is a legacy character, but a character who was once a substantial part of the show and still has ties to characters on the show would be a legacy character.

I don't know of any empirical evidence to support my assertion that most soap fans started watching through a social network. I only know that from my own experience in asking people who are soap fans how they started watching. The people who I did talk to who started watching in complete isolation seemed to have much less of a problem tuning back out when they got bored than fans who have a social connection that involves the show.

You are certainly right that fans enjoy the show in many different ways, but I've found that most fans have a deeper relationship with a soap opera if it is tied into a social reationship as well. And that extends far beyond soaps. Fandom in general tends to be that way.

Re: your point of the soap industry internalizing its own marginalization, I think that it may be the major source of that marginalization. Soaps will not conceive of themselves outside of the stereotype most often, as is evident by the type of ad campaigns these shows have.

"Good storytelling" is awfully hard to define, is it not, but it tends to be specific to each show. For ATWT, good storytelling seems to be what the cast is most natural at and what the genre is most natural at. Multigenerational, focus on reaction and dialogue rather than visual displays (since soaps budgets rarely make such displays look good), and stories that cause all the cast to interact with each other regularly. Character parity, so that one character is never shoved down one's throat while several others are on screen once every two months. These are the things that seem most lacking in soap storytelling but which seems to me to be an intuitive strength of the genre that is being ignored.

That's not to say that the current writers for most shows are terrible storytellers. Often, they show flashes of brilliance, but they seem locked into certain modes of thinking, or else held there by other forces.

And here is the money question: "why are they not doing it, and what's standing in the way?" You are right that the biggest difference would be giving someone the room to make a difference. That's what my argument for long-term brand planning versus week-to-week growth is all about. The powers need to think about how to generate growth in three years rather than three weeks.

"as soaps steal audiences from each other and temporarily draw viewers back in." Soaps have proven they can all survive, and you are right that they should exploit their own individual strengths instead of thinking of how to grab from others. The problem with grabbing from others is that it causes shows to do things that make no sense on that show just because they are trying to get some of the audience that another show got. It would indeed be like 24 trying to steal from Grey's Anatomy or any other sort of combination that sounds improbable.

I'm interested in the variety of issues you raise for future discussion and look forward to reading your thoughts on them when you have the chance to get them down.

On January 5, 2007 at 9:04 AM, John Andersson said:

Random thoughts, once again:

The genre is dying, the Fates have spoken. (I might have started with Frodo's question: How do you pick up the threads of an old life? ;-)) Nihil novi sub sole. Just that this time the Fates might be wrong. But it's high time for things to change. The only problem is that I think your commentators, Sam Ford, including me, are overly optimistic. Re-inventing of the soap opera genre is a gigantic feat, and a rather expensive one. Above all, people in the industry need to renew the human resources department with some fresh and imaginative talent. And we need to understand that the genre is not there because of us, it's there because of the money it generates.

Of course, that same industry needs to be more open to fan feedback, as you've often said, but that is a double-edged sword. How can you find a compelling and truthful critique in the sea of fanmail and message boards that have flooded the virtual space? No wonder the producers lost interest in such information, since most of the comments on the forums are quite shallow and non-specific. They often include trivial phrases like I hate the actress, The story is sh*t, Today's show was stellar and so on. But little does that help those in charge. Another problem is that producers are often wannabe writers who intentionally push the writers over the edge of darkness, after which there is no return. You had to be Bill Bell or Harding Lemay to have a fruitful co-operation with your producer, who wouldn't mess around with stories and scripts, but who would have made sure that everything from costumes and sets to camera angles is perfect as much as humanly possible.

On the other hand, even if you had a fabulous writer, I'm beginning to wonder how much would it help. Too much suprises, plot twists and sudden turns, lots of intrigue and drama based on secrets, all the buzz, the fuzz, endless love triangles and quadrangles, cheap teen drama with to-say-the-least mediocre actors and cross-media marketing, and we become saturated. It's not our thing anymore. Even the primetime arc-heavy shows, like the oh-so-famous Lost, aren't in the best of shapes and do not generate as much audiences as network people would like. But they do spend an incredible amount of money. Strong fan base does not equal great profits unfortunately, which suddenly reminds me of so many great shows that got cancelled. Plus, teen soaps are experiencing the last word I wrote -- cancellation (The O.C., but this is completely the show-runners' fault).

To me it's interesting to compare the highest rated week in daytime history and the latest Luke & Laura reunion -- 16.0 rating vs. 2.9! And General Hospital had a higher rating earlier this year (something like 3.0 or 3.1)!

And somewhat off-topic, when you mention WWE, why can't we get free access to soaps' archives, complete with show bibles, story documents, outlines and scripts? If UI Rare Book and Special Collections Library can have all those things from 1976 onwards, and if their members can take home with them the copy of a script with complete Kay Alden's notes, why can't we download the same thing in .pdf format? Too much work, I guess.



Great to hear from you again! I think you are absolutely right that we're all overly optimistic that the soap opera industry will reinvent itself. It's not even a reinvention--rather it is a reconceptualization as to how to plan and write a story. But someone has to be optimistic, as they are whittling away a little of their audience every year, still telling compelling enough stories but not capitalizing on the power of their genre.

Again, I think this is an institutional thing and not any one person's fault, which means that you can't pinpoint who in particular is not doing "a good job," and that makes it harder to change. But if perspective was redefined to looking three years from now rather than three weeks from now, that would help instill this concept of managing a soap opera like a brand and thinking about real turnaround.

The fact that these shows have been on the air for decades, though, probably doesn't instill the long-term feeling on the business side that the fans have of the "worlds without end." In fact, I've had a head of daytime programming explicitly say to me that you never know what direction a network will go in, which means that the industry environment is not as amenable to long-term planning as I'm indicating. If you aren't sure you are going to be on the air in three years, how can you make that your goal?

I agree that the genre is not there for the viewer, but the model needs to be updated to remember that the viewer drives the industry. The involvement of soap fans with the product, the ability to do product placement in soaps better than almost anywhere else...there are alternate ways of looking at profit that would reconceptualize the soap industry and the viewer's place in it.

But, as you say, that takes time, and to produce five hours of television a week is a daunting enough task. Whose desk does this fall on?

I agree with you on fan feedback, that you can't take any particular string of fan commentary as THE direction you need to go, nor would fans even want you to do that. On the other hand, there is definitely a sense of many producers not having their finger on the pulse of the fan community and that could be changed simply by being a PART of the fan community, even as a lurker. I know some writers do this already, but I think there it is more about listening and perspective than literally taking fans on as your advisers in a singular sense. I've seen some rants out there that are much worse than anything the writers could ever come up with, and every fan fancies themselves a would-be writer (well, not every fan, but you know what I mean).

The idea is to try and understand the spirit of the fan community, the overall sentiment, and more than that to write the show with the fan in mind rather than just trying to get through one story arc to get to the next. Character-centered writing that takes into account the fans is what soaps should excel at.

As for your point that "strong fan base does not equal great profits," it's an indication that the business model has it wrong. Taking into account the long tail and the indication that more involved fans are more ardent supporters, there should be ways to change the industry to be as profitable as possible. The fan interest is there, but the whole idea of "impressions" does not take into account the involvement of the eyeballs but rather just the number of people watching on the screen at that time (if the Nielsen survey is to be taken as valid at all).

The initial drop in soaps' ratings had to be largely due to the fact that there were simply more choices--comparing primetime numbers finds that shows could never reach the level of popularity they could back when there was only three choices in many markets. But the response to the soap industry has caused that number to do nothing but keep dwindling. They should realize this--there is no magic cure, and if they had spent the last decade looking to slowly build the number back up rather than quick-fix, we wouldn't be here. But I don't see why the corproate structure and business-as-usual HAS to let the current soap operas continue to atrophy and eventually die.

As for soap archives, I think that there are ways to market it that would even make the archives directly relevant to current content. We've seen some of that now. But the idea would be to imbed references in shows that could then be followed up by offering access to content from the archives.

But you ask good questions--it is apparently too much work, but the archives ARE the show's strengths, after all, if they would realize that.

On January 11, 2007 at 7:36 AM, John Andersson said:

I compiled some things I found on the internet over the past few days on how the British do soaps.

* Q: What is a storyliner?

NS: Well officially a storyliner in a soap writes a scene by scene beat of episodes. From what I understand there's a 2 year planning meeting where they talk about the characters you have to keep in and then you have 6 month planning meetings where the writers get together and propose all the stories and they are sat there with the producers and they all decide what the story is going to be and the storyliners go away and literally do the plotting. So if a character's going to die then someone will be plotting how they get there so they'll come up with the whole story, then they'll give the plots to the writers and they'll say this is what has to happen in each episode. So that's really detailed. With me, the most I've used a storyliner is on a series we did last year and I only call her a storyliner because she's really a talented script editor who knew how to write the story basically. So she was coming up with our serial story whilst our writers are trying to catch up. Because we had to do something within three months and get it on air - it literally went from a commission with one script to screen in four or five months and that's 8 hours.

* John Yorke Reveals All

Soaps hold up a mirror to society, with its imperfections and honesty on display for all to see. There is a perverse pleasure in watching families and acquaintances live out their lives, and we celebrate, mourn and fight with them, even if it is fictional. Strong acting performances, believable storylines and first class writing are the recipe for successful soap. Watching the first five years of Brookside taught me many lessons. Brookie had memorable characters that we learnt to care about. Watching the Grant family face the trials and tribulations of everyday life kept eight million viewers on the edge of their seats.

Whatever the viewer's age, people want to be entertained by compelling stories with characters that they care about. Soaps are one of the only ways on TV where viewers can really get under the skin of a character. We want to know the nitty gritty of their lives, to accept their faults and love them for it, as they're the same faults that we all have.

When the chips are down, all that matters in EastEnders is family. The Slater family may bicker constantly over the breakfast table but when there's a family problem - and there are many - they close ranks and put on a brave face to the rest of the world. They fight back, and that's what viewers want to see as it's how we like to act in everyday life.

Part of the pleasure of watching soap is seeing characters grow and change but mostly, the pleasure comes from watching characters you love triumph over problems of the real world. It's interesting to reflect that EastEnders' biggest ever storyline was Den serving Angie the divorce papers, which was watched by over 30 million viewers, yet there wasn't a plane crash, a siege or a mystery virus in sight."

* Finally, to the question What makes a soap successfull?, John Yorke answered:

Characters people love and the way they interact with each other. We're lucky that we have a lot of very popular characters but all that would be nothing without the work that Julia Smith and Tony Holland did in creating the environment they appear in. At the end of the day it's Walford that's the star, not any particular character.


John, do you get a sense that the creative teams live up to that rhetoric? I certainly think most of those comments are true of the power of American soaps as well, but I know that people in the industry often make some of these comments, but they end up being nothing more than lip service, covered by short-term thinking. I don't have enough history with British soaps to have any idea. Either way, definitely appreciate your gathering these comments and find them fascinating.

On January 19, 2007 at 7:28 AM, John Andersson said:

I do, Sam, I really do. Because it happened (and keeps happening) in practice. Everytime British soaps had a problem, the executives were eager to solve it quickly. And they did. I know that you probably, as everyone else I think, feels sick when you read an interview with a head writer nowadays - it's as if someone made a template and all the head writer has to do is to put the appropriate name of the show in required fields.

British soaps also have another difference - they do not have a head writer in the American sense of the word. There are series story producers and story editors, who are somewhat in charge, but the story is a team effort and everybody is free to pitch. Even if you're a newcomer scriptwriter. British serials and the serial producers are contantly looking for fresh talent and new voices. These story producers, story editors, script editors and scriptwriters keep changing (the average life is two years or so), but the shows remain consistent. And they draw from history. Let me give you quite a recent example - Coronation Street's Cristmas Day episode hinged on an event that happened 16 years previously! They have archivists (that is how they call waht in America is historian or editor) who have been working for certain soaps for 15 years or more now! And, of course, they know the show forwards and backwards and every way you want.

Certainly, the also have problems - EastEnders is known for burning their brilliant characters too quickly, and sometimes they are too much focused on ther socially relevant stories. Unlike Australian Neighbours, which is pure story - no social activism.

But, for American soap operas, I think the end has come - Passions will be cancelled in June or August and Days of Our Lives won't last more then 2 years from now (Zucker stated in a recent article in USA Today).



Of course no soap is perfect because, with that much text, they all jump the shark and back time and time again, but I do find the head writer interviews distressing, principally because there seems to never be any "we could have handled that better" sentiment. Instead, it's always written as if everything has been done well and is moving along well, which is just not true. Here at Futures of Entertianment, Paul Levitz with DC Comics talked about sincere and insincere mistakes. That's the problem with American soaps right now, that most of the mistakes fans don't see as sincere and instead feel that the writers just don't really care that much. And it's hard to invest your own time and imagination in a show that you don't feel the people who are paid to do so are even doing.

I think breaking down the hierarchy is a good point. The way soaps are structured right now, it's awfully hard for new blood to become involved, yet they don't leave experienced people in positions, either. Instead, they bounce the same creatives from show to show every couple of years, so that you have a wealth of people who don't have fresh ideas but also don't have history with the show, and isntead you end up with the homoginization of soaps that we've talked about before.

I think that American soaps have become extremely bad about putting characters on everyday and burning viewers out on their best characters. Sure, I can understand the arguments that some characters are more popular than ever, but if you give viewers too much of what they want, you kill it off quickly.

The warning shot is being fired with the cancellation of Passions, and NBC is obviously planning to wash their hands of the genre. What I'm calling for is for PGP, ABC, and Bell to stand up and do something before it's entirely too late. The momentum is rolling toward an eventual end to the genre as we know it on American teleivison, but it still doesn't have to be that way.

By the way, wrote about the cancellation of Passions farther up, here.

And I'm going to be in contact with you, John, regarding an upcoming soaps project. Really enjoy your thoughts on these issues. Thanks again.

On April 24, 2007 at 3:36 PM, Dave Feldman said:

Great stuff, Sam

I can't help notice that almost all of the short-term "fixes" you mention in this and other threads are stunts that are easy to promote but act to pull viewers away from the fictional world of the soap.

It is less than 30 years since ABC inaugurated its "Love in the Afternoon" promos. Until then, it was considered taboo to tip off upcoming storylines, even teases for the next day's story. When I worked for NBC in the Paleolithic Era (pre-Soap Opera Digest), we used to leak the most innocuous plot developments (e.g., "Matt receives a visit from a woman from his past") and fans would gobble this much up. These days are long gone -- the proliferation of information for viewers has much upside, but I think it's important to retain some immersion in the fictional world, even it if occupies only a portion of the viewer's brain.

Wrestling has had to contend with how to handle the "smartening" of its audience, and in many ways, I think they have done a much better job of it than soaps. But wrestling has it easier, as their storylines come to more short-term peaks for PPV's; soaps, at least good ones, have to live with the consequences of even short-term storylines and the character shifts that they engender. Of course, increasingly, soaps haven't done justice to their histories, and it's understandable that long-term fans are enraged.

For the most part, the promo departments at the network aren't in tune with what drives most soap viewers. How could they? They don't, for the most part, ever watch the shows regularly. As a result, the promos tend to focus on the "juicy" scenes, the most "promotable" scenes. But often these are moments that might appeal more to a casual TV watcher than the hard-core fan.

At the PCA convention, we talked about how much we miss the "coffee klatch" scenes, where we see regular characters reacting to the trials and travails not only of their own, but other characters. Non-soap fans might see these as boring, as plot recapitulations, as fillers. But if these are beloved characters, these are cherished moments, when we as viewers have some relief from well-trod plotlines and learn and laugh along with our "friends." But there's no way to make such scenes sound sexy, and certainly no way to include such scenes in a tease. In other words, we don't promote the very moments of the show that are the most soapy. It's not just melodrama that defines soap opera -- it's connection with characters that we see every day.

I haven't given up on the viability of soaps, and I'm hoping that ABC and PGP's investment in them will give them a lease on life. We need writers who are as immersed in the fictional worlds as the most fervent fans. The best head writers I worked with have been among the most impressive people I've ever met.


Dave, you make some great points here, and I agree with you completely that the commercials for soap operas seem to promote the worst of them. If you want to see the stereotype of a soap opera, it seems the networks are always ready to put a highlight package together with the most inauthentic action scenes they can find and a lot of loving, taken completely out of context, that make soap operas look like camp and romance novels.

Soaps aren't very clippable, but one could imagine highlight packages focusing on a particular character and showing various bits of dialogue in a way that could be packaged well. Yet, as you point out, this requires and intimacy with the text that these folks may not have, which complicates things.

The problem is just that the most "promotable" scenes are also the ones most likely to turn people off to soaps. They are often like a highlight reel of things soaps shouldn't be doing on a regular basis.

You make a good point about how wrestling deals with spoilers. With wrestling, because there is hardly any time between taping and the live airing, however, there's a sense that Vince McMahon can always change everything at the last minute if he wants. In the soap opera world, on the other hand, the more detailed spoilers get, the more you know that it is a verbatim account of what will happen. The more plot-driven soaps become, the more spoilers hurt.