Recently, while I was at with fellow C3 researcher Ivan Askwith, we discussed the need for a shift in the economic models for television in general, particularly in how the life of a property is envisioned. I've written time and time again this fall and winter about the death of various shows that had developed a following but not up to the standards the industry wanted to see. Instead of switching those shows to a cable network to finish out their days or aim for profitability over time through DVD distribution, these shows were cancelled quickly for fear of not getting an immediate major profit from advertisers. This up-front, make-your-money-from-advertising model was the way television was structured before products had a shelf life beyond syndicated distribution, but the economic model is shifting now. The many ways products can live on through Internet distribution, mobile content, DVD distribution, video-on-demand, and a variety of other forms of cross-platform distribution means that television producers who are making shows are no longer producing one-time ephemeral content but rather a media property that could live on well into the future in various formats.
But the industry still isn't structured that way. If a show dips in ratings, it could quickly become yesterday's news, and it seems the shows are becoming even more drop happy at a time when the economic model should be shifting in the opposite direction. At the least, if a show is booted off the network, it could be finished off on one of the many cable networks these conglomerates own, or even just finished for DVD distribution . After all, a substantial number of fans have already invested in many of these shows, and they are angry when they are cancelled. And, who knows, the show may pick up a strong following to be launched back into broadcast. Instead, though, they cancel these shows before they even have the opportunity to build up enough episodes to launch onto DVD at all, and then they run fans off with getting them invested in a product, only to finish out the experience with having to read a synopsis of what would have happened the rest of the season, if the network had not decided to pull the plug.
No wonder fans don't want to invest in these shows. Investing in a show, especially a serialized one, is an obligation, and no fan wants to start listening to a story that people are just going to stop in the middle of. Nothing is more frustrating than that.
In light of many of my recent soap opera posts, I've been thinking about this in relation to the cancellation of Passions as well. I've blogged about Passions a couple of times, here and here, but I never thought it was a show that captured what soaps do well. It's a parody of soap opera, and that has its place, but I never saw it as a show that had legs for daily plots long-term. The only problem is, with the genre as a whole slowly sliding downward in numbers, moving a notch lower every couple of years like Poe's pendulum, everybody's worried when the blade will strike flesh, and not just Passions, which was the sacrificial lamb.
It was not that long ago that NBC was warning Days to search for alternate forms of distribution. And, in conversations I've had with a VP of daytime programming for one of the big three networks, they all but said soaps are constantly going to be in danger, because you never know when the network will change directions. And they wonder why it's hard to get fans to invest in these shows? Soap operas are supposed to be "worlds without end," but when the creative teams of the shows, the marketers behind the shows, the networks that airs the shows, and the fans that watch the shows have to constantly think about the fact that this soap might not be around in five years, how is anyone supposed to have the confidence in doing what soaps do best??
I've written in the past about how soaps should shift their focus to thinking about building their shows as brands, not thinking about where ratings will be in three weeks but rather three years out. Here's what I'm saying: to save the soap opera genre, it's simple, and it doesn't involve significant capital. Negotiate a deal that lasts beyond a year or two, and then make the goal to increase ratings by the end of that period rather than in a couple of weeks. Build story arcs that will see long-term growth and turnaround, thinking three years out, and quit trying to invest in quick fixes. I write about how shortsighted these quick fixes have been and how they are killing the genre, but it's hard to blame the creative team when they have no guarantee they will be on the air beyond another year out.
For that matter, CBS and ABC and NBC (with the one soap they have left) could easily make the promise with a five-year deal that, if the show gets booted from the main network, it would be guaranteed a spot on a cable network owned by the show to finish honoring those five years. That way, a creative team could really map out a strategy and try to build a show back up in the manner I've suggested before. It's not rocket science, although you would think it would must be considering how difficult it is for anyone in the industry to get their ducks in a row.
At the NATPE conference this past week, Chris Anderson emphasized that today's television hits are "less hitty," and that the revenue balance is about to switch significantly. That shouldn't mean the death of serialized television, on daytime or on primetime, but rather a shift in focus. The problem is that the networks are likely neither going to cancel their daytime drama lineups nor try to do anything substantial to fix it, instead creating a do-nothing approach that will see the ratings continue to slowly swing downward, and then--when these shows are eventually cancelled someday--it will be blamed on the inability of the genre to draw any longer instead of the complacency and lack of an approach from the networks and the producers to put together a plan to have saved the shows. In other words, I'm afraid we will be looking back at the current time years from now as the point something could have been done to change the direction of these shows and the current people at the helms of daytime television as the folks who refused to push the button on reform until it was too late.
A common line quoted from the Bible, that OTHER 3:16 (Revelations), is, "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." That seems to be the fate of the American soap opera at this point, where daytime programmers and producers will neither try to do invest (and I'm talking time and energy and not significant new capital) into improving these shows and will instead let them slowly rot on the vine. And that's a shame because these problems are able to be fixed right now.