February 6, 2007
Soap Operas in Convergence Culture and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of "a Genre in Decline"

I haven't gotten back to covering this in full yet, but in a Bloomberg article on 26 January, NBC's Jeff Zucker made the assertion that soap operas are facing "the beginning of the end." This, of course, is based on his cancellation of the parody-of-sorts Passions, which is both the youngest and the least popular of the nine soap operas currently on American daytime television.

The article provides some reasons for such gloomy talk about soap operas as well as a response from various people in the industry. And I think the problem is that, for many people, the mentality is not all that much unlike the theme of this article: "soaps aren't dead yet, but they're gonna be." When network executives like Barbara Bloom, who has the two most popular soaps on American television on CBS and another that is in direct competition with all the ABC soaps for ratings over the past few years for that shifting "number three" spot, doesn't sound that positive, either, it emphasizes the problem: the people in decision-making positions, even those who still remain committed to soaps, are showing ambivalence about doing so.

And, if the networks and industry insiders believe that the decline of soaps are inevitable, then it's going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy

A lot of it has to do with culpability. The narrative that they're telling just sounds easier. "Women started going back to the workforce. Our ratings were going to drop inevitably. There aren't as many people watching in daytime now." (as if soaps can't be married to the VCR and now DVR). Basically, the theme that runs throughout all these explanations of what is happening to the genre is that the decline of soaps is inevitable. No admission of any possible mistakes. Instead, from many creative powers, it's been quite the opposite. It's an assertion that there are no regrets or mistakes made.

But the future of a television genre doesn't have to be sacrificed without a fight, with this sense of slow inevitable death that people are greeting the steady decline in numbers with. I'm not debating that there was an inevitable decline when people had more choices. The number of casual viewers starts dropping considerably. Many people do not have the desire or energy to time shift.

What I'm arguing is that the "inevitability" argument is as dangerous as the quick fix problem I've written about before. It's a cop out and a narrative of mitigation rather than an industry fighting to do everything in its power to curb a trend of dwindling viewers.

But, with Zucker proclaiming the end of soaps, Bloom already emphasizing that soaps should consider an eventual move to other platforms, and an analyst saying that soaps are "not going to go away tomorrow, but it will happen," people have written the ending of the book while it's still chapters away.

One shining light, at least for rhetoric's sake, is Brian Frons. While I've covered several times the ways in which ABC fans are disappointed with and dubious about developments on their shows (I've focused on General Hospital), Frons says his company is taking "a more holistic approach" to soaps, particularly with its dedication to SoapNet. He emphasizes the passion of soap fans, giving some qualitative balance to the story of pure decline that Nielsen numbers tell.

And TeleVest's Brian Cahill, who says of the PGP shows he works with that the demise of soaps on the networks "may be true of NBC, but it's certainly not true of where we are."

None of this is to knock Bloom or Zucker. In Bloom's case, she's exactly right that we must find "a viable business model that works," and she is navigating a constantly changing television landscape. But, mentality is important as well. These networks should decide if they are committed to their daytime lineup or not. And, if they are, there needs to be a stronger drive in maintaining and cultivating these shows rather than remaining at the status quo.

The point of this blog and our initiatives at C3 is that the story of this "age of convergence" is not over yet, and none of us know how it's going to end, not even that prescient media analyst from Horizon Media quoted in the Bloomberg story. However, if the industry decides that it's the end of the line for soaps, then it eventually will be.

Soap operas are all about the narratives of everyday life. The soaps industry seems to be crafting a "no" mea culpa approach to the soaps industry, a decline driven solely by external factors that no one in the industry could have stopped. Again, not everyone, but as an overall explanation of soaps' history since the 1980s, this has been the narrative the industry chooses to tell itself. And it is based on reality, but it's an oversimplification that also must face the fact that these narratives were not compelling enough to hold many viewers to them. Women in the workforce and increased competition is something the industry can't help. Doing everything possible to get behind these shows and improve them to retain the viewers that are left--that's what's missing from the rhetoric.

I'd like to see someone start telling an alternate story...before the industry writes itself into a corner.