May 1, 2008
A Followup from Lynn Liccardo on Listening to Consumers and P&G Soap Operas

In the previous post, I ran a piece from Lynn Liccardo, one of my thesis advisors and a longtime soap opera fan and critic, on how the P&G ethos is separated from their soap opera programming. I waned to run Lynn's followup piece this morning.

No matter what reformulations, new packaging and other improvements market research generates for existing products, the fundamental function of those products must remain recognizable to consumers. At the end of the day, people have to be able to wash their clothes with Tide's "new formula" and brush their teeth with the "new and improved" Crest. While our mothers and grandmothers used earlier versions of Tide and Crest, they certainly wouldn't have any trouble recognizing and using the current formulas.

But when it comes today's soap operas, what I see flashing by as I watch with my finger on ff I can barely recognize the shows I've been watching for over 50 years. Such has been the impact of market research on soap operas. (And I want to be clear that while I'm speaking here specifically about P&G, the negative impact of market research effects all soap operas, not just those produced by P&G.)

The reason for this is that unlike market research for consumer products, there is little chance that researcher and subject will share an experiential frame of reference when it comes to watching soap operas; being a soap fan is simply not a prerequisite for a job researching soaps. That lack of commonality, coupled with advertisers' relentless search for the next big thing that will attract a younger demographic, has resulted in shows that are hardly identifiable as soap opera.

A 2003 BusinessWeek piece described A.G. Lafley's early days as P&G's CEO: "The first thing Lafley told his managers when he took the job was just what they wanted to hear: Focus on what you do well -- selling the company's major brands such as Tide, Pampers, and Crest -- instead of trying to develop the next big thing. Now, those old reliable products have gained so much market share that they are again the envy of the industry."

What Lafley's managers wanted to hear is exactly what soap opera fans want to see: soaps focusing on what they do well - character-driven multi-generational stories told with depth and complexity. Lafley is so clearly on the right track with P&G's consumer products. So, what would happen if those same principles were applied to P&G's soap operas as well?

For instance, what would happen if Lafley's mantra, "the customer is boss" was reinterpreted as "the viewer is boss?" Well, since television viewers are ultimately the product being delivered to the customer, which is to say the advertiser, the customer already is the boss. But, since P&G is the producer of As the World Turns and Guiding Light, as well as the shows' largest advertiser, they are in a unique position to find the "little clues in 'viewers' complaints and "use them" to improve the shows.

But the real rub is how P&G - and the others (ABC, CBS, Sony) - apply their market research. Lewis Hyde opened his 1983 book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, with a description of how an advertising agency developed the romance novel "formula," and asks the rhetorical question, "Why do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art?," followed by the not so rhetorical question that is the thrust of his book: "What is it about a world of art, even when it is bought and sold on the market, that make us distinguish it from such pure commodities as these?"

Hyde describes the inherent and inescapable tension between creativity and the marketplace: "Works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economies,' a market economy and a gift economy." He goes on to say, "Only one of these is essential however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art."

When it comes to soap opera, there are certainly those who will argue that soaps are nothing more than a video version of a romance novel, and that all that's needed for success is to ask the right questions of the right viewers to create a "formula." Well, that's pretty much what's been happening in recent years; the marketing people and network executives micromanage virtually every aspect of soap opera storytelling, yet ratings have never been lower and continue to drop. So maybe it's time to consider how Hyde's argument, "Where there is no gift there is no art," might apply to soaps.

"Soap opera" is storytelling, and that begins with the storyteller, the writer, whose gift - "the big aha" as it were - Hyde calls "the inner life of art."

It's the moment of inspiration that comes unbidden - in the shower, the pool, while tossing and turning trying to fall asleep - almost never sitting in front of the keyboard; the authenticity of these moments is the antithesis of formula, and without it, soap opera will not - make that cannot - survive.




This is a beautiful post. I agree with almost every word.

One of the weaknesses of formula studies is that it might help us understand why a genre attracts fans, but it doesn't help explain why, say, Young and the Restless is so much more popular than Guiding Light, even if they share so many formal elements in common.

I happen to share your love of soap operas, and have never been able to enjoy romance novels I've tried to read, but I think you'll find if you applied the same rigor to studying romance novels.

I realize that you aren't arguing thatsoaps are "nothing more than a video version of a romance novel,"but I'd argue that fans see all the nuances in "their" genre that weseein "ours." I know this, having spent some time with romance writers and readers.

On May 3, 2008 at 10:36 AM, PatrickErwin Author Profile Page said:

"The authenticity of these moments is the antithesis of formula, and without it, soap opera will not - make that cannot - survive."

This sentence alone says it all.

We the audience have been told to get with the times, to 'lighten up' (as Barbara Bloom recently said), and that we are too nostalgic.

A lion's share of any effort at any of the shows has been focused on the superficial elements of the shows, and how they are marketed. Virtually NO effort seems to have been invested in the story element; few of the people in charge have more than a fundamental understanding of all of the layers and nuances of a given story. This is what people tune in for, and without that element it won't matter what gimmicks or stunt casting happens. They could line the sets with diamonds and film it in HD and still, people just won't want to invest the time it takes to watch (and make no mistake, it IS an investment).

Great work as always from Lynn.


a couple of thoughts re romance novels: like you, dave, the pleasure of romance novels have always escaped me, but it did occur to me that formulaic or not, these books generate many billions in sales, so they must be giving readers what they want. and that means someone is interpreting the market research correctly; this is so clearly not the case with soaps. it would be interesting to know if whoever is conducting market research for romance novels is also a fan.

one more comment re romance novels: as patrick notes, soap opera requires a considerable investment of time from fans; i don't think the same is true for romance novels.

and re why y&r is so much more popular than gl, here's a link to a piece i wrote on the different kinds of soap opera. historically, each soap was distinctive, but over the past 15 years, at least, they've become homogenized. i know dave used to work in programming; any insights on this?

patrick noted that complaining fans have been accused of being "too nostalgic." this is a huge issue, because TPTB are dismissing nostalgia when they should be embracing it. i sometimes wonder it i shouldn't have found a different title for my previous c3 post, yearning for the world as it was, because it's not just about nostalgia and sentimentality; as lee harrington wrote to me, "it's a mode of storytelling that has been nearly destroyed over the years."

patrick, a while back i mentioned to you your response to "oj didn't do it (kill soaps, that is)" post on "savoring soaps" (which i can't seem to locate on the media village board; so frustrating when sites don't fully archive material). anyway, what you said at the time, "there cane a time when the industry decided it was going to be ashamed of what it was," is what i believe underlies this wholesale dismissal of nostalgia. i've talked a lot about how to survive soaps need to find their way back to the future. in that post you described so perfectly how it ought to happen, and hasn't:

"i'm not saying that time need to stand still, or that the production values should not change and evolve to a degree (and in an organic way) over time. but the shows lost their identity -- look how far many of them are from where they started. and they'll continue to do so, since they keep shedding pieces of themselves in a desperate plea for ratings."

thanks to both of you for your comments; hope we can continue the discussion.

On May 7, 2008 at 9:51 AM, Lee Harrington Author Profile Page said:

Hi all. Lynn, I finally had a chance to read both parts of your critique -- applause, applause! I find it very frustrating when market research completely drives the show. It has its place of course, but cannot replicate the depth and nuance that long-term viewers can provide. To poach from Dave above, it can tell us the "what" but not much depth into the "why." Given that market researchers aren't always fans of what they research (and aren't always even knowledgeable of the texts), they may have limited ability to understand and process (in context) the data they're collecting. I've long been dismayed by media researchers (academics) who don't consume that which they write about, and I find the same trouble here. I appreciate C3's efforts to increase dialogue between industry/academia/audiences....wish it were more widespread. Lee