|A SOC SPECIAL REPORT|
While the networks have apparently been sluggish to accept the new media that is the Internet, they have moved at breakneck speed to embrace the so-called next generation of soap opera viewers. Soap execs now actively court the under-30 crowd and view them as the group that will make or break their shows. This is due, largely in part, to the emphasis placed on the under-30 demographic by advertisers. Since it is advertisers who, in essence, pay the bills - the soaps have to do whatever they can to court an audience that these advertisers want to reach.
Efforts to lure "younger" viewers to the soaps have been met with mixed results. Network executives and soap writers have long felt that simply introducing a teenage character would result in hordes of teenage viewers flocking to their television screens. The belief is that anyone under the age of 30 has no interest whatsoever in seeing soap characters portrayed by "over the hill" actors who have reached their 40th birthday. Time after time, research conducted by soapcentral.com has disputed this notion. In fact, younger viewers are just as likely as their "senior" counterparts to want to see storylines that encompass all age brackets. It is by no means the television industry's fault that the coveted demographic group has gotten younger and younger. In actuality, it is more of a societal issue; the belief that younger is better has become more and ensconced in our every day life. Advertisers hock lotions and potions that claim to be able to take 10 to 20 years off of your appearance. Even whitening toothpastes promise to make your smile look up to 10 years younger.
In courting a younger audience, soaps have tried to develop characters that are younger and younger in age. But while the on-screen faces may have changed, the method in which the actual stories are told has not changed. The majority of fans watching soap operas no longer fall into the 1940s grouping of "housewives;" the soap opera viewer in the 2000s has become increasingly worldly.
Between a typical 9 to 5 job, raising children and trying to maintain a household, few American women have the luxury of "extra" time to just relax and unwind. If it were to come down to a choice between going to one of the kids' school plays and watching today's episode of a soap, the soap would probably lose almost every time. Simply put, there just isn't enough time in the day to do everything that one wants to do. Choices have to be made and priorities have to be set. Even if someone were to record all their favorite soaps on a VCR or TiVo, that doesn't take care of the problem of trying to find time to watch the episodes.
Disney, which owns the ABC television network, launched the 24-hour cable soap channel SOAPnet in January 2000 as a way for busy soap fans to get another chance to watch each day's episodes of All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital. SOAPnet was, at one time, the fastest growing cable network. SOAPnet had one major handicap to overcome: the network aired only three current soaps, all of which were owned by ABC. It wasn't until 2004 that the network added the NBC soap Days of our Lives to its lineup.
It was a widely-held belief that allowing soap fans to choose between two airings of their favorite soaps would further erode the daytime airing's ratings. Studies conducted by Disney showed just the opposite: the ratings of its daytime lineup actually rose. For the record, SOAPnet's ratings are not counted in the regular daytime ratings you so often see attached to your favorite soaps. SOAPnet's ratings tally is exclusive to the cable channel. To clarify, if 10 million people were to watch an airing of one of SOAPnet's soaps, those viewers would not be reflected in the soap's official ratings tally.
SOAPnet uses the tagline "The new way to watch soaps" as its slogan, but it remains uncertain if soap fans really want a new way to watch their favorite soaps.
Newspaper and television reports repeatedly make mention of America's short attention span. Knowing that today's television viewers are more apt to reach for the remote control and flip mindlessly for something to grab their attention, today's soap operas have done little to break free from the seemingly endless storylines that drag on and on for months without a payoff. The younger viewers that soaps are so actively courting often do not want to make a six-month investment in a storyline that may or may not offer the payout that they had been hoping for.
The now-cancelled Port Charles strayed from the traditional American soap opera storytelling towards the end of its six-year run. Instead of having open-ended storylines that could wind on and on, Port Charles adopted the telenovela format popular in Latin American soaps. 13-week "storyline arcs" were created with defined beginnings, middles and ends. Fans knew that in a period of time that just about equaled three months, a story would be told - and a story would end. At the end of each storyline arc, portions of the story were carried over to the next arc to provide a segue into the next story to be told. The storytelling format earned Port Charles critical praise and, in its final year on the air, a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Port Charles was eventually cancelled in 2003, but it may have had more to do with the show's supernatural storylines and random nationwide broadcast time than anything else.
With so much attention being focused on younger viewers, many soap fans in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s have been made to feel alienated from their favorite programs. With a seemingly reckless abandon by networks to ditch characters that are old enough to be grandparents, soap opera's core families have all but been obliterated. "Older" soap fans have repeatedly expressed their wishes that soaps would tell stories about characters and families that are already established in the shows' histories. However, they've been met with resistance in many cases by writers that bring in new characters and new faces with few ties to the shows' history.
Therein lies the dilemma: soaps may be gaining younger viewers, but are these younger viewers going to remain loyal to the genre and watch for the next 10 to 20 years? Meanwhile, long-time viewers who have been watching soaps in excess of 30 years - often longer than some of the soaps' younger viewers have been alive - are now tuning out because they feel that they can no longer identify with the stories being told on today's soaps. With the ratings "hemorrhaging," as some industry folks say, it would seem that it would take a miracle to stop the bleeding. But reviving the soaps isn't such a monumental task.
CLICK HERE FOR PART FIVE OF OUR SPECIAL REPORT
The ratings are down as viewers tune out -- but do the networks really know why soap fans are tuning out?