EastEnders, Coronation Street, and the Future of Soap Operas:
What Sets Reveal About a Show
As we stated last week, every product, whether it’s a bar of soap or a soap opera lives and dies on whether its producer invests in the product. When you starve your product of investment, research and development, and innovation, your product will steadily lose customers, market share, and relevance over time. Granted, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen as something else takes your place in the marketplace.
In 2015, BBC’s flagship soap opera, EastEnders, was approved to build a new standing set on its famous Hertfordshire backlot at a cost of £59.7 million. However, the project has come under criticism for being £27 million overbudget on its new outdoor standing sets. This brings the total cost of EastEnders’ new standing sets to approximately £86.7 million. £86.7 MILLION. Think about that for a moment. When was the last time any soap opera was given that sort of investment in its long-term future? The most contemporaneous example I can think of was in 2013 when ITV paid £10 million for a new backlot “street” for the UK’s number one soap opera, Coronation Street. It is heartening to see there is an investment being made in the future of the UK’s soap operas, while American soaps have not fared very well during the same period.
Of the four current US soap operas, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, and General Hospital, none of these shows use standing sets on a backlot. This can boil down to three reasons:
1.) There is limited space in Los Angeles where the soaps are filmed, which makes backlots prime real estate. US soaps must contend with deep pocketed primetime, films, and commercials for use of a backlot.
2.) They are shot at studio complexes without backlots.
3.) The over-reliance on studio-based sets is extremely expensive, thus resulting in fewer sets being built and older, large sets being junked in an effort to save money.
All of these factors are practical considerations which can be traced back to the debut of Search for Tomorrow in 1951. Since then, all US soap operas are filmed in studio due to their origins in live broadcasting. Starting in 1965 with the Irish soap opera, The Riordans, non-US soap operas began a long tradition of shooting on location and in studio to great effect. US soap operas rely on building and recycling sets for whatever needs the story calls for in that episode. Although The Young and the Restless shot on location in Pittsburgh during the late-80s and early-90s, along with the Newman Ranch exteriors in the 1980s, shooting a US soap opera on location has been prohibitively expense. Building a new set, while a worthy investment, is an expensive investment, especially when it must be repeated hundreds of times per year. If we compare that to having one purpose built exterior set with dedicated shooting locations amortized over ten to twenty years, the cost can easily decline because you do not spend millions of dollars on labor and materials, but upkeep and maintenance.
The Young and the Restless was roundly criticized for eliminating the old Newman Ranch set, while severely altering the Chancellor Mansion. The Bold and the Beautiful reduced the size of the Forrester Mansion along with other sets to avoid the cost of putting up and taking down sets every day and utilizing them as permanent studio based standing sets. Moreover, Days of Our Lives uses so few sets due to their associated costs, that important scenes take place on an indoor town square set. While these cost saving measures may reflect positively on a show’s budget for a season or two, not making an investment in the long-term production values of a soap vis a vis its sets reveal a narrow focus on the short term at the expense of today’s product. One can argue that investing in expensive new standing sets on backlots is a tangible investment and seal of approval for the future of a soap opera.
I would argue that the fates of EastEnders, Coronation Street, and UK based soap operas are safe. The same cannot be said for their American counterparts for one simple reason: Without long-term investment from the owners of a soap opera in the form of new sets and upgraded production values (aspects which are tangible and are seen every day a show airs) we can deduce that the future of any soap opera will be precarious. If the owner of a soap opera won’t invest in their product, why should the audience?