The Neglected Niche

Will There be a Third Generation of Soap Operas?

Whatever you want to call them, soap operas have been a beacon of stability for America’s broadcast networks since the 1930s. They have served as important points of programming during the late-morning through the late-afternoon. The stability of a soap opera line-up could change the fortunes of an entire network. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, CBS rode high in the ratings across every day part which their superstar line-up of As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, Search for Tomorrow, etc. made viewers tune-in day after day which, by design, kept them tuned in for the evening news followed by primetime programming. ABC had similar success with their blockbuster daytime line-up in the 1990s which included All My Children, General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Oprah (in most markets). It is often said that Loving outperformed The Young and the Restless during this time frame because of ABC’s programming strength in key markets such as New York City.

Then, as if by design, everything changed.

Yes, we can recount the number of flubs, misses, and bad decisions on both sides of the camera which resulted in the utter destruction of daytime’s once solid programming strategy. The soap opera industry, apart from talk shows and games shows, has been neglected to the point where it’s become mocked, marginalized, and maligned by those who work in the industry, report on it, and are responsible for keeping it on the air.

For years, CBS, ABC, and NBC made a concerted effort to keep soap operas as a key tenant of their programming strategy. Whenever a soap was canceled, it was (generally) replaced by another soap. It can be said that because a soap opera is a known quantity to a viewer, they know exactly what’s in store for them rather than a precarious talk show or confusing game show. By the 1999, four soap operas appeared on American television in the 20th century: The City, Port Charles, Sunset Beach, and Passions. No soap opera has premiered on American television in the 21st century. The investment in the soap opera industry has been pulled by all of the major networks under the false belief that replacing a long running soap opera with a talk show or game show will result in mythical cost savings matched with improved ratings which might lead to a higher CPM (cost per mille), the price networks can charge advertisers for a 30-second ad.

ABC, CBS, and NBC, studios, and production companies have spent millions of dollars trying to find the next Oprah or Wheel of Fortune. There hasn’t been a push to find the next All My Children or As the World Turns. Research and development costs money in every industry. Every company must innovate or die. That’s the only option for success and survival. The soap opera industry isn’t any different. If ABC, CBS, and NBC allow their primetime development staff to spend between $5 million to $13 million on one television pilot which may never go to series, they can spend $1 million for a test batch of five episodes for a new soap opera. Those five episodes could be re-edited into a TV movie and sold to another outlet and abroad if it failed to find an audience. Again, these choices (and many more) are the reason the soap opera industry is currently buckling under its own weight. Without investments in new soap operas with which to stimulate creativity, newness, and competition into the industry, the four remaining soap operas will never have the need or desire to produce a better, more modern product. Remember, it was Dark Shadows, a low-rated soap opera, which grabbed the youth audience thereby forcing every soap opera to chase that audience, much to the long-term detriment of the soap opera industry.

Will new soap operas save the day? Yes. What must happen is the investment must be made in order to bring about the third generation of soap operas. The future of soap operas may very well lie online  or in other forms which we will discuss later. Now is the time for the soap opera industry to accept its neglected niche, cater to it, and invest in creating the future. If the broadcast networks won’t do it, someone else will…and should…

The soap opera isn’t dead; it is ripe for a renaissance.