The Dying of the Light

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Has the sand run out of the hourglass at last, or will soaps return to their roots?

There is no denying that daytime soap operas - once the cash cows of the broadcast networks - have seen better days, and it's safe to say that we'll never see a return to those heady times when 30 million viewers tuned in for Luke and Laura's wedding on General Hospital back in 1981. The genre famous for people returning from the dead, evil twins, amnesia and babies switched at birth has suffered a steep ratings decline that began in the mid-1990s when the O.J. Simpson trial hijacked television, preempting the soaps and disrupting viewing patterns. More women returning to the workplace, a plethora of syndicated shows and cable programming to compete with, and the rise of online media also hit the soaps hard.

Going back to the early 1990s, The Young and the Restless, the top-rated soap for the last 20 years, averaged more than 10 million viewers per episode during the '91-'92 season - now the show brings in around 5 million viewers per episode.

Guiding Light, which had 6.5 million viewers watching each episode during the '91-'92 season, was drawing little more than 2 million viewers per episode when the show was cut from CBS' lineup last year.

The cancellation of Guiding Light - produced by TeleNext Media, the production arm of Procter & Gamble - wasn't a surprise, given its chronically last-place ratings amongst the other soaps and an ill-conceived decision to shoot much of the show on location in recent years in an attempt to make it look like MTV's The Hills (no kidding). But it was still a blow to soap fans and the industry when CBS pulled the plug on what was one of the most beloved soaps. First broadcast on radio from 1937-1956 before transitioning to television in 1952, Guiding Light ultimately became not only the longest-running soap opera, but also the longest-running drama in television history.

A few months after Guiding Light was extinguished, CBS pulled the plug on As the World Turns late last year. The second longest-running soap opera has until September to play out. TeleNext Media is reportedly in search of a new home for As the World Turns, but industry insiders don't see much hope, especially given that there were no takers for Guiding Light.

When As the World Turns stops spinning, six daytime soap operas - ABC's All My Children, General Hospital and One Life to Live; CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless; and NBC's Days of Our Lives - will remain on network television.

But the question is: for how much longer? Looking at the media coverage in the wake of the cancellation of Guiding Light and then As the World Turns, the general consensus is that the daytime soap opera is, well, dead.

But Soap Opera Digest editor Stephanie Sloane, who has covered the industry for 19 years, maintains that there is life in the genre. "Neither Guiding Light nor As the World Turns performed well in the all-important 18-49-year-old demographic, which is what determines ad dollars, but other shows are. It's not bad news all over the landscape. Success stories are out there," Sloane says, citing Days of Our Lives, which surged in the women 18-34 demo last year.

Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, also insists that the end of Guiding Light and As the World Turns don't spell doom and gloom for all daytime soaps. Speaking specifically of Guiding Light, Frons says, "We don't think that the death of a show that hadn't won its time period in 20 years is a harbinger of anything other than a late reaction by CBS to the reality of that particular program's ratings."

Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media, has this to say: "The soap opera isn't dead yet, but it is withering on the vine."

To be fair, soap operas aren't alone in facing a shrinking audience on daytime television. Even a powerhouse like The Oprah Winfrey Show has lost a substantial portion of its audience. The show, which averaged 12.6 million viewers during the '91-'92 season, brings in just over 6 million per episode today.

While she didn't cite declining ratings as a reason, Oprah Winfrey recently announced that her syndicated show will come to an end in 2011, and she will reportedly debut a new program on her soon-to-be-launched OWN cable network.

Like Winfrey, could the soaps jump to another platform - whether it is cable or the Internet - to ensure their survival? Is it possible that we might not see soaps on the broadcast networks, say, 10 years from now? "I can't predict what's going to happen a year from now," says Bruce Evans, senior vice president of current series at NBC. "Everything is changing so rapidly. Certainly, there's always going to be a desire for content, and there's always going to be a desire for what viewers get out of daytime serials. Where there's a will, there's a way to get the programming out there."

Last year, NBC started streaming Days of Our Lives online and making it available for viewing on mobile devices; ABC is already airing its own soaps, as well as shows from other networks on SOAPNet, its own cable network; and you can watch almost all of the soaps online nowadays.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurial soap stars are striking out on their own to produce soap-themed content for the Internet. Eden Riegel of All My Children and her husband, Andrew Miller, launched an online soap called "Imaginary Bitches" in 2008, and the show was nominated for a daytime Emmy in the new approaches category. Late last year, As the World Turns alum Martha Byrne debuted "Gotham," while Crystal Chappell, of Days of Our Lives, produced "Venice: The Series," for which she hopes to sell subscriptions or fund through sponsorships.

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Clearly, these three soap stars see potential for the soap outside of broadcast television. In fact, for all of the talk about the soap opera being dead, the genre is abuzz with activity these days. Film star James Franco began a guest stint on General Hospital in November at his request, and he penned an op-ed on the experience last month for The Wall Street Journal (guess Soap Opera Digest or Entertainment Weekly would have been stooping for the Columbia University student), maintaining that his excursion into the world of daytime soaps qualified as performance art. "My hope was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate," he wrote.

While Franco's thesis was rather pretentious, it certainly stirred up talk about the often-maligned soap.

In other news, All My Children is shifting production from New York City to Los Angeles this month - okay, technically, it is a cost-cutting move, but Pine Valley's production values will actually go up, and the show will be seen in HD come February; and SOAPNet has also had some good news ratings-wise - ABC's soap cable network posted its seventh consecutive quarter of viewership increases last November, with the third quarter of 2009 becoming SOAPNet's most-watched quarter in total viewers in prime and total day.

And let's not forget that despite audience erosion in the United States, The Bold and the Beautiful is still a huge hit all over the world. Syndicated in 100 foreign markets, the show is estimated to have a daily worldwide audience of 450 million - that's right, 450 million - viewers.

There are plenty of advertisers who still see value in the daytime soap, especially when it comes to product integration, which, after all, is how the form originated - first in newspapers and then on radio serials. You're seeing more of it on the soaps these days, marking a return to the glory days when the soaps - the original branded content - were sponsored by the soap manufacturers.

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ABC, for one, has done a number of integration deals lately, including one that had references to the Rob Marshall feature film Nine written into episodes of All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital in December. Those Nine mentions got extra play because each episode was shown an additional four times on SOAPNet.

The ABC soaps - as well as The View - were also part of a four-show story line and product integration for Campbell's in support of the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Movement. Mediaedge:cia brokered the deal for the program, which ran in February 2009 as well as February 2008.

"The reality is, soap operas are the place to be if you want to reach older women," explains Christine Tiranno, Mediaedge:cia's director of national television, noting that ABC soaps delivered Campbell's message to two key demos: women 35 plus and women 25-54.

Campbell's and Mediaedge:cia worked on the story lines with the writers of the shows: On All My Children, Pine Valley Hospital opened a cardiac wing, and Campbell's was featured as an in-show sponsor of a luncheon celebrating the new wing; One Life to Live found iconic characters Viki Davidson, who has a history of heart disease, and Dorian Lord putting aside their differences to cohost the second-annual Go Red Ball sponsored by Campbell's; and over at General Hospital, Maxie, the recipient of a heart transplant, got a look at what her life would have been like without the gift.

"In the final analysis, we wound up having over a half-hour's worth of daytime content just devoted to our story lines, and we thought it was a very impactful way to get the message out," Tiranno says, noting, "We wanted the viewers to be educated, but we also wanted them to be entertained, and the soap operas gave us a wonderful opportunity to do that."

Additionally, throughout the month, ABC Daytime talent delivered messages about heart health via interstitials that aired throughout the daytime lineup and on SOAPNet. There were also commercials running during each of the daytime soaps, touting Campbell's heart-healthy foods.

Mediaedge:cia brokered a similar story line and product integration for the V8 brand through CBS last year, gaining exposure on all of the network's soaps. Over at NBC, Days of Our Lives has done product placement deals with brands such as Cheerios, and the show is currently working on an integration deal for an unnamed client that will have a social networking component to it, Evans reports.

Reaction to the increased amount of product placement on the soaps these days is mixed, though. "I've seen criticism of product placement from fans and people in the industry, but this is the new reality," Sloane says. "There may be better ways to integrate the products, where it's not as glaring, but if we want these shows to succeed, and this is what they need to do, then so be it."

Read about the future of the soap in "Will Webisoaps Keep the World Turning?"
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