Friday, January 23, 2009

Television: Daytime soaps facing their own tragic ending


Daytime soaps facing their own tragic ending
Ad revenue is disappearing, younger viewers are not replacing older ones
By Franz Lidz
updated 12:24 p.m. PT, Fri., Jan. 23, 2009

Later this month, Brad Carlton, a onetime pool boy who married the boss's daughter to become chief executive of a major cosmetics company, will apparently take a bullet and die for a cause.

That cause will not be the woman of his dreams (his former sister-in-law and the estranged wife of his sworn enemy), but daytime soap operas.

For all but one of the last 24 years, Carlton — a onetime Navy Seal and a secret Nazi hunter — has been a character on "The Young & The Restless," the daytime ratings champ for the last two decades.

But Carlton, played by Don Diamont, and three other prominent characters on the CBS show have been axed as part of the severe retrenchment seizing daytime soaps — one of TV's oldest formats, its quintessential advertising vehicle, and the birthplace of product placement.

The financial crisis is hurting daytime soaps more than other shows, and may well doom them. Not so long ago, there were 16 soaps. Today, there are eight — with more cancellations seemingly imminent in the face of TiVo, D.V.R.'s, decreased market share, declining ratings, and the loss of financially pressed auto dealers as local advertisers.

"I see this moment as the turning point for soaps," a top CBS executive told me. "No format has been hit harder than daytime serials."

The executive says that within the next two months the network plans to dramatically slash the licensing fees it pays to the independent production companies that make its soaps. NBC recently did the same to the fees paid for its lone entry, "Days of Our Lives" — which have recently run about $1.8 million a week.

Two longtime (and expensive) "Days" cast members (Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn) have been dumped in order to keep the show on NBC for another 18 months. To trim costs, NBC wants producers to reduce actor salaries by as much as 40 percent.

In September 2007, NBC moved another soap, "Passions," to DirecTV before shutting down the program altogether. Insiders at "Days," a daytime staple since 1965, say they won't be surprised if the sands in their show's hourglass run out too.

A similar fate awaits CBS' "Guiding Light," which debuted on radio in 1937 before becoming the longest-running drama in TV history. "That show isn't even treading water," says a network exec. "It's sunk below the waves."

An even more ominous sign for the industry: For the first time, the Daytime Emmys — designed specifically to promote daytime soaps — won't even be broadcast. Major networks deemed the fees too excessive for a show that draws abysmal ratings. Even the cable channel Soapnet isn't airing it.

It used to be that the networks needed the daytime profits to finance the more expensively produced (and unprofitable) prime-time programs. By blending message and melodrama — ads were cunningly buried in the plot — "sudsers" became the perfect subliminal salesmen.

The soap format peaked at the 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura on "General Hospital," with an estimated 30 million viewers tuning in. The show's popularity inspired a Top 30 song called "General Hospi-tale." ("I just can't cope/Without my soap") and the movies "Tootsie" and "Soap Dish."

In recent years, market leader "Y&R" has seen its audience shrink precipitously, to an average of 5 million total viewers in 2008. In the old days, soaps were generational — your grandmother got your mother hooked, and she, in turn, got you hooked.

Today the median age of viewers is rising, but older viewers are dying off (literally) and are not being replaced by younger ones. (The median age for "Y&R" is nearly 60.) If interested, younger viewers can watch soaps in less time on the official network Web sites and, commercial-free, on YouTube.

"There are as many theories about lost viewership as there are cheating spouses in daytime serials," says the blogger Toni Pimentel, who added that her "Y&R" spoiler Web site ( averages 2 million hits a month.

"Most obviously, more women work outside the home — or are otherwise occupied," Pimentel says. "And for those who are at home, and in front of a TV, there are more viewing options — hundreds of cable and 'specialty' channels — and don't forget the increasing popularity of talk shows."

The ratings of ABC's "The View" rose 16 percent in 2008. More than 4 million viewers now watch the gabfest, a comparative bargain.

When the cuts come, producers of the three CBS soaps turning a "marginal" profit may have little choice but to drastically chop production costs, lop off beloved characters, and renegotiate the salaries of those who are left.

Unfortunately for the networks, viewers say they tune in to see the old standbys. Unfortunately for advertisers, network-commissioned surveys have found that a large segment of the soap audience is poor, middle-aged African-American women. "That's definitely not the demo sponsors are targeting," says a network exec.

The world will continue to turn, but soaps may not be slippery enough to escape the current crunch.

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