This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 13, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
Since most American soap operas have been on the air for decades now, these shows have legions of former viewers from previous generations that may not be as interested in the contemporary product but might watch the shows from their past if they could be reached and marketed to and especially if material could be packaged and contextualized in meaningful ways, rather than just airing every episode from the archive in its entirety--especially since many of those episodes no longer exist, especially from the early years. The potential value in this archive leads to a logical business model which directly integrates the available content from the many years in the air.
Using Chris Anderson's concept of the "Long Tail economy," the fifth chapter of my thesis looks at how soap operas could use their history more meaningfully, perhaps as an ancillary revenue source. While ratings today are lower than in previous decades, much of the footage available in that archive aired with higher ratings than the show airing today.
The proliferation of television viewing choices, the rise of women in the workforce, and the O.J. Simpson trial have all contributed to these changes, but the fact remains that most soap operas may have more prodigal children who could potentially be part of a market for this archive content than current viewers. Further, since there is no syndication and no off-season, many of these popular episodes only aired once, never to be seen again, unless a viewer happened to archive the episode and add it to his/her tape collection.
Consequently, when writers work in logical extensions of that narrative world--such as mentioning characters who are no longer on the show who should be mentioned at certain times--the fans are excited by the reference, applaud the writers for remembering history and maintaining the continuity of the story world, and fill in newer viewers on who the character referenced indeed was. Currently, the only way to see substantial archived content from current soaps is on YouTube.
Perhaps, though, World Wrestling Entertainment's model for valuing its archives could be of service to the current soap opera brands. With a six-figure subscription number, WWE 24/7 On Demand is available on several cable systems across the country and internationally, allowing viewers to pay $6 to $8 a month for 20 hours worth of archived content that is made available for certain periods of time. WWE has purchased the tape libraries of several of its former competitors and now owns the runs of several different shows. Further, while a six-figure subscription rate may not generate enough profit short-term to justify the amount of money it took to purchase content and transform and remaster it in digital form, the WWE has released a variety of DVDs based on this content. The plan has been to use 24/7, the DVDs as well as books and merchandise to help reach wrestling's "lapsed fans," with the belief that marketing former characters could help draw former fans into the contemporary product, while also getting current fans hooked to learning more about the company's past.
For instance, one could imagine a soap opera releasing a series of quasi-documentaries looking into the history of a particular longtime character on the show. Even from earlier eras where regular content was not available, a series of pivotal scenes could be used to construct a coherent visual history of a certain character's trajectory that could be released as a series through whatever distribution platform soap opera companies might use. With so many characters who have been on the show for decades, played by the same actor, the ability to construct and market content grouped and given extra meaning in this way could be particularly beneficial and attractive to consumers who might not be interested in walking through the vast archive without a guide but certainly welcome to following the history of the show if given the proper contextual information. Further, content might be packaged in meta-form, such as a series looking in-depth at the acting performances of particular soap stars who went on to greater mainstream fame. While some of these scenes have been used for "before they were stars" clips, a lengthy series looking in-depth at their characters and performances on a soap opera has never been attempted.
Soaps might also benefit from packaging series based on storylines. The issue always becomes, when dealing with a show that interweaves all its stories together and with episodes that features five storylines per day or so on average, how that content can be recontextualized, but creating a series that could be distributed looking solely at one storyline as it played out over several months could provide an effective way to repackage the show's content while also providing viewers with a new way to look at stories they have seen before when they played out over an extended period of time.
Finally, shows could be repackaged to correspond with the content of the contemporary product. In order to both satisfy viewers' desire for continuity and to exploit its archive, the show could more regularly work historical references into the text and then make the clips or shows or storylines that the contemporary show referenced available in some other format, providing an incentive for viewers to engage with the historical content and a way to provide greater continuity while also giving recent converts to a show the chance to "catch up" and learn what the references mean.