This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 14, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
Many long-standing television forms have not completely grasped the idea that one of the most important selling tools they have is exactly what sets them apart from the more ephemeral primetime fare: longevity. This category includes any type of program with deep archives but particularly daytime serial drama. These programs have been on for years, without an end in sight, making them special in a television industry of constant changes and cancellations. The formats of these programs are meant to instill in viewers the sense that, even if the program hits a down time, its longevity and format will cause it to rebound and remain a part of the television landscape for years to come.
Most soap operas today concentrate on finding new viewers by either trying to appeal to casual fans or else stealing viewers from other soap operas, resulting in a dwindling pool of potential audience members as the viewership of the genre as a whole slowly drops. On the other hand, these shows used to have millions more viewers a decade ago and especially two decades ago. Appealing to those prodigal viewers, the "lapsed fans" who have moved away from their soap but would still recognize and perhaps even care about some of the longtime faces of the show--legacy characters--could help bring fans back to these shows, and through the process of transgenerational storytelling, get them interested in newer characters as well.
Soaps have been trying to fix the ratings problems for the past two decades. As cable channels proliferated and choices grew exponentially, soaps slowly lost viewership. The response was to try to appeal directly to the target demographic by attracting them into the shows in a variety of ways, to think about how to increase numbers by next week. Yet, as primetime becomes more empowered by borrowing seriality from daytime television, daytime is not going to gain new permanent fans by emulating thrill-a-minute television. All these quick fixes, even if they led to some momentary jumps in ratings from time-to-time over the years, have seen an overall trend of sliding numbers. These quick fixes included colorful cross-promotions or short-term stories that lasted a day or a week, intending to draw viewers in for a sweeps rating period. Often, these would include plot-driven suspenseful moments that may attract new viewers for the week but which seem to have no prolonged draw, as the people tune right back out.
The era of quick fixes needs to end for the genre to survive, and networks and producers alike have to think about these shows as permanent brands rather than just weekly programming. The question needs to be how shows can tell good stories now that will lead to increased viewership in two years and do everything within that time to improve the storytelling, make shows more inclusive of the whole case, embrace the history, and empower grassroots marketers to draw more viewers back in. That takes a lot of time and a long-term vision, though.
The problem with a long-term approach is that it takes a while to get results. Just as with increasing the population of a city, sustainable growth in soaps does not just mean adding new viewers but rather finding methods of gaining new viewers who are more likely to continue watching the show. The approach of hotshotting storylines has often led to temporary quick-fix jumps in the ratings, but those ratings drop right back. All these temporary spikes have been momentary glitches in an overall ratings graph that has consistently trended downward for decades.
Transgenerational storytelling has one major drawback, in that it encourages viewership from a variety of fans outside the target demographic, which may mean little to the audience who really counts: advertisers. Women over the age of 49 and male viewers in general are not who soaps are trying to sell to advertisers. However, what has also been established is that minimizing the role of history to attract the young adult female target demographic does not work. One would suspect that a major cause of this direct appeal not working is due to the fact that soap operas are not particularly appealing to adults who have no history with the show and no social consumption built around that show. With low production values compared to primetime shows, complicated relationships among casts of 40 characters, and a dialogue-heavy format with a five-hour weekly commitment to viewing, these shows are a major gamble if there is no history with the characters and no social structure in place which encourages continued viewing. That is one reason why online fan communities become so important. These communities form social spaces through which fans often stay interested in the show even during a period in which the particular storylines occurring at the time are of little interest to the viewer.
This approach not only explains how to value online fan communities, but also how to place importance on the viewers outside the target demographic. If many of the show's most faithful viewers currently in the target demographic started watching because their mother or grandmother watched the show when they were growing up, this is an indication that mother and grandmother were and perhaps remain an important part of the viewing experience for these fans. When soap operas switched to a series of quick fixes to try to retain viewers, often at the exclusion of transgenerational storytelling, the attention on the target demographic lessened the relationship of longtime fans with these shows.
However, losing those longtime fans also lost the social ties and proselytizers for the target demographic and the next generation of soap opera fans. It stands to reason that, if many viewers started watching because of mothers and grandmothers, that fewer mothers and grandmothers means fewer members of the next generation of fans as well. In other words, monetizing these non-target soap opera fans requires looking at a third-party strategy of gaining and retaining viewers. In terms of advertisers, these fans may be of little value directly, but their social ties and proselytizing abilities are key to reaching and sustaining viewership from 18-49 females.
In the current niche television environment, focusing on target demographics makes sense, but not for shows that have transgenerational appeal. Ironically, by focusing so completely on the target demographic they intended to reach, soap operas may have lost significant viewership from the same demographic because of the erosion caused to the social ties around soap opera viewership. The only way to gain those viewers back and foster a new generation of soap opera fans for the target demographic is to gain back the trust and interest of long-term fans and create the type of product that will lead to positive viral marketing for the show and a sustained social infrastructure around the text that will gain and retain viewers.