This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 13, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
Soap Operas as Brands
The phrase "not your mother's soap opera" does not work well for fans in this genre. This phrase may never have been overtly used, but the implication has been in place when the show's history was sacrificed at times to new characters meant to appeal to the target demographic with little connection to a soap opera's past. In most of these cases, though, managing these shows as one would a primetime show and trying to come up with a short-term way to increase viewership among the desired demographic proved to do nothing to curb the downward ratings trend and the continued loss of cultural and financial significance for soap operas. While every other television industry seems to make its name off target marketing and niche audiences according to age/sex demographics, soap operas are in danger when being conceptualized in this way because they are, by their nature, best as a transgenerational narrative. Soap operas may be able to continue thriving in a narrowcasting environment, but the niche audience these shows appeal to may not be able to be broken down so neatly by age/sex.
The power of soap operas lies in their transgenerational storytelling and ties to the past, yet the target demographic fever of primetime television has infected these shows, as well as the episodic nature of most primetime fare. Rather than rely on the genre's strengths, soap operas have consistently gone for quick fixes and direct appeals to the target demographic, reflecting a need to raise the ratings in two weeks.
This thesis argues an approach that focuses instead on managing the soap opera as a brand rather than as a primetime television show would. In some ways, these shows that have been on the air for decades have more in common with brand management than in putting together a successful primetime series, precisely because these shows are "worlds without end." The key is that soap operas build audiences slowly and retain those audiences over time when they are managed successfully, yet the current mindset and nature of networks, advertisers, and producers emphasize a short-term focus. When the networks refuse to give soap operas more than a short-term contract renewal and the shows set their goal to spike ratings in a target demographic for a particular week, the genre will have a hard time escaping its current continued downward trend.
Only by putting long-term goals in place to raise the ratings of the show two or three years ahead can a soap opera realistically build its audience with sustained growth. This requires the type of long-term planning that seems foreign to current industry thinking and a way of valuing the non-target demographic that goes against the logic of directly appealing to 18-49 females.
Particularly, the key in managing the show as a brand is to put some thought into what makes one soap opera unique from another and developing a distinct feel and focus that sets a particular soap opera apart as a brand from the other daytime serial dramas.
As soaps formulate these long-term strategies for a sustainable business model, creating new ways of understanding and valuing the depth of fans' engagement becomes even more pressing, especially as soap operas incorporate new media forms and a transmedia approach to storytelling that cannot be measured by television ratings alone.
This thesis outlines how the social relationship between a soap opera and its fans has transformed over time and how central those social networks surrounding the text are to the reasons why viewers watch and stay involved in these immersive story worlds over decades. This brief conclusion here has again emphasized that, above all, soap operas need to change their structure and focus to place greater emphasis on providing transgenerational storytelling, utilizing legacy characters, and managing the shows as long-term brands rather than ephemeral television content. Above all, these shows should focus on empowering and monetizing viewers outside the target demographic to help gain and retain new and prodigal viewers through the creation of a long-term plan and a more open discourse with these fan communities, as well as older viewers.
For fans, the approach taken here is intended to find new ways to acknowledge and value the different ways that fans engage with soap opera texts. This thesis strives to give voice to many of the fan debates and discussions that might otherwise have been lost in the archives of these discussion groups, while examining how those fan perspectives relate to industry practices. My work was particularly intended to acknowledge and celebrate the vernacular theory of the soap opera fan base and acknowledge how important the contributions and creativity of the fan community are to the enjoyment many fans derive from the text itself. Soap operas cannot be separated from the social networks they are produced for, and these communities are actively involved in making meaning for the shows they consume.
This thesis hopes to encourage more active use of vernacular theory and industry perspectives in soap opera scholarship and to extend the scope of soap opera scholarship into the variety of new storytelling, advertising, and distribution modes available in the current age of convergence culture. In particular, I have sought to give greater nuance to understanding how social interactions around media texts are an important part of the consumption process, and I have introduced the new concept of immersive story worlds to explain how and why some media texts generate a greater deal of audience engagement.
For the industry, this thesis suggests that soap operas more effectively utilize alternate revenue streams like product placement, new ways to capitalize on its vast archives, and take a transmedia storytelling approach to fleshing out the immersive story world that the show's text has constructed over the past 51 years. None of these activities on their own will curb the increasing ratings decline described in the introduction, but they are all part of a shifting business model that recognizes and embraces fan engagement rather than just overall impressions.
Considering that this deep engagement is one of the most unique aspects of the soap opera as an immersive story world, each of these shows would do well to look toward a business model that emphasizes those strengths. Further, by managing each show as a brand rather than as a short-term television show, these shows can find ways to build new models to work with fans and encourage new ways for those viewers to actively engage with the narrative. This requires looking at each soap much less as another soap produced for daytime television than as a unique brand of its own, separate from the other daytime serial dramas. As massive as the texts of each of these shows are, they are a "genre" in themselves.
This type of approach relies on production companies adopting a collaborative mindset to work with its viewers and to empower them as proselytizers in order to help reach new and lapsed fans. Soap operas, more than any other type of fictional television programming, are dependant on the social relationships that are built around them. They rely on the long-term relationships that fans build not only with the show and its characters but also around the show and its characters.
Only by fully understanding and working with those social relationships can soap operas continue to thrive and reverse the downward ratings trend described throughout this thesis. The immersive story worlds celebrated in the introduction are defined, above all, by their permanence. However, fans and industry executives alike are increasingly ambivalent about the long-term future of soap operas because of declining profits. The approach emphasized in this thesis is intended to revitalize this concept of "worlds without end" that has long been vital to the soap opera.