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Why Online Branded Entertainment Should Study Soap Operas

Soap Opera SundayWith so many companies in the past few years talking about producing online video and other forms of "branded entertainment," I'm amazed by how people often talk about these trends as if they are new. Radio and early television was full of "product placement" and shows produced directly through the subsidy of major brands, such as The Philco Playhouse and Texaco Star Theater. Nowhere has this trend taken greater hold than the soap opera, where the blend of art and commerce is clear from the very title given to the shows. From their early 1930s radio debut and through the "golden era" of broadcast television, soap operas were the consistent daytime juggernaut that fueled experimentation in primetime.

Today, only one soap company remains in the "soap opera" game in that sense, as Procter & Gamble still funds the production of CBS' As the World Turns. However, brands are launching new Web series and other forms of "content-as-marketing" regularly, such as Lexus' production of Lisa Kudrow's Web Therapy. As major advertisers aim to create original content in this new space, I'd highly recommend viewers, advertisers, and the media industries look back at the history of the soap opera.

I'm in the process of working with UC-Berkeley's Abigail De Kosnik and Miami University's C. Lee Harrington on a book about the current state and future of U.S. soaps. The book, entitled The Survival of the Soap Opera, is set to be out from the University Press of Mississippi next year and will include contributions from scholars, critics, industry practitioners and viewers. The gist of the genre's state today is that what was once a great number of daytime serials has decreased to seven, with Guiding Light ending on CBS a couple of months ago after being on the air since its radio beginnings in 1937. Ratings show a consistent decline for soap operas over the past several decades. This is no surprise, as real-time-viewing broadcast ratings in general have fallen amidst the proliferation of cable channels, timeshifting and a variety of other home entertainment options. However, the decline for soaps was further accelerated by a shift in the number of women who stay at home during the day and a period during the O.J. Simpson trial in which soaps quit airing, with ratings never recovering.

However, soap operas still generate a sizable audience. According to the latest Nielsen numbers compiled by Roger Newcomb at We Love Soaps, the lowest-rated daily soap opera of the week, As the World Turns, received more viewers per average for each of its five episodes than the one episode each of Gossip Girls, 90210, and Melrose Place, three shows that receive much more publicity. Further, the highest rated daytime soap--The Young and the Restless--received higher ratings than a variety of Ugly Betty and The Vampire Diaries episodes.

The major issue for soaps--and the lesson that I think is of particular importance across the media industries and corporate communication--is our corporate culture's fixation on youth demographics. Pitching almost every major consumer brand to a younger set had more solid logic behind it in the early 1970s, when Boomers were becoming adults and had been raised in a mass media, "branded" world--and were thus more likely to pay attention to commercials, to be swayed away from brands they had long used and to avoid a Depression Era spending mentality. Today, though, those Boomers are the ones entering into the AARP age bracket, so maintaining that same logic 40 years later seems particularly dangerous.

Soap operas were once like sports franchises, passed down from generation to generation. I watch As the World Turns with my wife today in part because my grandmother watched it and my mother watched it. If it remains on the air, that means my infant daughter will grow up with it as well. As soap operas started to lose ratings and networks focused particularly on younger adult females, I would argue they helped facilitate rather than curb their ratings decline by alienating long-time audiences who had aged out of the target demo, in the process eliminating the venue through which they could gain and maintain viewers: older viewers who acted as tour guides to draw other generations to the show.

Today, mass media and major brands are turning increasing attention to the digital space, where there exists the ability to target audiences like never before. I certainly hope those same logics of defining demographics primarily by age and gender start to break down a little further as the media landscape becomes more splintered, since many of the once-logical reasons for those divisions (women at home/men in the workplace; younger brand-savvy audiences/older marketing-averse audiences) have broken down.

As I watch soap operas continue to struggle, and networks perhaps cruelly giving them extensions one or two years at a time with the edict to try to curb ratings slides in the short term rather than investing in the brand over the long-term and build these shows back up in a strategic way, I can't help but feel they can still be saved. What's even more painful, though, is to think that prior mistakes might plague marketing and entertainment as it moves into new spaces as well.

(Note: This post owes plenty to the arguments and research of the University of Michigan's Amanda Lotz.)

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Sam Ford is a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium and Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom, a PR agency, in their Manhattan office. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He holds a Master of Science degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT (2007) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Kentucky University (2005), where he majored in English (writing), news/editorial journalism, mass communication, and communication studies, with a minor in film studies. Ford has taught courses on professional journalism, pro wrestling, and soap operas at MIT and WKU and has published work on these and other areas of U.S. popular culture and television. His work focuses on media audiences and immersive story worlds. Ford has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's Pepper Digital. Follow him on Twitter @sam_ford.

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