Advertising Logic and the Race to the Bottom in Daytime TV

With Oprah Winfrey's final show coming on the heels of news that soap classics All My Children and One Life to Live were being cancelled, many have declared traditional network daytime television dead. Some would say that the death knell actually came in the two years prior, when CBS pulled the plug on Guiding Light (which had broadcast since 1937) and As the World Turns (which launched in 1956 as the first 30-minute soap). The cancellation of the two shows was the end of Procter & Gamble's role in producing daytime TV content, the true death of the literal "soap opera" in the U.S.

What's replacing these iconic programs? The light-tower of Guiding Light was replaced by the Wayne Brady-hosted re-launch of Let's Make a Deal. The iconic Hughes family of As the World Turns were replaced by a copycat of The View called The Talk (featuring Julie Chen, the wife of CBS exec Les Moonves). And ABC Daytime’s Erica Kane and Vicki Buchanan were tossed aside in favor of food and makeover reality shows.

Now, with news that General Hospital may be shuttering its doors next year as well, it's more clear than ever that daytime is replacing these engaging and unforgettable figures with programming that—and I don't think I'm being controversial here—is highly unlikely to be fondly remembered by much of anyone.

What caused this race to the "lowest common denominator"? Such flawed logic seems to  be the sad reality (pun intended) of the TV networks. So the question becomes: Where did daytime TV go wrong, and how do we ensure the same fate doesn't capture the broader worlds of marketing or advertising?

It's clear that soaps fell on hard times. And Oprah Winfrey has many ventures in her future that justified taking her show off the air. But I think it speaks volumes when you look at what ABC and CBS have lined up to replace these shows (and that, upon canceling the soap opera Passions a few years back, NBC simply added more time to The Today Show).

Ultimately, this speaks to the challenge at the heart of the television model: networks are rewarded for views, not engagement. Ad buyers are looking to place commercials based on how many young adult women are watching. It doesn't really matter if they're watching intently or not. It doesn't much matter if they are passionate about what they're watching. It just matters that they have a Nielsen box, and they have it dialed to that channel at a particular time.

With that in mind, perhaps it makes sense to fill the broadcast airwaves during the day with "lowest common denominator" programming: good background noise that people might leave on, even if no one feels particularly strong about it. The current business model rewards these types of shows. They're cheaper to produce (even when they don’t get the ratings that their predecessors got, as is the case of some of these soaps replacements). And, as opposed to the soaps, no one will get up-in-arms if the show gets canned a few months or years down the line.

Truth be told, the networks lost faith in their soaps years ago. As soap ratings slid (just like all network ratings did), they took focus away from multi-generational families of characters—and multi-generational audiences—and focused more and more on just trying to draw in young women. Problem is, these shows were supposed to be passed down from generation to generation. The more they focused on only pleasing young women, the more they drove away viewers they DID have in order to snag younger audiences.

Even worse, the networks are operating off a logic straight out of the '70s. This idea that brands should only care about young people made at least some degree more sense when the prevailing logic was that Depression Era seniors were unlikely to be susceptible to advertising, while the young Boomers had grown up in a mass marketing era and should be targeted at all costs. Fast forward a few decades, and AARP's ranks are being filled with Boomers. Meanwhile, networks are truly struggling to shift from a model that does anything other than reward passive viewing and "target demo" obsession.

A couple of the soap operas themselves have been granted a stay of execution at the least, or a rebirth if we're feeling optimistic. Prospect Park, which is creating an online channel of original programming, picked up All My Children and One Life to Live to produce ongoing daily episodes online once the network run ends. (See my Survival of Soap Opera co-editor C. Lee Harrington's thoughts on that announcement.) ABC deserves some credit for seeking a way to keep this story world alive, even if they've lost confidence in its ability on their network. And time will tell whether the Prospect Park venture will be successful or not. (Here's hoping they depart from many of the logics that have been governing the shows' existence under the daytime network television way of life.)

I can only hope that the advertising industry will learn some lessons from the broadcast daytime lineup, which may actually start to resemble that "vast wasteland" Newton Minnow once wrote about. We can debate what caused the decline in the soaps, whether it was inevitable, and what it means for the future of U.S. soap opera-style serialized storytelling. What’s harder to debate is that the new network mantra seems to be producing "lukewarm" content that no one really cares so much about. And, when an industry ends up with that being the path to success, something is clearly broken.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Ford was previously the MIT Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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