Inside Business

April 20, 2011 6:09 pm

Advertisers must plan for soap opera’s second act

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson on the search for a viable economic model in the digital media era

“Beloved soap star” should rank high on the list of the world’s most dangerous jobs. In few other professions is the risk of being killed off so high. Even by the standards of the genre, however, the body count is starting to look far-fetched.

Last week, Disney’s ABC announced plans to cancel All My Children and One Life To Live, each of which had been highlights of US daytime television for more than four decades. Their demise follows the untimely end of As the World Turns and Guiding Light, two Procter & Gamble-produced CBS soaps dating from the days when soap brands gave the format its name.

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The list of suspects is long. More women now work, so daytime audiences are dwindling – even Oprah Winfrey, the queen of US daytime talk shows, is leaving for her own 24 hour cable channel. In the UK, there has been speculation about Channel 4’s Hollyoaks. But other British soaps such as Coronation Street and EastEnders, which air in the early evening, have fared better.

The distractions of multi-channel TV, primetime hits stacked up on digital video recorders and Facebook all bear some blame, but Sam Ford, author of The Survival of the Soap Opera, adds two other culprits to the list.

Soaps’ serial storytelling style has invaded primetime dramas from 24 to Glee, he argues, so the daytime format no longer stands out as it once did. But he places most blame at the feet of the very advertisers that created the genre: brands’ obsession with targeting precise slivers of the population distracted them from the broad audiences that soaps once attracted.

As soap opera viewers aged, becoming less Young and Restless and more General Hospital broadcasters’ attempts to win back the younger women advertisers want to reach with racier scripts only alienated the remaining viewers, he argues.

That is debatable, but this week, one advertiser saw its chance to exploit fans’ sense of bereavement. Brian Kirkendall, vice-president of marketing for Hoover, issued an open letter to fans of All My Children and One Life to Live, saying that it would stop advertising on the ABC shows. It also promised to “help get your voice heard” by collecting “the mass emotional outpouring of support for our beloved ABC soaps” via an e-mail address, SaveTheSoaps@Hoover.com.

Advertisers would do better to forget such stunts and start thinking about whether they can help create a more viable economic model for the soap opera in the digital media era.

Just as soap stars have been shot, burnt alive and pulverised in aeroplane crashes and still reappeared years later, there is nothing outlandish about scripting a second act for the soap opera itself.

The intellectual property such brands have built up over decades still has value, and some of the 2.5m-plus viewers each show on ABC’s death row pulls in every day would follow them to a new home.

As advertisers have tired of soap operas, they have focused instead on what “original branded entertainment” could do for them online. Internet-only shows such as The Thread on Yahoo are the new frontier of professionally-produced product placement. Despite much hype about the "webisode" format, from Katemodern on Bebo to the Lexus-sponsored Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow, however, none has found a large audience. An online All My Children could break that mould.

Advertisers such as P&G, which just sold Pringles to Diamond Foods, should realise that “orphan’ brands can be worth a lot to smaller companies even when they are no longer core to their original owners. In television terms, this means that shows that no longer pay their way on broadcast networks could profitably anchor a cable channel’s daytime line-up, with its dual revenue streams of advertising and cable system fees. The Discovery-backed Oprah Winfrey Network, after a sluggish start, could be an ideal home for another daytime TV exile.

Even if advertisers have truly given up on the soap opera, the format could still live on under a subscription-only model. As Netflix has transformed itself from a DVD rental business, its success in streaming video has put it on a collision course with traditional media companies which fear that it will undermine their lucrative cable and satellite business.

Content owners are now demanding higher prices to license their prime television and film content. Netflix has also bid against the likes of HBO for a $100m new political series, signalling that it has ambitions in original production.

Rather than splash such sums on one-off primetime dramas, why not invest in a proved soap opera brand? That would bring in a new audience, and strengthen the appeal of a monthly subscription. Netflix could do with some cliffhangers, other than those about its own business model.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the Financial Times’s media editor

andrew.edgecliffe-johnson@ft.com

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