Sunday, November 25, 2012

Soap Opera Rejuvenation?

Once the bulwark of daytime network TV in the US, the last decade has seen the cancellation of most network daytime soaps.  The decline in soaps can be traced to a number of factors - costs being among the most significant.  Soaps, in one sense, were caught in the middle of the dramatic transformation of TV/video production and distribution costs.  Significant drops in distribution costs facilitated the explosion of cable and online video competition.  Rapidly declining basic production costs encouraged local stations to expand their daytime news offerings.  Drops in network compensation arrangements made syndicated options more viable.
  The explosion of alternative channels through cable and satellite offerings hit networks and local stations hardest in the "daytime" hours.  Networks responded by trying to keep a lid on programming costs, and pressured production companies to cut corners, which some argue was a contributing factor in the quality of soaps.
  Furthermore, soap operas were inherently the most expensive of the major daytime programming types: the format required new content almost daily, called for a large number of actors, writers, and production staff, and needed a large number of sets.  Game shows also needed new content daily, but had only a single set, had only a few on-air talent to pay, and multiple episodes could be filmed in a day (and in many cases, prizes were trade-outs, reducing the cost of "winnings").  Local stations could also draw on an ever-increasing supply of non-original programming through syndication.  Now, the digital costs transformation hit all of these as well, but for soap operas, the production costs were driven by the creative side (actors, writers, production staff), so savings from switching production equipment to digital had a relatively small impact on total costs.  In addition, daytime soap operas (as a genre) tended to not have a lot of syndication value to offset production overruns.
  This put soaps in a difficult position - how to survive in a transitioning and declining market.  Like many other media facing increasing digital competition, a lot of network and production executives first turned to trying to cut costs - cuts that, for the most part, lowered the basic value of the product.  While a common approach, it's one that's more effective in short-term disruptions than major transformations of the marketplace.
The early years of this decade were not good for soap operas, with one executive bungle after another continually compromising what not so long ago had been a robust and deeply enriching genre wholly unique to broadcast television.
Eventually, outlets seem to recognize that cutting costs isn't a viable long term approach - and the survivors look for ways to better compete in the changed market.  Ed Martin, in a post on TV Board blog, takes a look at how General Hospital (ABC) turned it around.
Caught in a death grip by network executives, producers and writers who seemed to care not one whit about the show’s long-term viability, and who collectively chose to make murderous criminals and their supporters the “heroes” of its storylines, “General Hospital” had become a revolting mess.
As sometimes happens when a program tanks, producers brought in a new creative team (executive producer/head writer) was brought in.  Rather than looking to cut costs, they refocused on bringing back the value of the program by returning to what had made it the premiere soap for much of its almost five decades on the air - strong characters, romances, strong story lines with great scenes and almost daily cliffhangers.  It helped that they were also able to incorporate some of the better characters and story lines from recently canceled One Life to Live - drawing in a large portion of that soaps fan base.

  But the turn-around isn't solely with General Hospital.  Martin notes that Days of Our Lives (NBC) has also refocused on its historic strengths in terms of characters and the drama surrounding romantic struggles.  The show's brought back many of the strong characters lost to budget cuts over the last decade, but also striking out in new directions to try to build up a new, younger audience with what Martin says is the most engaging romance in daytime drama.
(While) other soaps had already broken boundaries with love stories about gay characters... “Days of Our Lives” is taking things even further with the story of star-crossed lovers Will and Sonny. They are currently the couple to root for on the show..."
CBS is also breaking new ground with The Bold and the Beautiful - killing off the character that's driven the show for the last 25 years.  Killing off characters isn't all that novel for soaps; it's been the prototypical response when actor demands get too unreasonable.  What's different here is the approach - helped by the fact that the actor is retiring rather than being fired.  Instead of the prototypical sudden accident or illness, the show is using the opportunity to address a sensitive topic while incorporating a wealth of highlights, moments, and reunions.
Rather than rage against the dying of the light, Stephanie has done what she can to celebrate her life and exit on her own terms, but she’s now at the point where she must rely on others to keep her comfortable during her final days. As is to be expected, Flannery is giving a powerful, brutally realistic performance right to the end. And as can only happen on a long-running soap opera, every one of Stephanie’s final moments is informed by the millions of moments that have come before.
  It's difficult to predict whether the focus on rebuilding value and audiences will be enough for soaps to survive as major network daytime dramas.  The dynamics of the broadcast network - affiliate relations, increasing competition, and the current lack of secondary markets for soaps aren't favorable.  But if daytime dramas can rebuild a highly engaged audience base, they can be successful and continue somewhere.  As Martin notes, basic cable's used the decline in primetime entertainment programming to develop its own supply of strong dramas and comedies -
Just imagine the outcome if basic cable could do for daytime storytelling what is has done for prime-time drama.

Source  -  'General Hospital' Leads a Sudden Revitalization Of Daytime Drama,  TV Board

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