The Three Stooges and The Seven Dwarfs

In terms of popularity, it is accepted as gospel that daytime soap operas commanded their largest audiences in the go-go 1980’s, highlighted by the 30 million odd viewers who tuned into Luke & Laura’s now legendary first wedding on General Hospital. Less well known among today’s fans is that the true heydey of soaps was the early 1970’s when the three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — were the only game around. They could have aired cheaper game shows all day long (in fact, game shows had their own morning and afternoon blocks of programming) but instead broadcast an average of 18 soap operas. Let me repeat that: 18 daytime dramas.

Want to know the Nielsen ratings that a few of today’s soaps were averaging in soap-to-soap comparisons during the 1969-1970 season when there were 19 soaps? Days of Our Lives was pulling an 8.8, One Life to Live was pulling in a 6.7, while General Hospital was at an 8.5. Compared to the numbers soaps pull today, those ratings look glorious but as hard as it may seem to believe, all of them were in the middle of the pack.

So what was the number one soap? As the World Turns with a 13.6. For a little perspective, ATWT at one time commanded more viewers than every single show with the exception of CSI, which aired this past Thursday in primetime, currently the most watched night in television. Such was the confidence and profitability of the genre that the three broadcast networks filled the airwaves with soaps. Where does that leave us now? The easy answer is that ABC, CBS, and NBC are trying to stumble and bumble out of the soap opera busines with the same grace and gentility as The Three Stooges in a pie fight.

It didn’t and still doesn’t have to be that way. If you listened to the recent Daytime Confidential podcast Guiding Light is Canceled, you might have been surprised to discover the unanimous consensus that the main factor which led to GL’s axing was not wholly dependent on fan dissatisfaction with the current production model. The biggest factor we cited was story or, to be more precise, the lack of it. By that we meant that if well written, well constructed stories had been in place at GL, many viewers would have likely overlooked or been more forgiving of the huge flaws in GL’s new production model and would have allowed more time for those kinks to have been worked out. In other words, don’t take the reports at face value that the reason GL lost 18-25% of viewers was because of their horror at the production model alone; had GL actually been telling compelling stories then as they are doing now, a lot of those viewers might have stayed.

Others might not agree, but I subscribe to that point of view. In my book, story is king and a multitude of soapy sins from bad acting (po’ Molly Burnett) to janky production design (I’m drowning in brown and beige, All My Children) can be forgiven if the narrative is strong enough. History tells us that without strong, focused storytelling, returning veterans, favorite characters, or big name stars will not a ratings rise guarantee nor rescue of a troubled show make. Bringing back this character or that actress, or a particular nostalgic family is very popular among fans, yet it rarely works out if the underlying story doesn’t support their returns, if at all. Even when compelling stories are there, it is no guarantee of ratings success, as One Life to Live could attest for months before its recent gains.

23 Responses

  1. Profile photo of daisyclover1938

    Good read as usual J Bernard! I actually have seen soaps on twitter, lol. Personally, I don’t mind watching soaps online. That’s how I watch EastEnders and I love it. But I’m wondering how profitable a strictly online soap would be?

    I’ve assumed that most daytime soaps are going to be cancelled, but that there will still be two or three left on the air. With the daytime audience split between those shows, the ratings should be pretty good, I would imagine.

    Since the announcement of GL’s cancellation, I’ve had no motivation to watch my shows. It’s so depressing.

  2. Profile photo of siomonstuart2003

    If CBS decide to let GL air for another year, if that is possible because they know if they get rid of GL, then they can’t get back their local afflicates back, to give GL another year to improve the ratings for ATWT and GL, do you think CBS would let P&G soaps on the air until 2010?

  3. Profile photo of dmfj

    If a show has to be changed beyond recognition, I don’t want to see it. End soaps as we knew them correctly. Give me my favorite characters on all of these shows for 6 months. Bring back the greats from the past that fans have known and loved. Go all over 30 all the time. Then turn them over to the kids. At least there would be a goodbye for the loyal, dedicated fans to see their characters get a happy ending. If GL is done and they know it for sure, I do not want to see James/Daisy wasting airtime. That should be going to Josh, Reva, Billy, Vanessa, Buzz, Phillip, Beth, Blake, Alex, Lillian, Rick, and all the other people that need to come back to finish it out properly.

  4. Profile photo of portero1974

    What they failed to mention is that in the 70’s and 80’s we didn’t have the hundreds of choices we have now. We also didn’t have XBox, Playstation, iPhones, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc. Technology has changed the way we watch TV. I also have to wonder if these current ratings include the millions who watch soaps that were taped on a DVR/Tivo at a later time.

  5. Profile photo of

    You bring up some good points. No one ever mentions it was soaps that brought in the money when the news divisions at the big three were failing. Remember back then people got their news by newspapers. I’m with you, we as viewers should accept change but we shouldn’t totally give in to it.

    I was thinking about Guiding Light in particular. This would be a great time for an up and comer like, MYnetwork TV to test daytime after 10pm. I’ve always been amazed that British soaps air in primetime and have a better following.

    It’s time for a shift in thinking at the networks. If 5 hours of the Today show is working, it’s only a temporary fix. Jay Leno soaking up 10pm every night, temporary fix. What I find hilarious about that NBC Jay Leno move is that soap operas air every day and they can’t wait to be rid of Days right now but Jay Leno every night will get them viewers.

    How is it that millions of people who watch Guiding Light know it’s even there? Though the audience has to be inundated with advertisements for primetime it’s never reciprocated. Not even in the after hours. It’s insane how soaps are treated like the ugly red-headed stepchild at the networks.

    Shame on them.

  6. Profile photo of ThatGirl

    Such a good article – thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts on paper. I agree that without good writing, the show stood no chance of survival. I would have taken Dramamine when the hand held cameras were behind plants, up skirts, out of focus – if the actors had something worth listening to. Sadly, I got seasick and had to turn off the stories – they were impossible to follow. The show just went downhill to the point of being irrepairable — not because there wasn’t the cast to pull off a miracle, but because there was no one upstairs that truly cared. To think that someone like Grady, McEyeliner (aka the rapist), Daisy, or Rafe could galvanize an audience is sadder than words can explain. Bringing back Philip … too late. Olivia/Natalia so late in the game … a missed opportunity.

    Serious question: do you believe GL will appear somewhere on Monday, September 21st, or do you believe that on Friday, September 18th, GL will sign off forever?

  7. Profile photo of siomonstuart2003

    I hope that they can find a new home that they can still air it, but if not, go out in style. But I hope that they can also air classic episodes of GL on some channel to make money or to syndication. There are people who would watch old classic soaps not airing or Y&R or GH.

  8. Profile photo of monamis

    Love this! Well written, provocative, relevant! Glad to hear your voice on DC!

    This is natural selection in the virtual world. Adapt or die. Who’s to say soaps wouldn’t find a larger, or more significant (in terms of marketing) audience online?

    The advent of strong cable shows, and innovative network shows demonstrate, that if you bring good story, they will come. Viewer’s are not snobby and will watch good tv anywhere, without concern for genre, and I think soaps if they innovate could be popular again.

    The problem is there is a new definition for “popular” across genres not just soaps. With all the competition on TV and the internet, you don’t have the same captive audience networks did in the 70s and 80s. Very few shows will be able to pull double digit ratings anymore, and the networks will have to redefine what success is, the 12-4 model doesn’t work anymore.

    Shorter, crisper, tv (youtube/tivo model) is the order of the day, very few people will sit around and watch an hour of tv with commercials if they only like 20% of what is shown in that hour. Tivo and Youtube have ended that forever!

  9. Profile photo of J Bernard Jones
    J Bernard Jones

    Daisyclover: I have no idea what the current economic realities are for producing a current soap opera for the web are, but if any show is poised to do it, it must be GL. For all intents and purposes, thow already has fully integrated infrastructure on the web via it’s presence on CBS, Hulu, and But can it truy monetize its presence on the web as a commercially viable property? I don’t know. I do believe that Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel are the types of fits that would work better for GL in addition to the web.

    Euqarter: For the longest time I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring up the fact that in the 60’s-late 80’s, soaps funded the expensive (and generally unprofitable) news divisions of the Big Three networks. The first time I read about how soaps basically funded both the news divisions and prime time licensing fees the nets paid to producers was in an article in the long defunct magazine Panorama, a monthly that examined the importance of TV in our culture from the then-publishers of TV Guide. That all died around the time when Laurence Tisch and Capital Cities tore apart CBS and ABC, respectively, by restructuring each network division to operate more or less independent of the others. The cruel irony is that Tisch and Cap Cities (and later GE with NBC) systematically devalued their most important network moneymakers: soaps.

    dmfj: In response to another poster in another thread about this very issue you raise, Jamey quite rightly pointed out that GL doesn’t resemble anything now that it looked like when it premiered. The show has relocated the principle location from Five Points, California featuring a minister and his flock to a vaugely identified Springfield the size of Cleveland or Amherst to the actual capital of Illinois (under the much maligned Ellen Weston era) to the Springfield of today that looks a lot like Mayberry RFD. The show has moved production from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York and, now, New Jersey. It has gone from radio to black & white to color to podcasting to internet streaming on demand; from 15 minutes to 30 minutes to an hour. When talking about "popular families and characters" what about bringing back en masse the families Rutledge, Santos, Norris, Reardon, and Stapleton? What about Hope, Rita, Roxie, Gilly, or Annie? There are viewers right now that have watched GL ever since it premiered on TV in 1952, including a few who listened to it on radio, and I am confident in saying that not one of those people would recognize the Springfield of today compared to the Five Points of yesterday. Change, like shit, happens.

    ThatGirl: I haven’t a clue. I am encouraged by the rumor of a Lifetime pickup, but will believe it only when an official announcement is made. I will say this much: from everything I’ve been reading, P&G seems truly pissed off at how CBS handled the cancellation of GL and my gut is telling me they want the show somewhere, not just because it is a 72 year old institution but because they also want a platform to continue promoting Dawn dishwashing liquid and Dial. You know, soap.

  10. Profile photo of dmfj

    That is exactly what I mean. Get the history of the show back for the last 5 months. You noticed that I said “all of the people they should bring back”. That includes a lot of people that pre-date my first watch in 1995. I don’t know all of them to list them specifically. If it is done, there is no further change or incarnation of the show to watch, period. It is in their hands to use their time to give this show the respect it deserves.

    On your point that change happens, ok. Why couldn’t the other shows go with an only over 30 character stories for a few months? It can’t hurt them that much and it would probably pay off.

  11. Profile photo of J Bernard Jones
    J Bernard Jones

    dfmj, let’s take your response in reverse order since we are clearly not in agreement:

    First, I made special point in a previous blog posting to point out how GL, of the eight shows still airing, has one of most seasoned and accomplished over 30/over 40 group of actors in heavy rotation on its canvas. While this has "paid off" creatively only recently with focused storytelling, it hasn’t helped with ratings.  So exactly how do you define that as "it would probably pay off"?

    Next, let me play on your page for the sake of argument:

    You say (as so many fans do these days) to "get the history of the show back." This show is a 72 year old behemoth. What I want to know is:

    What does that mean exactly? Which history? Which era? Which decade? Which production/headwriting team? Which storylines? Which style of production? Which network? (GL started on NBC, not CBS). Why do the characters you cited trump any other of the hundreds of characters from the show’s past? Should they absolutely be played by the same actors or would recasts do if those actors would not or could not appear?

    More importantly, what is GL not doing now in terms of "getting back its history" given the heavy use of its mid-30’s/40+ cast and characters that you think it ought to do given its current budget constraints and time left on the CBS clock, although the general (though by no means universal) consensus is that GL is "on fire" with the story lines it is playing?

  12. Profile photo of ad-girl

    Hi! This is my first DC post, after reading the blog for many months. You guys are the best!!!

    Anyway, I respect what you’re saying about writing but I do believe that the bad production values of GL hurt it with viewers, too. Soaps have to be an escape on some level and GL just looked dreary with the new format.

  13. Profile photo of dmfj

    I admit that my ideas are very general. I am not a creative mastermind. They could do a lot of things to end the show. It would be great to get original actors back if they could. They could have WSPR do a “where are these former Springfield residents now” show that went way back through every decade. I would be happy if they just had current characters get news from their relatives about how happy they are. Blake could hear from Holly, Rick could hear from Ed and the list goes on. It would just give a happy ending feeling and it wouldn’t be costly.

    You are right that GL has been much better in using their over 30/40 characters better in the past couple of months. Phillip and Otalia have been the biggest draws. Which is why I believe that eventually ratings would rise. I might not be right. I’m just throwing an idea out there that I would like to see.

  14. Profile photo of glowery

    I read so many posts about the bad production values of GL hurting their ratings. I have come to the conclusion I am many many years older than most of you.

    When I started watching “the stories” as my Grandmother called them the scenes were faded in from black, the organ music set the feel of the scene and when the scene was over it was faded out to black. The stories were 15 minutes in length. My Grandmother and I watched The Secret Storm, Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light. Of course of those three only GL and remains.

    Having GL filmed outside at Peapack does not bother me in least. People do go outside and they do take walks in the park, and they do have conversations on park benches. In my opinion there is nothing worse than phoney trees and styrofoam rocks trying to create an outside scene.

    The worst story for GL for me was the pairing of Josh and Cassie, and Josh’s feeble attempt at being a minister. That about made me turn off the soap.

    The Grady/Daisy thang was another loser. Daisy is a loser in my book no matter who she is with.

    Bringing Phillip back has been great, but it appears it was too little too late.

    I would love it if GL was picked up by Lifetime, that is one of my favorite channels. I would like to see a GL movie to kick it off.

    As far as the ratings and demogrphics, I think that is a flawed system. Why try and target an audience who is either in school or working during the day. Did the powers that be ever consider that the number of viewers dropping is in direct line with the economy? Come one guys, most households are 2 income families, so who do they think is at home watching in the middle of the day?

    I say move GL to another network such as Lifetime or Hallmark like was suggested, give it a later time slot and I bet the ratings would triple.

  15. Profile photo of Katiebug9624

    I recently started watching Guiding Light and it took me 2 weeks to get used to the filming style this coming from someone that has watched soaps her whole life. I believe if people would just give the visual style a chance and get into the stories you would quickly get used to it since the writing right now on Guiding Light is for the most part leaps and bounds better than a lot of other soaps right now (I’m looking at you GH, and AMC) honestly I believe bad word of mouth has hurt the show to. Many people have talked have heard over the years how the show will be cancelled soon and not many people want to get invested in a show that will soon be off the air. I am hoping that someone picks the show up because right now its one of the top 3 soaps storyline wise to me.

  16. Profile photo of petitejolie

    I think comparing the past ratings to current ratings can be misleading. Each rating point corresponds to a certain number of households. I’m pretty sure that 1 rating point now equals more actual viewers than 1 rating point in the past.

  17. Profile photo of THEBEST

    Great post, as usual JBJ. I really enjoyed hearing you on the podcasts recenlty. I hope to hear from you more.

    Hopefully, cable & the web will be the future of soaps.

  18. Profile photo of Laurie

    I actually think some of the soaps would do better on the internet. I blame so many of DAYS’ most collosal mistakes on changes that the NBC suits forced them to make.

    I also think that those making the soaps have lost sight of what actually keeps people watching. I’m surprised you guys haven’t mentioned Stephen Nichols’ comments in the latest SOD where he talked about no second takes being shot for acting, where the producers value the words being said more than how they’re being said. If the suits don’t care about the quality of what is being seen on the screen, why should the viewers care?

  19. Profile photo of blake3b

    Sadly the powers that be at GL waited til the last minute to make the show good again, from 2005 to 2008 the show was a mess! Only the great acting made it watchable. We had to see Reva lie to Josh about having cancer and do some stupid things (go race car driving, going to kill herself in her car thinking she was dying of cancer), Josh become a minister and get with his sister in law, horrible Cassie recast, have Daisy with her cousin’s murderer and have him the show’s bad boy, Rick and Phillip responsible for Ross’ death (along with Ross having an affair behind Blake’s back!). And those are just SOME examples!
    But at least the show got good again before it goes off into the sunset, can’t ask for anything better than that.

  20. Profile photo of Dariclone

    Wonderfully writing, J. Bernard.
    I’d certianly follow soaps to the net or whatever nwtwork they might air on, but it’s still pretty depressing to see the demise of an afternoon of soaps on network television.

  21. Profile photo of rockermom58

    I have no problem with the new production model of GL. Granted I wasn’t watching the show when they first made that change. I’ve only been watching a couple of months but it was the story that pulled me in. I first tuned in to see what all the Otalia hoopla was about and discovered it to be one of the best written stories I’ve seen on a soap in years. Make that decades. But what I also found was that the acting was truly superb and the other stories were also compelling. The new style of production, using handheld cameras pulled me right into the middle of scenes, making the story much more intimate. It reminded me of the way a lot of primetime shows are filmed in that way. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what else you do unless you have a good story and a good cast to tell that story. Guiding Light has both in abundance. I will continue to tune in every day because I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. And after September 18th I will follow it to its new home because I’m confident P&G will find one for it.

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