Once upon a time there was an American industry that conducted itself with a level of conservatism and a modicum of class and dignity. Despite the hard and steady work of the professionals who toiled within the industry, many people made jokes about it, called it boring and stuffy, and scoffed that this industry did not have a certain level of prestige. This industry might not have had the broad respect of the public at large but amomg its practitioners and adherents it tended to be more respected than even some of its former and current membership gave credit. For decades this industry chugged along at steady clip, slow to change with the times but managed to keep up with them nonetheless, creating its own titans and smaller player, superstars and valued employees. Most important of all, this industry acted as an "invisible hand," producing enough revenue to fuel other industries, including many of those that openly ridiculed it. The industry was popular almost in spite of itself and was spectacularly profitable. The industry seemed as if it would go on forever.
Then seemingly overnight, everything changed. The industry tweaked and fine tuned certain elements of itself to attract more consumers and suddenly everybody seemed to want what the industry had to offer. And the more the industry offered, the more the public clamored. The industry responded by providing all kinds of goodies above the demand of its consumer base: it raised its own budgets; doubled and tripled and quadrupled its hires; and expanded and spun itself off in dozens of directions. Whatever the industry could sell, it tried. Whatever the industry could not sell, they tried to sell it again packaged as something else. Bigger, better, faster, stronger. Like a drunken sailor with a credit card.
But like all things, the rollercoaster ride would not last forever. Some in the industry with the purse strings began to pull them tighter and they reigned in their own spending. Others in and outside of the industry began to question its relevance as external events impacted its popularity. Many of the industries' consumers found competition for their time, energy and resources to be irresitable and began to abandon the industry in droves. But the industry kept going, contracting itself while devising ever more exotic and often outlandish offerings to entice not only consumers but investors back into the fold. Executives and middle managers and talent with mixed track records at best and dismal failures at worst continued to be shuffled around the industry, sometimes landing back at the same divisions from which they had been previously terminated. Sometimes with promotions. And all the while with the market imploding all around them, the top executives spoke with concern about the state of industry but with confidence that the industry itself was sound. In other words, the fundamentals were strong.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, the industry now finds itself in a crisis. High and low profile collapses have stunned the market. Some of the smaller and weaker properties could take down their stronger counterparts. Executives are asking for more resources to stave off a total meltdown, but those who have the powers to invest are stingy. Some are unsure if the investment is worth it. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. And the leading indexes which measure the health and performance of the industry continue to wobble and slide, slide and wobble. Where the story ends is anybody's guess.
If the current crisis gripping Wall Street, Congress, the Presidential campaign and all of the real life soap opera involved seems vaguely familiar it is because those who follow the trials and tribulations of daytime dramas have been watching this scenario of the past two weeks play out for the last 25 years.
This is not meant to be a forensic analysis of the particulars of how the current financial crisis mirrors the soap opera crisis because in the details there is little comparison at all. I could easily say that ABC Daytime is akin to one of the last remaining titans of the industry like Bank of America. One could make some weird analogy that Brian Frons and Barbara Bloom are McCain and Obama; pick and choose at your will who would be whom, but would that leave Ellen Wheeler or Dena Higley as Sarah Palin? It might be possible to torture an analogy that the Bell Serial Production Company is to JP Morgan Stanley Chase as Guiding Light is to AIG. None of these direct analogies would be perfect nor fair.
The fact is that, in broad strokes, the financial crisis not only embodies the kinds of similarities as touched on above but eerily come down to the same level of concern: everyone involved in both industries is flailing around trying to find a bailout before it is too late.
For the financial markets, the central issues of the negotiations within Congress bring into stark relief the kind of competition that the Founding Fathers envisioned and sought to avoid in The Federalist Papers No. 10. Different factions (House Republicans, The Federal Reserve and the White House, Democrats, the Presidential candidates, the representatives of the financial markets, citizens) try to hash out compromise (or no compromise) to varying degrees of sincerity for the public good vis a vis their own self interest. At the end of the day, the American public will have to live with Congress' decision. No matter what is decided, everyone knows that the very nature of our financial markets, as we like to say in soaps, will change forever.
For the soap opera industry, the exact same conditions apply. The factional players are different (the networks, the production companies, actors, writers, producers, advertisers..and yes, the fans) but the stakes — the scope of which is a mere fraction of those faced by our financial markets — are still the same. Though there is a less organized effort on the part of "the powers that be," at the end of the day we too know that the very nature of soaps as we come to know them will change forever. But how?
I submit that old ways of thinking about soaps must be fundamentally restructured. The 5-day-a-week afternoon model may be over or coming to an end soon. To that end, we will have to decide what, if anything, we want soaps of the future to look like. Is a bailout strategy necessary? If so, what could one look like? Here are just a few considerations:
1. Keep the current model. 5 days a week airing between 10AM-4PM (depending on market). 20-30 cast members (depending on network). Hope that the "If You Write It They Will Come" way of thinking will upset a fifteen year ratings slide and cause network executives to increase each soap's budget. Is this realistic when the days of the Big Three networks with no competition have receded into the mists of nostalgic memories of running home after school and sitting at grandmama's knee to watch Love of Life? Does it make sense when large numbers of the soap audience watch their shows via DVR and other time shifted means?
2. SoapNet2: Given that SoapNet is rebranding itself not unlike other networks such as Spike, a refocused Lifetime, and the G4 Network, it might be time for another soap opera network dedicated exclusively to soaps. Even if it means smaller audiences than those in today's market. Would consolidating all the soaps on one network make more sense, especially if they could be guaranteed certain budgets levels to produce quality shows?
3. Pay-Per-View or Subscription Models: Since time immemorial soap fans have routinely and sometimes fanatically talked about "their" soaps, claiming a certain level of ownership by osmosis. Currently Days of Our Lives is offered on iTunes for $1.99 per episode or $14.99 for a 20 episode season pass. Price points could be lowered slightly on multiple platforms from iTunes to Amazon and so on with all soaps offered for PPV or subscription. Might it be time for fans en masse to put their money where their mouths are?
4. Internet Streaming: Almost all soap prognosticators, including myself, have predicted that soaps will eventually be moved to the internet wholesale. Some day. CBS already streams all of its soaps on attractively designed sites and the quality online is pretty darn good. And lots of fans (though not a critical mass) view individual segments of shows on sites like YouTube. So what if "some day" were to come, say, January 1, 2009? In other words, are we really ready to take the leap?
5. The Three Day A Week Broadcast Schedule: Our friend Nelson Branco doesn't like the idea and I bet a lot of your don't, either. But let's be realistic. Many, many people- including some of our own DC family - lament that trying to devote 5 hours a week to a soap is difficult given the increased demands placed on our time and schedules. Let's not forget that there is a great deal of proud posturing among fans about fast forwarding through various parts of storylines or characters or cherry picking segments on YouTube and whatnot, so those who are watching are getting in about 30 minutes per episode anyway. It might even out to 3 days a week when all is said and done. So on a 3-day-a-week schedule, writers could then focus on core characters and stories with less filler. The result could give viewers more time to themselves and better product to enjoy.
6. The Night Shift Model Expanded: Transform soaps into weekly hours but broadcast year round.
7. Saturday Night Fever: With Saturday prime coverage dominated by little more than reruns and very little original programming on all the networks, would it be worth it to the networks to turn Saturdays into prime time soap opera blocks? Would it be worth it to viewers? (You could still DVR the shows, of course).
These are some examples and I am sure there are many other fantastic ideas out there. But soaps are on the ropes and some genuine outside-the-box thinking needs to happen about where they go from here. Bringing back certain character favorites, reliving the glory days of this era or that, and firing an unpopular headwriter, actor or producer are all Band-Aids for a larger systemic problem. Good writing is always desired yet never guarantees increases in viewership. The Nielsen ratings need to be revised to DVR+7 and completely overhauled, but there seems to be no interest by any parties to make the ratings system more reflective of actual viewing habits.
So we are left with not just fixing a system but also, perhaps, rewriting the rules for that system. This is not outside of our broad analogy, either: when investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs looked at the financial market and their own balance sheets with their depreciating assets they decided it was best to reorganize. Now they are or will be regular old banks. They have attracted investors (Mitsubishi and Warren Buffet, respectively), have subjected themselves to playing by different rules of governance, and see a bright future despite the mess in which the entire financial industry currently finds itself, which is another irony given that they helped create it.
Perhaps it is time for soap opera as a genre to engage in a great deal of soul searching about how "soap opera" is defined and ought to be viewed going forward, literally and figuratively. Or perhaps fans, themselves a contentious lot, have no real appetite for change and are ready to let the genre be further diminished or disappear soap by soap. One way or the other, in order to survive soaps as a genre and an industry will have find a way to change the old rules before the new rules render them obsolete.