Deep Soap: Headline News

by | May 1, 2009 at 9:20 AM | Deep Soap

Wake Up Call

Dear Brian Frons: consider this week’s ratings your wake-up call.  There are only eight soaps on the air.  Your highest rated soap, General Hospital, was fourth for the week amongst the only demo you care about, Women 18-49.  Both Days of Our Lives and The Bold & Beautiful beat GH.  GH had its worst week ever in Household ratings, 1.8. and W18-49, 1.1.  You can’t say it’s the “market” when other shows aren’t having their worst weeks ever.  You are getting PWNED.  So what are you going to do about it? Isn’t it time for a little soul searching?  I don’t know you.  But based on the statements you’ve made in interviews, you’re a competitive guy.  You mocked CBS for being the old people’s network.  You claimed audiences were giving up on Days of Our Lives’ because Jeff Zucker announced the show’s contract wouldn’t be renewed.  You’ve nixed short-term appearances on CBS soaps by a non-contract ABC actress.  So I hope you’re angry. I hope you’re determined to get back on top.  It’s time to do some self-evaluation.  The audience has clearly refused to be trained.  They aren’t impressed by the new young blondes and Australians, mobsters, bad things happening to kids, or a post-partum depression storyline that manages to make one of your network’s most popular couples seem completely unsympathetic.  The question is: do you have the courage to admit you were wrong?  To try something new? I don’t claim to know how to fix all of ABC’s problems.  If I did, I’d have your job.

Maybe you should have another focus group populated entirely with viewers who have stopped watching your shows over the past year.   Hire somebody who actually knows the show well to moderate it.  (I suspect part of the problem is you haven’t been asking the right questions at your numerous focus groups.)  Find out what drove them away.  I think the answers may surprise you.  People aren’t any busier than they were 18 months ago.  I highly doubt that Twitter is keeping your audience occupied.  It’s the shows themselves.

Then free your headwriters and producers to do their jobs.  Tell them that for six months you aren’t going to give them any notes at all.  You’re going to trust that they know what they’re doing.  I suspect that they’ve been writing for you, rather than the audience, for a very long time.  I remember what a good writer Robert Guza used to be in the late 90s. Some of Ron Carlivati’s stories that you vetoed have leaked on-line.  They’re a lot better than what is on the screen now.  Allow them to create plots that you don’t like or understand.  The audience might have a different opinion.

Then, with all the free time you have now that you’re not micromanaging, figure out how to market the shows.  Nobody who isn’t currently watching has any awareness of them.  You don’t have the budget for commercials and billboards, so you’re going to have to get creative.

At the end of this experiment, evaluate.  If the ratings have risen, leave the shows alone. If they haven’t, you may need to make some personnel changes.  Consider replacing some writers and producers.  Also consider asking your bosses to transfer you to another division of the Disney empire, perhaps working for a channel that targets men, and allowing someone who better understands the genre to take over.

Soaps Meet Swine Flu

In a strange coincidence, last night ABC’s Nightline aired a segment about the impact of the recession on the soaps.  I was surprised that the prestigious news program felt it was an important enough issue to merit airtime.  I hoped for a serious treatment of the issues facing soaps, laying out how much they cost to produce, whether they made or lost money for ABC, what the network intends to do to rectify its current problems.  It would have been brave if the show acknowledged the morning’s dire ratings news. Instead, it was a fun, pre-produced puff piece.  Other than a brief mention of how the auto industry’s woes affected the daytime advertising marketplace, there were few specifics.  When Cameron Mathison mentioned that AMC was taping 47 scenes that day, I wished there was an explanation of how many more scenes that was relative to a primteime or film schedule, and what an episode of AMC costs to produce versus an episode of Desperate Housewives.   I don’t think the general public has ever thought about it. Julie Carruthers made the surprising assertion that product placement made All My Children seem more realistic.  The audience who had to sit through Campell’s Soup Month may disagree.  Susan Lucci proved herself to be a class act, focusing on the crew members who have lost their jobs rather than her much-publicized pay cut.

The most entertaining part of the piece were the numerous clips from AMC.  For some reason, most of them were from the 80s and 90s.  It was a blast seeing Mona and the Merrick brothers again, as well as early Erica and Jack scenes.  I wonder if one of the Nightline producers is a fan who decided to make some subtle editorial commentary about what used to be great about AMC.  I would have thought ABC Daytime’s publicists would have encouraged NIghtline to mention what’s currently happening on the shows, or that the same producer who picked all the old-school scenes would have included content about how the show’s storytelling has changed.   I suppose it’s encouraging that Nightline decided to air a segment about soaps at all, especially on the evening that a Supreme Court justice announced his retirement.  Erica Kane knows that she’s every bit as important.