It used to be a right of passage for young girls, their mothers and their grandmothers; now it seems almost nobody is watching them anymore ? is the end of soap operas upon us?
Ratings for soaps have been in a decline over the last 10 years. The top-rated show (which for the week of June 5th according to Neilson Media Research was “The Young and the Restless”) only hit a 4.3 per cent in the ratings. This means that of the total available audience to watch Y&R, only 4.3 per cent tuned in.
It wasn’t always this way. Soap operas began as a spin off from the woman’s melodrama, a film genre that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Soaps began their reign on the radio before they transferred to a new medium ? television. The genre is known as the soap opera because the companies that sponsored these shows were usually soap companies (for example, Procter and Gamble).
Soaps really hit their peak in 1981, when the marriage of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital” attracted 19 million viewers ? the most ever in soap history. And if the downward rating trend continues, soaps may never reach numbers like that again.
The main reason the popularity of the soap opera is waning is because more women are working outside of the house instead of in it. Women are not often home during the day, and due to their busy lives, often don’t have time to catch up or follow their favourite soap.
Cindi Rinehart, a soap opera expert who is featured on North West Afternoon on ABC KOMO 4 in Seattle, says the ratings are misleading.
“It has leveled off more than dropped. One other reason is that lots of folks are using their VCRs, On Commands and Tivos to record, so their viewership is not rated,” she says.
Dustin Cushman, webmaster of the site popular soap web site SoapOperaFan.com, which tracks “Days of Our Lives,” “Passions,” and “The O.C.,” differs from Rinehart’s opinion.
“I think it has to do with the changes in both society as well as television. I think more people are working and don’t have time for soaps. They probably make every intention to keep up but just fail or lose interest. This is what happened with my mother. I also think reality shows and reality soaps are taking over and people like the actual real life drama on those shows more than some of the crazy soap stories,” says Cushman, whose Days site is one of the most popular soap sites online.
Whatever the cause is, the drop in ratings has been noticed. In fact, seven years ago “Sunset Beach” on NBC was cancelled due to its low ratings ? it didn’t normally break two per cent in ratings points. Nowadays, NBC’s oldest and once one of the highest rated soaps, “Days of Our Lives,” barely breaks the two per cent mark. For the week of June 5th, the show’s average viewership was a mere 2.4 per cent.
The other reason soaps are losing viewers is because the younger generation just doesn’t seem to have an interest in them. It used to be that a person watched the same shows as their mother and grandmother; it was a family tradition. Cushman says that’s how he started watching soaps.
“I can remember my mother and grandmother having ‘Days’ and ‘Another World’ on. I have watched soaps on a daily basis since I was in the 7th grade though. At least, if not more, than half of my life,” he says.
Soaps are not getting in these younger viewers, despite trying to attract them with more teen-orientated storylines and characters, Rinehart says.
“(Soaps) always have their teen stars in the trendiest clothes. They frequently have on top recording stars to attract a younger audience. They try and deal with social issues that have to do with teens. Right now, on ‘Days,’ they are dealing with teens driving and using cell phones. Chelsea hit and killed Zach because she was talking on her cell and not paying attention to driving, for example,” she says.
As for the older viewers who have stopped watching, Rinehart says the soaps are bringing back older favourite characters from the 1980s and 1990s as a way to bring viewers back. “General Hospital” brought back Scorpio, while “Days of our Lives” recruited one of the show’s most famous couples, Patch and Kayla, to return to the show.
Whether or not bringing back old favourites will boost viewership for shows remains to be seen, however due to the low ratings, shows are always rumoured to be next on the chopping block (a soap, however, hasn’t been cancelled since “Sunset Beach” in 1999). This year, it was “Days of Our Lives” which was rumoured to be the next one to be cancelled.
Cushman posted the rumour on his site and linked to an article in the New York Post. The rumour started because the show is up for renewal from NBC.
“Every time the show is up for renewal rumors begin to fly that the show is going to be cancelled. It never is,” Cushman says.
Although there has not been official word from NBC or “Days of our Lives,” Cushman posted a new rumour on his website saying the long running soap had been renewed, quoting the show’s actors’ blogs.
It looks like “Days” escaped the chopping block this time. But will they next time? Cushman and Rinehart have differing opinions on the long-term prospect of the soap opera genre.
“I honestly think that the genre probably won’t last past another five years. I think more reality based soaps, like ‘Starting Over,’ will take over, or we will see soaps move to half-hour formats and adopt the telenovela idea of Spanish soaps,” Cushman says.
“Soaps are not going anywhere, they are here to stay. Soaps are still electronic romance novels and they are the only way you can watch a romantic novel and do your work or play at the same time,” Rinehart says.
I guess only time will tell when the bubble for soap operas will finally burst.