Monday, December 22, 2008

FLASHBACK: "Where's the Soaps?" 1984

"Where's the Soaps?"
NBC and CBS try to woo daytime viewers during the Olympics

By Richard Zoglin and Peter Ainslie
TIME Magazine
August 13, 1984

While many TV viewers have concerned themselves for these past two weeks with such transitory matters as whether Carl Lewis will set a new world record in the long jump or Mark Breland will take an Olympic gold in boxing, others have focused on questions of more fundamental import: Will Beth stay with Lujack or return to Phillip? Can Jenny recover from the explosion that nearly killed her? Will Julie and Tyler be able to adopt Scotty? And where is Ryan's Hope?

The answer to the last question, at least, is easy. RYAN'S HOPE is one of three ABC soap operas that have been booted off the air for two weeks to make way for coverage of the Olympics. (The others: THE EDGE OF NIGHT and LOVING.) The network's remaining soaps—ALL MY CHILDREN, ONE LIFE TO LIVE and GENERAL HOSITAL—are continuing during the Games, but in shortened, 40-min. episodes so that all three can be squeezed into a special two-hour time slot. No matter how well ABC's Olympics coverage does in the ratings (which have been excellent so far), the disarray in the network's daytime schedule could have a lasting and damaging effect. The nail-biting question that programmers face: Once the Olympic flame has been extinguished and the last gold medals awarded, will ABC's soap fans tune in again?

Not if rival networks have anything to say about it. Attempting to capitalize on the Olympic disruption, NBC chose last week to introduce a lavishly produced new soap, SANTA BARBARA. The network built a $12 million state-of-the-art studio in Burbank, Calif, especially for the show, and early segments have featured an array of opulent sets alternating with outdoor locales. The cast, headed by Dame Judith Anderson, has been introduced in a series of action-packed plot lines designed to hook viewers. For starters, there is the return to town of Parolee Joe Perkins, accused of murdering a member of SANTA BARBARA's wealthy Capwell family five years earlier. Says Brian Frons, NBC's vice president of daytime programs: "This is a terrific opportunity for us, because we get to premiere a show when ABC's soaps are not in competition. Normally, a viewer has to be dissatisfied with her own soap opera for a good six months before she changes the channel and checks out what you're doing."

NBC has tried to add competitive luster to its other soap operas as well. DAYS OF OUR LIVES is airing episodes taped at the World's Fair in New Orleans, and ANOTHER WORLD has shot several segments on locations around New York City. The network has also increased on-air promotion. In one spot, Clara ("Where's the beef?") Peller demands, "Where's the soaps?" in a pointed reference to ABC's pre-emptions.

CBS, meanwhile, corralled Jermaine Jackson for a two-day guest appearance last week on AS THE WORLD TURNS. The show's scripts were tied in with a contest in which the sponsor (Procter & Gamble) offered some lucky viewer a trip to the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles with a male star from the cast. CBS also introduced a new promotion campaign for its daytime schedule. "We expect and hope the audiences that have been watching ABC might, at some time during the two weeks, tire of watching sports events and sample us," says Laurence Caso, CBS East Coast director of daytime programs. "Then the hope is that they stick around."

ABC did what it could to offset its vulnerability. The network increased soap stars' visibility by featuring them in promotional spots for the Olympics. Tag line: "The '84 Summer Olympics on ABC, the greatest daytime drama of them all." Several ABC soaps, moreover, have resorted to cliffhangers in an effort to keep viewers from straying. ALL MY CHILDREN's Jenny, the victim of last week's jet-ski explosion (caused by an ex-lover, who had intended it for her new boyfriend), will linger in a coma until the Olympics are safely finished. On the last episode of THE EDGE OF NIGHT before its Olympic hiatus, two characters were being pursued by a gang of bikers toward the edge of a cliff.

The reason for all this schedule jockeying, of course, is money. Daytime TV has become the most lucrative source of income for all three networks. ABC earns an estimated 25% of its revenues and fully 40% of its profits ($235 million last year) from daytime programming. Yet after six years as the No. 1-rated network during the day, ABC has recently stumbled. It was nudged out of first place by one-tenth of a rating point for the 1983-84 season by CBS, and has fallen farther behind in recent months. Even NBC, the perennial door mat in daytime, has made ratings gains at ABC's expense.

Industry executives attribute ABC's sudden fall-off to a number of factors, including the loss of several top producers and writers to other networks, and the departure of popular stars like Tony Geary and Rick Springfield of GENERAL HOSPITAL. But the impact of the Olympics should not be underestimated. Starting in mid-1982, the network forced its soap producers to speed up their shooting schedules, stockpiling an extra show or two each month so that technicians could be freed up for the Olympics and political conventions this summer. As a result, says Vice President for Daytime Jacqueline Smith, the soaps had less leeway to make last-minute changes.

"It's driven us all crazy," says Smith. "Daytime must respond to the moment: 'Hey, this isn't working, let's shift it a little bit.' We have been unable to do that. We must never, ever let this happen again, because it really destroys the whole foundation upon which daytime programming is built: the living novel." Has ABC learned a lesson? Will the soap fans come back? For the answers, as always, tune in next week.


  1. OMG, Roger, my love for you and your site has now moved beyond unhealthy affection into ridiculous obsession!

    "It's driven us all crazy," says Smith. "Daytime must respond to the moment: 'Hey, this isn't working, let's shift it a little bit.' We have been unable to do that. We must never, ever let this happen again, because it really destroys the whole foundation upon which daytime programming is built: the living novel." Has ABC learned a lesson? Will the soap fans come back? For the answers, as always, tune in next week.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for demonstrating a number of important facts!

    a. OJ did not kill the soaps. Even if we want to blame pre-emptions for "breaking the habit", we can point to events like this (and maybe Watergate before that) for the slow habit-breaking that started long before.

    b. It is important to note that soap ratings began their decline ON AVERAGE by 1980 or earlier. Therefore, there were other factors at work (e.g., women in workforce) that predated this.

    c. This was a scant couple of years after the Luke and Laura heights...and already the decline was happening. Beyond the industry-general decline, it is proof that Gloria Monty's (and Douglas Marland's and Pat Falken Smith's, etc.) special "Camelot" of a ratings explosion was alchemy.

    In other words, it produced a glorious, temporary spike...but it did nothing to build the show or the genre for the long haul.

    d. It is ultimate proof that the networks DID NOT LEARN!!!! Because, of course, all the bad decisions made in 1984 were repeated again...for future Olympics on this and other networks...for the OJ trials...heck, for every "newsworthy" breaking news that some politician had a hangnail, or that it was raining hard in Peoria.

    Your site is the biggest gift a true soap fan can receive. You set the bar far higher than it has ever been in terms of an archival, loving approach to the genre. Thank you!

  2. Oh, we werev all so innocent back then to think that the Olympics would drive away viewers. That was hardly the beginning of the end of mass viewership for the genre. How ironic to see this article. Thank you, Roger, for plumbing the depths of periodicals to find gems like this to remind us that soaps are still standing after so many events tried to tear them down.