Soap On A Rope
IT'S CHEAPER TO KEEP HER
As we brace ourselves for the inevitable-likely-probable-possible-maybe banishment of soaps from the daytime schedules of ABC, CBS and NBC, there is another little remarked upon fact that commentators like us almost always overlook: canceling soaps are bad business for the networks themselves.
It makes sense for networks to cancel soaps if they are seriously underperforming or are not profitable one way or the other. These shows are businesses, after all. NBC has been most aggressively cutting its soaps for many years as we all know. Under the bizarre leadership of Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman over the last few of those years, a good argument can be made that NBC's peacock has shed most of its quality feathers in the lunatic quest to produce ever cheaper programming in the vein of incessant reality shows (Deal or No Deal and The Biggest Loser), hour long informercials (Knight Rider) and international brokerage deals (Robinson Crusoe) that have managed to land the network regularly in fourth place. So what has NBC's efforts to kill off its soaps gotten it?
Since the 1980s — the only historical benchmark by which we seem to measure soaps these days — the National Broadcasting Company has cancelled (in order) The Doctors (with a 1.6 rating during its last year's average), Texas (2.7), Search for Tomorrow (2.5), Generations (2.6), Santa Barbara (3.1), Another World (3.0), Sunset Beach (2.3), and Passions (1.5). For a great many of reasons, most of these soaps performed more poorly than the show they replaced or the shows that remained on the schedule following the cancellation of a soap saw their respective audience erode significantly following its schedule mate's demise.
The cancellation of individual soaps is understandable because of ratings woes. Such moves might result in some short term gains for a network, but at some point the wholesale slaughter of a soap lineup has diminishing returns for a network and its affiliates. In NBC's case, not only did the network experience startling declines in household viewership, they have managed to cede large numbers of its afternoon time slots to its affiliates to air fare like Rachel Ray, Judge Christina or yet another hour of local news. Affiliates love this because they soak up lots of ad revenue during good economic times; the flip side is that they are left far more vulnerable when ad revenues start to dry up without the backup of their network to take up the slack.
The network itself loses more than just a chunk of its soap audience, too. Not only does a theoretically stable revenue stream for the network vanish, the network also loses a platform by which to advertise its own prime time shows and other daypart lineups, which is increasingly more important in the ultra competitive entertainment environment. Everything NBC has tried as a network, from game shows to male-hosted knockoffs of The View to expanded hours of the ridiculously overextended Today franchise, have performed more poorly overall than the soaps they were designed to (cheaply) replace.
You can bet your bottom dollar (or theirs) that the reasons CBS & ABC have kept their schedules fairly stable with their seven soap offerings is because they know that its cheaper to keep them compared to what NBC has lost by letting its own soap lineup vanish. Even lowly Guiding Light is a more valuable property to CBS at a fairly steady 1.5 same day rating than turning the time slot over to affiliates or airing a third hour of The Morning Show. NBC's self-immolation also more fully explains why the network continues to keep Days on its schedule despite the network's well-known desire to exit the soap business altogether.
Before we start dancing on the graves of soaps as a genre, we should consider at least two obvious questions: do the networks have more to lose than to gain by erasing the genre? And if they did knock off soaps, with what would they replace these shows? From this perspective, I think soaps as a genre are relatively safe...in the short term. (continued)