Dan J Kroll A Soap Central SPECIAL REPORT

The History of Soap Operas:
Ratings Are Down -- But Why?

Posted Saturday, May 07, 2005 5:13:15 PM
by Written by Dan J Kroll

If you've missed a part of our special series, please use the menu to the bottom right or please click here.

Soap Central presents a very special seven-part series on the history of soap operas -- the past, present and future of the genre. The menu below will allow you access to each of the parts as they are published.

Part One
The rise of the soap opera

Part Two
Network execs are less than happy with soap magazines

Part Three
Internet web sites cause headaches for the soaps

Part Four
Soap fans are no longer desperate housewives

Part Five
Ratings are down, but does anyone really know why?

Part Six
Soaps aren't just mindless entertainment

Part Seven
Can soap operas find a way to survive?


In soap opera's golden age of the 1970s and 1980s, there was a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality applied to the genre. Obviously, if something is profitable and doing well, someone must be doing something right. Changing a format that is a proven success can upset the balance and cause things to go south very quickly.

Conversely, in recent years when things in the soap world haven't been going well, some network executives have been all too willing to make change in an effort to stop the bleeding. While it would be worse to ignore the fact that something is wrong, making too many changes too quickly can cause an already bad situation to become even worse.

Recently, fast food purveyor, KFC opted to drop its famous initials and return to its original name: Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1991, fearing that customers would shy away from the restaurant because of the negative connotation of the word "fried," Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. At the time, the restaurant issued a statement that the restaurant was "changing with the times." The move turned out to be detrimental to the restaurant chain as it implied that there was something wrong with fried chicken. Now, some 14 years later, Kentucky Fried Chicken has realized that their customers didn't really care whether the chicken was sold under KFC or Kentucky Fried Chicken.

While it may seem a far stretch to compare a fast food chain to the operation of a major television network, there are definitely some similarities that cannot be overlooked. In both instances the deciding factor between success and failure is the customer: the general public. For the most part, human beings don't really like change. We become accustomed to our daily routine... our pattern... and don't like when that familiarity is altered.

One of the biggest problems plaguing the soaps in recent years has been the turnover rate of writing teams. If a show's storylines were sagging, network execs were all too willing to bring in a new writing regime. While it may work as a quick fix, the problem with parading in new writer after new writer is that there is a learning curve associated with coming on board a new soap. New writers traditionally are not familiar with the show's characters or its history - and there is rarely enough time for the new scribes to become acquainted with them. In most situations, the writers are expected to hit the ground running. The lack of familiarity with a show may result in a writer having an existing character do a 180 and act very much unlike the way that character would normally act.

Similarly, because writers are often not familiar with what has been done in the past, some storylines end up ringing untrue to the show's history. Some storylines are done for pure sensationalism - serial killers, cloning and resurrection after miraculous resurrection of presumed-dead characters.

Days of our Lives struck gold in 2003 with a serial killer storyline in which many of the show's main characters were killed off. Not only did DAYS score some of its highest ratings in recent years, but the soap world was buzzing at the storyline. How could Days of our Lives kill off the venerable Frances Reid (Alice Horton)? But the NBC soap dropped the ball when it concocted a convoluted "they aren't really dead" plot device to try to undo all of the deaths. The resolve dragged on far too long for many viewers and now Days of our Lives is hovering at record low ratings levels.

At about the same time, One Life to Live devised a serial killer storyline of its own - and has recently come up with yet another serial killer plot. In One Life to Live's first at bat with the mass murderer plot, however, most of the deaths involved minor characters that most viewers didn't care about. Killing a character just for the sake of killing someone never works in the long run.

Because today's television viewers are considered to be more savvy than those of years gone by, soap operas need to address certain frequently used plot devices that are no longer plausible in a post-9/11 world. The average person cannot slip unnoticed into a hospital laboratory and switch hand-written labels on vials of blood in order to influence the results of a DNA test. Nor can the average person wander aimlessly around a prison cell block in an attempt to track down and verbally assault someone who has done them wrong. And one would hope that airport security is tough enough to prevent citizens from sneaking into the terminals with loaded firearms.

No one expects the soaps to be 100% realistic, 100% of the time. After all, audiences flock to the movie theaters to see shoot 'em up action flicks where the hero rarely gets hit by a single bullet. And with approximately 260 hours of storytelling per soap per year, there are bound to be some storylines that are "clunkers." And that comes from the mouth of three-time Daytime Emmy winner Hogan Sheffer, the former head writer for CBS's As the World Turns.

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Sure soaps are about romance and fantasy, but they also serve a very valuable purpose

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