A Soapy Slide in the Ratings

Soap-opera viewership wanes, but the genre is far from dead
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As the industry gears up for the May 20 Daytime Emmy Awards celebration,
it is also keeping a watchful eye on its content. With ratings continuing to
slide and the FCC handing out indecency fines that could take the heat out of
those steamy soap love scenes, there is a lot of angst out there. It can be
tough to party when your genre is in a slump.

Less than a decade ago, No. 1-rated daytime show The Young and the Restless had Nielsen numbers in the
7s. But the CBS series, like all those behind it, has seen its viewers tune out
and into other fare, and now its ratings hover at around the 4s, even though,
amazingly, it has been the top-rated soap opera for more than 16 years.
Syndicated talk shows are also having a tough time; new shows are considered
successful if they can maintain a relatively mediocre 2 rating.

Several factors explain the drop in viewership. “In the last 15 years,
the explosion of cable and the number of two-parent families working make it a
challenge to watch the show,” explains Y&R head writer/producer Jack Smith.

Rhonda Friedman, supervising producer of The
Bold and the Beautiful
, concurs. “Everything in television is
changing, not just daytime,” she says. “The Internet, DVD sales, TiVo, the
500-channel universe, shifting demographics and the Hispanic market are all
making things more and more competitive, and I think everyone is a little
hungrier. We'll all have to be leaner and meaner to keep the audience and
even grow one.”

She notes that soaps now have new competitors in prime time, including
Fox's The O.C., not to mention ABC's
runaway hit Desperate Housewives. And, she
says, there's new pressure on daytime.

“[CBS] has been under close scrutiny ever since last year's Super
Bowl,” Friedman says. “And, yeah, we're feeling pressure to be cautious
in sexual matters. The scrutiny has informed how we write.”

But Smith has never felt that penning over-the-top, graphic sex scenes
is the only way to engage his audience. “I can write romance and very sexy
scenes without seeing a lot of skin and open-mouthed kissing. The reality is, I
think fans can be turned on by [soap couples] without showing more intimate
moments of sexuality.”

The fact is, in every daypart on broadcast television, ratings aren't
what they used to be.

But Y&R's Smith doesn't
believe the sky is falling. He still has confidence in the tradition of
serialized drama. “It is the quintessential American art form. They began
during the colonial days, when American newspapers ran serialized stories on
their front pages. Those stories made the natural transition to radio and then
TV. Soaps are like American jazz.”

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