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Monday, April 6, 2009

The Fallacy of Soap Opera Ratings

The Fallacy of Soap Opera Ratings
Theresa Chaze

The cancellation of Guiding Light only proves that the network executives don’t understand their own industry. Soap operas are the only genre where they have a true monopoly. It is the single aspect of programming that independent and cable networks simply don’t have a way to compete. To say that the soaps were grandfathered into our lives is into an understatement. Before VCRs or DVR’s, viewers planned their schedules around their favorite TV shows, including soap operas. If they were forced to miss, they found a fellow addict to catch them up or waited for the rerun. Soaps by their very nature don‘t rerun episodes, therefore their viewers became the most loyal and reliable in the industry, making them also a consistent form of income for the networks with their own built in sponsorship consortium.

During television’s infancy, most people only had access to three stations. Competition for viewers was low in comparison to today. This was the era that soap operas were born and their fan base established. It was the guilty pleasure that no one would admit to watching, yet everyone knew what was happening. After school and on vacations, children watched and became addicted to the shows their mothers and grandmothers watched. It is a legacy of fond memories that the children of the 1960s forward have carried into their adulthood.

Although viewership has always been consistent and loyal, it has always been also under reported by Nielsen; people simply didn’t always want to admit they watched soap operas. Even through society and technology has changed, Nielsen’s way of reporting has not. They do not acknowledge delayed viewing, which has become the primary means of watching daytime programming for those who work from 9 to 5. Instead of upgrading their accounting systems to more accurate methods, they continue to use the diaries and equipment that fail to account for delayed or remote viewing.

This statistical over sight has made it appear that the genre is no longer an asset to the networks. This is far from the truth. One would only have to look at the popularity of the fan events, the merchandizing and the demand for interviews with the soap stars to see that their fan base is not only enthusiastic, but actively growing. Fans love their soaps and their stars enough to spend their time, their money and their energy on them. The peripheral businesses make hundreds of million dollars from around the world from fans that simply cannot get enough of their favorite soap.

Yet the sponsor and the networks look only at the ratings without putting them into proper context. The ratings of the past were higher due to the lack of competition for viewers. When the pie is only split three ways, all the pieces are bigger. Cable and satellite networks now give viewers more options for programming, thereby increasing the number of slices in the pie. So the question that must be both asked and answered is--are the lower rating for soap operas just a natural result of the increased division of viewers or is the genre run its course? As long as the comparisons aren’t made on a level playing field, the information they yield cannot be accurate. Before a network makes the irreversible decision to cancel a soap opera, thereby infuriating the fans base, it really needs to compare the ratings across the board for that day part. To do less could very easily cost them a valuable asset.

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