"Soaps by Numbers"
by Randee Dawn*
And if you want your "who"-ness to count in daytime, you'd best be a woman between the ages of 18 and 49. A soap viewership wanes, the networks are scrambling to find a formula that's going to help them survive into the next century -- and attracting an audience that advertisers will pay more to reach helps compensate for the everdwindling viewership.
Blame ABC for advertisers' interest in a younger audience. Nielsen has always kept some demographic information, usually though handwritten diaries, but in the 1980s, demographics became more easily catalogued thanks to the in-hoe automated "People Meter." But prior to the 1960s, NBC and CBS weren't much interested in demos. Then ABC came along. "ABC was the new kid on the block," points out Joe Mandese, editor of The Meyers Report, a daily media industry newsletter. "And didn't have big household numbers." Much like the Fox, The WB and UPN networks of today, he continues, "They noticed they did very well in urban markets with younger households. So they made up the argument that this was the audience marketers really wanted to watch."
ABC began requesting demographic information from Nielsen to prove their point. "It became the way ABC differentiated themselves from the older audience," says Mandese. "They did very well by not having the highest rating, but having big numbers in the demos."
Using numbers selectively to shore up support for programming is no longer an ABC domain; NBC and CBS caught on soon after ABC adopted the demo strategy. These days, each network uses the information that Nielsen releases to "skew" things their own way. "Networks like to promote what they have, and if they're winning in the 18 to 49 bracket, that becomes the most important demographic to them," asserts Mandese.
"Demographics is what people [at NBC] look at," explains SUNSET BEACH Executive Producer Gary Tomlin. "The 18 to 49 [slot] is really the make-or-break numbers."
Susan Lee, Senior Vice President of Daytime Programming at NBC, believes that the vast household numbers are less important than a "pure" demographic of young viewers. "You want to know that you are appealing exactly to your audience, that you're not throwing [programming] out there and half the audience isn't even interested. To be honest, if we only appeal to 50-somethings, our daypart will be dead in 20 years."
But over at the Tiffany network, they like their older audience just fine. "CBS generally is the oldest-skewing network," says David Poltrak, executive vice president for planning and research at CBS. "You're not going to mess with a show like YOUNG AND RESTLESS to get a younger demographic because you risk alienating the audience that you currently have."
Unlike, say, CBS's competitors? You have NBC putting on a show like PASSIONS," Poltrak continues, "and it starts off with virtually no audience to begin with, then goes down and they declare, 'Well, we're getting a lot of teenage girls.' Which is good for them, but they're all going to go back to school in September, and what are you going to do then?"
Meanwhile, ABC is sitting in the catbird seat, consistently drawing the highest key demographics and looking for ways to ensure that, that will continue. "We're really appealing to a broad audience," says Carole Smith, vice president of daytime research for ABC. "There's a difference between what the advertisers are looking for and what we are looking to give our audience. Not that we don't do it at the expense of older viewers or story."
What will work -- that is, what will draw the "right" sort of audience in and keep them there -- is a subject of contention. "YOUNG AND RESTLESS delivers a huge household and a really good demo," notes NBC's Lee. "but you're not getting a pure number with that show; you're getting pure women, but it drops off with women 18-49. If you look at DAYS OF OUR LIVES, their household isn't nearly what Y&R's is, but they deliver as pure, if not purer [demographic] numbers. DAYS will give you more bang for your buck."
The theory at CBS is what Poltrak calls the "mother-daughter phenomenon. That's what we're playing. We've been able to carry soap operas from one generation to another through that kind of relationship, as opposed to trying to create a soap opera that the daughters will watch in their bedrooms while their mothers are watching something else."
In the long run, you're going to live and die by the ratings," shrugs BEACH's Tomlin. "there are certain shows that can say, 'screw it, we're going to do what we want to do,' and there are other shows, like our show or PORT CHARLES, where we feel, 'Oh, my God; what do we have to do to get people to watch?' "
And while some networks are panicking, others eagerly await the arrival of aging baby boomers into their key demographics. There are advantages to being the oldest-skewing network. "As a boomer myself, I expect them to keep our numbers high for another 40 or 50 years'" grins CBS's Poltrak. "I'm looking forward to the 85-plus demo."