Women’s afternoon TV: RIP

The game shows went, then the soaps, and now even Oprah has left the building

Women’s afternoon TV: RIP

REUTERS/Keith Bedford

“When you think of daytime TV,” says Wesley Hyatt, author of The Encyclopedia of Daytime Television, “do you think of anything else besides talk shows, soaps and game shows?” Well, you might have to. The big hit shows that defined afternoon viewing will soon be gone forever. Most game shows bit the dust years ago, and now the other pillars are falling: The Oprah Winfrey Show is airing its final episode on May 25, and soon after, ABC will cancel two of the last soap operas, All My Children and One Life To Live. Hyatt told Maclean’s that shows like these “were dirt cheap to produce and generated enormous profits” in their heyday, but that heyday “ended around 20 years ago.” The afternoon show—providing emotional conversations or soap antics, aimed largely at stay-at-home women—has been huge since the beginning of TV, and on radio before that. Now it may be going the way of variety shows, VCRs and the Liberal party.

Of all the things threatening to tear the daytime world apart, the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show is arguably the most damaging. It means not only the end of a successful show but the end of what Hyatt calls “a pop culture phenomenon, one of the biggest events not just of TV but mass media.” Advertisers on her finale are being charged $1 million per 30-second commercial, the highest rate for a series finale since Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005. And Oprah has the kind of worshipful fan base that’s usually more associated with pop stars than TV celebrities. Tanya Lee, a Toronto woman, got into the news last December by starting an unsuccessful Facebook campaign to bring Oprah to Canada, even trying to get in touch with President Barack Obama: “Canadian Oprah fans,” she says, “I worked very hard on your behalf. Even though it did not work out, at least you know that I failed miserably.”

The only person left who has that kind of power is Judy Sheindlin of Judge Judy, who recently beat Oprah for the title of most-watched daytime personality, and who just signed a new contract to continue through 2015. But Judge Judy was launched in 1996, and no one else has come along who can step in once she leaves. As Hyatt points out, “there have been people proclaimed to be ‘the next Oprah’ going back to the 1990s, such as Ricki Lake. They never turned out that way. As much as I admire Katie Couric,” who is considering doing a daytime talk show after stepping down from CBS News, “she’s not going to be that person.”

Soap operas used to have the same pop culture power that Oprah did, often influencing prime-time shows by pushing the boundaries of the subject matter that TV could deal with. But in the last 20 years, the average viewership of soaps has fallen by 80 per cent. Christine Fix, editor of Soap Opera Fan, told Maclean’s that the cancellation of One Life and All My Children marks “an unfortunate beginning of the end of an era that has entertained viewers for generations. Hell, there hasn’t been a new soap opera created since 1999, which doesn’t bode well for the industry.” The few remaining soaps aren’t safe either: TMZ floated a rumour that ABC might cancel its last soap, General Hospital, to make room for a show for Couric.

Why have there been so few big daytime hits since the launch of The View in 1997? There are some obvious culprits. Cox says that the death of the soap “dates back to the 1970s when women began working outside the home in greater numbers.” Even the people who are staying at home may not be watching television now, because they’ve been captured by that evil scourge of television, the Internet. In an article published by Business Insider in 2010, Tod Sacerdoti wrote that the true soap opera killer was Zynga, a company that provides interactive Facebook games and thereby “turned casual online gaming into social gaming.” Why would people follow the adventures of strangers when they could spend the day having adventures with people they know online?

Still, the stereotype of the Internet destroying TV doesn’t completely fit the facts. According to Ad Age magazine, the number of people watching television in the daytime hasn’t actually fallen. In fact, when DVR playback is taken into account, there are a few more people watching TV in the daytime than two years ago—if only because more people are unemployed. But few of them are watching any one program in the numbers that used to flock to the big soap operas.

Instead, they go to ad-supported basic cable. Some of these viewers prefer reality shows, which Fix calls “real-life soap operas that seem to fill the need for escape that soap operas once cornered the market on.” Others gravitate to people who give them useful advice, like the personalities on networks devoted to food or fashion. Dori Molitor, head of the consulting firm WomanWise, told Maclean’s that today’s woman wants “entertainment with meaning and purpose, that can contribute to what she cares about,” meaning that a show is more likely to catch on if it has “a piece of entertainment in it, but there’s also a piece of practicality.” Apparently today’s viewers get this sort of practicality from people who criticize bad makeovers and messy houses.

The big networks seem to understand this, because part of their new strategy is to compete with cable by offering shows with practical advice that stay-at-home people can use. Brian Frons, head of daytime TV for ABC, told the Los Angeles Times that the network is dropping the escapism of soap operas in favour of “information” that will allow viewers to “take an active role in changing their lives.” So ABC soaps will give way to The Chew, a food program that tells health-conscious viewers how to find food that won’t kill them, and The Revolution, where Tim Gunn (Project Runway) dispenses fashion and makeup tips. These shows may take a few viewers away from specialty channels—and they’re much cheaper to produce than soaps, or talk shows with big-name hosts.

But cheap, quickly produced shows can’t have the kind of cultural reach that the big talk shows, game shows and soaps did. Hyatt points out that while many cable daytime shows are doing well enough, few of them are huge hits, and he thinks that’s because “too many of them look cheap and have a limited scope. Laugh if you will, but even a game show like The Price is Right lavishes attention to every detail of each show, and that’s reflected in the ratings for the final product. This is another reason why cable hasn’t taken on doing daytime soaps—it requires an investment of time, care, consideration and money that most outlets are reluctant to allow on a daily schedule.”

One person who’s already discovered the limitations of cable is none other than Oprah Winfrey. She was supposed to be transferring much of her energy to her cable channel OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), which recently launched in both the U.S. and Canada. But OWN has not done well since it began, and Winfrey has found herself trying to calm down advertisers who aren’t getting their money’s worth from her channel: first by assuring them in a press conference that things will get better once “I get to devote my full attention to OWN,” and then by removing the CEO of the entire network after only a few months. “Cable can have some power but not really rival the reach of the big daytime shows,” Hyatt says, and Winfrey’s self-imposed exile to cable could turn her into a niche product, similar to what happened to Conan O’Brien when he went from late night on NBC to late night on cable.

That might be why soap actress Cady McClain, who will reprise her old role on All My Children in one of its last story arcs, told Maclean’s there’s still a place for the simple, inexpensive option of regular daytime TV: “Not everyone can afford Internet, the rising costs of cable, or even a computer. But somehow, most people manage to get a TV. That factors into why daytime reached a mass cultural consciousness: the simple accessibility, five days a week.” But even if Oprah decides that cable is too small a world for her, it may be too late for her to go back to her mass audience, which is starting to drift away. Even her biggest fan: “I work a lot,” Lee says. “I do not have time to watch as much daytime television as I used to.”


Women’s afternoon TV: RIP

  1. Thank Goodness is RIP. Not a fan of women’s afternoon TV, now just get rid of that terrible show called THE VIEW and we are set : )

  2. That is such bull.FB games I don’t think they even come near my substitute for day time.I never watched The View or The Talk I don’t for either.I can watch one of the hundred and fifty nine channels for reality,talk,cooking, or a news channel.I wanted scripted daytime romantic informative (my way) programming.So I am tired of what  the media is trying to tell me what I want!Keep pushing what I don’t want on me and telling me this what I want.Nielson has never take my count, try asking the cable,Dish, and Directv you will hear a different story from millions and millions of people! 

  3. The reality is that its about more than ‘just’ about soaps and if you’d think it through you’d understand that and be grateful that we are doing what we are doing. Its about our rights as viewes. All of us have the right to choose instead of being spoon-fed any old shite that the corporations throw at us.  The issue here goes well beyond a soap opera or a primetime show.  It is about our right to be heard and our right to be counted.  I am sick and tired of people labeling soap fan enthusiasts so negatively.   What on earth makes you people think that 1) its ok to trash anyone for what they like, and 2) that people who watch soaps are jobless, uneducated, bon-bon eating dolts?  The reality is that we come from very diverse socio-economic groups, races and religions.  Should we consider the men Neanderthals because they’d be happy to sit and watch sports all day long if given the choice.   And you guys might be surprised to know that men watch the Soaps too!     
    You don’t have to watch.  You don’t have to agree or even care.  All you need to do is respect the fact that these shows mean a great deal to millions of people. If something were important to you and I/We thought it was dumb, we’d still support you, because its important to YOU!  I certainty wouldn’t try to demean or belittle you, that’s for sure! I’d like to see you guys hit the ground running if they cancelled sports on TV LoL
    I’d like to know what people think is the difference between One Life to Live or All My Children versus primetime shows like 90210, Falcon Beach the OC or others like it?  Its just the time of day its shown on is all. People work and tape that’s not new or radical LoL. They take an hour or two to catch up on what’s happening as a way of relaxing and decompressing after a day of hard work. Or, they are housebound and these shows are their connection to real storytelling. I’ve been watching since I was a kid and had to stay home from school cause I was sick. Then I had kids and that one hour a day was my sanity … different strokes for different folks, but the character’s on the soaps have become like extended family to many of us. This is powerful, powerful stuff … not ‘just’ some show like so many others.
    Some of the stories that people have shared about going through serious illnesses and therapy and how the soaps saved their sanity and gave them strength. There is so much to learn from them like the current OLTL bullying storyline … rape, adolescent pregnancy, inter-racial marriage and so much more. People have found solace in the shows and have been educated and informed. The storytelling is powerful. I have heard of people not getting their gay or lesbian child and watch the struggles of a gay character that they had come to like on the soaps and suddenly ‘got it’ and reach out to their child with understanding.  It gives me goose bumps! 
    There are only 27K Nielsen family polling boxes in the US and they are in the homes of 18-49 yr old who decide what 300+ million people like! Were I an advertiser I would seriously reconsider what I am being told by media groups; what counts, and where and to whom my money is talking! When we can clone goats and send men to space, why oh why can’t they count dvr’s, tivo and YouTube … its crazy and the Nielsen system MUST change to reflect the viewing habits of more than 27 thousand people and include the HUGE over 49 demographic   So, if you aren’t over 49 yet you will be and they’ll be cramming stuff down your throat until you choke. If for no other reason that that you should support us because we are doing it for YOU TOO!

  4. Thank you for this article.  Soap fans like me appreciate you covering what is happening to daytime TV.  There are millions of soap fans out there who are devastated by the cancellation of these shows.  We are trying everything we can to save the soaps by finding a new home for them.  The viewers do not matter to ABC as they only care about how much money they make.  There are alternatives to cancelling these soaps.  A new network can promote these shows internationally or they can combine two soaps into one and keep the top actors/actresses.  Viewers have been loyal for so many years and we deserve to be hears.  Our opinions matter.  These new shows are simply a short term solution because they will absolutely not get the loyal viewers they had with the soaps and people will get tired of reality and talk shows.  This is already happening.  Even if our beloved soaps do not make it on another network by the time they are cancelled, we will continue with our mission to bring back the soaps because they will be missed by millions.  Please continue with these articles because we are reading!

  5. I am sick of being told what I watch and what I want to watch based on a handful of viewers with Neilson boxes in their homes. I am tired of people who do not like soaps bashing those who do.  Soap fans are extremely loyal people and the actors and actresses on them are some of the best in the business.  What other genre has fans and cast raising so much money for charity? What other actors and actors are willing to take major paycuts to keep a show going.  A lot of shows get cancelled because after a few good years the stars get greedy and start demanding an outrageous amount of money to keep playing the character that in a lot of cases made them famous. Even athletes who a blessed to be making a living playing a game that they love will willingly ruin the  game for fans by demanding obscene amounts of money to play.  Google soap events and you will see the bond and respect between soap actors/actresses and their fans. I am so over the media trying to convince us that if we are over 25, not so skinny we look ill and haven’t seen a plastic surgeon this month that we need help. They are such hypocrites most of the people behind the cameras are nothing like the images and ideas they are trying to shove down our throats.  Frankly I am close to cancelling my cable and getting rid of the televisions in my house, once the soaps are gone I just may.

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    • Are your posts the same as spam?

  7. Good article. It hits the nail on the head: what’s killing afternoon TV is cable channels and money. The audiences for network-aired soaps, game shows, and talk shows are smaller now because of the large amounts of cable channels competing with the networks for viewers’ attention. Reality shows are cheaper to produce. ABC is concerned with the bottom line. However, just because the Chew and the Revolution are cheaper than soaps doesn’t mean that people will turn in to watch their new planned lineup. Why watch another show about food and lifestyle when there are entire cable channels full of them? Why cancel shows that have generations of loyal fans and that have decades of positive associations with ABC?  I can’t understand why ABC didn’t consider other alternatives to make the soaps more profitable. Why couldn’t they make All My Children and One Life to Life a half hour long instead of an hour each? Why couldn’t they air one soap twice a week and the other three times a week?  Why couldn’t they increase revenue by charging small amounts for people to watch catch up episodes online or via I Tunes? Why not feature reruns of the soaps on a cable channel, like the BBC does with East Enders on the UK Gold channel? Why couldn’t they produce DVDs of classic episodes for people to buy, or official merchandise, or raise more revenue through sales of the shows to overseas markets?  I grew up with the saying that in business if you pay schlock, you get schlock. ABC is going for cheap knock offs. It isn’t the soaps that’s the problem: it’s the lack of foresight, imagination, and business acumen of the ABC executives. And their lack of sensitivity towards their audience.

  8. I don’t know about other people, but for me, Oprah didn’t leave fast enough.