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Peter Mouncey Blog

The future of soap operas: all in a lather?


‘Soaps’ are the daily fix for many people throughout the world – a half hour daily catch up on the latest goings-on in a fictitious community. 

In the UK, the oldest by far is The Archers on Radio 4, billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ (I confess to being an addict…). On UK TV we have three main home-grown ‘soaps’ – Coronation Street (known affectionately as ‘Corrie’), which first aired in 1960, and Emmerdale Farm (set in a rural community), both on ITV, and Eastenders on BBC1. 

The main ‘soaps’ are regularly in the news, either due to controversial story-lines, or increasingly due to factors in the actors real lives. 

‘Corrie’ is currently in the news as the set is moving from the centre of Manchester to a new multi-million pound set at Salford Quays, with new buildings made from the bricks etc of a genuine Salford street, originally built in Victorian times. All sounds good, but none of this has, on the face of it, anything to do with market research methodology.

I agree, but what caught my eye and set me thinking was a major article in The Guardian last month (‘Soap operas: has the bubble burst?’, 01-10-13), arguing that our main soaps have lost their way, and possibly had their day. Stuart Jeffries believes that: ‘Traditional soaps now look like British Leyland in the 70s faced with the looming German automobile invasion. Out-thought, outperformed and underdone’. 

TV audiences have splintered. No longer does the family watch TV together; audiences numbering half the UK population are history, leading to intense pressure on producers to achieve higher ratings through ever more spectacular, or bizarre story-lines; there are rows about product placements; cast members are mired in controversy; stories based on social issues are increasingly ineptly managed; the format is past it’s sell-by date.

So let’s go back in time, to the golden era for this genre. It’s March 1986; the venue is the 29th Annual Conference of the MRS, held at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton; it’s the main hall and a big audience; the speakers are Vivian Marles and Nadine Nohr (BBC Broadcasting Research). 

Their topic is the large investment in market research by the BBC to develop, and track, the launch of East Enders, introduced to reverse the downward trend in early evening viewership on BBC1 (‘Eastenders. The role of research in the launch of a new brand in a difficult market’).

This was vital in building weekday ratings as viewers captured in the 6.30-8.00 pm slots tended to stay with the channel into the mid-evening period. For the BBC, this represented a huge risk, in going head-to-head with well-established competitors on ITV, Corrie and Emmerdale. 

Early research suggested that no-one saw the need for a new UK based mass-market soap. Soaps imported from the USA and Australia had refreshed this genre, the market was seen by respondents as saturated and existing UK soaps were already being seen as old fashioned. 

The written paper describes how research conducted at every stage in the development helped shaped the setting (East London), the characters and the initial story lines. 

The authors show how the early ratings were not good (‘Just another Coronation St held in the south’), but as viewers increasingly engaged with the characters and story-lines, as measured through the Appreciation Index, the production team held their nerve, and, despite competitor activity, after only nine months the research indicated that some part of Eastenders was being watched by about 30m people every month, and ‘Enders’ (plus a new Wogan chat show) had dramatically changed the BBC’s early evening market share. The paper clearly demonstrated the major role that market research can play in successfully launching a new brand.

What’s particularly telling in the context of the Guardian article lies towards the end of the Conference paper: ‘The strengths of the serial were seen to lie in its confrontation of contemporary moral and social issues and its responsible treatment of “delicate” subjects….All the characters were thought of as real people with the younger characters and the West Indians coming in for particular praise’.

Channel 4’s ‘Brookside’ took coverage of social issues to new heights under Phil Redmond’s leadership, but ended in 2007. Have reality shows and social media killed the need for a daily fix of soap, or are soaps failing to engage with their audience and their needs from this genre? Have soaps become a parody of themselves, and lost their ability to lead on controversial social issues?

Jeffries contends that ‘the whole genre seems spent’. Redmond is quoted in the article as believing soaps are ‘just seen as something to fill the schedules. There’s been a loss of vision’. Vision is what the BBC had in the 1980s, as described in the paper. 

Corrie achieved 14m viewers as recently as 2010, but it’s now half that; ‘Enders’ is being beaten by ‘Emmerdale’. However soaps have a great track-record as a nursery for new acting and writing and directing talent, as the programme schedules clearly show. 

Redmond contends that the future for soap is to aim at the over 55s. Maybe the subject of a future MRS conference paper…………..?

What are your thoughts? Do you think soaps have had their day? I welcome your comments below.

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