Ratings for the soaps took their first major hit in 1995, when several cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. The stunning real-life drama captured the attention of daytime viewers and broke the soap habit for many of them. The numbers have drifted downward ever since.
The current generation of young TV viewers who want the emotional involvement that a soap provides is getting it from reality shows. Listen to the office chatter the day after Bravo airs a new episode of The Real Housewives franchise and you'll notice it doesn't sound much different than your grandmother prattling on about her "stories" back in the day. Networks such as The CW and ABC Family have aggressively programmed to young women with serialized dramas.
For years, the soap-opera business depended on mother-to-daughter "mentoring" to replenish its audience: Teenage and college-age women who watch soaps with their mothers after school or during the summer months eventually get hooked themselves. That worked when there wasn't much else on to watch. Now there are not only more channels, but also viewers can play back their favorite prime-time shows from the night before on their DVRs.
In 1993, All My Children had more than 2 million female viewers in the 18-to-34 age group. In the current season, that number is down to 178,000. It's become apparent to ABC that as longtime soap fans go to that big Pine Valley in the sky, there are few new ones coming in to replace them.
Greater choice and audience fragmentation have meant lower ratings for all programs. The daytime soaps built their cost structure during a time when the networks had little competition. The ratings have reached a point where even after cutbacks, ABC was on a path to lose money on All My Children and One Life to Live if they stayed on the air next year. The cost of producing each ABC soap ran from $750,000 to $1 million a week.
The new shows that will replace them will each be $575,000 a week or less. There's The Chew, a food-centric lifestyle show hosted by chefs Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Top Chef's Carla Hall and nutrition expert Daphne Oz, and The Revolution (working title), a health and lifestyle show with Tim Gunn. And unlike soaps, the episodes can be repeated.
CBS is already seeing higher profits for its new daytime chatfest The Talk, even though the ratings are slightly below those of As the World Turns, the soap it replaced. When CBS recently gave multiyear renewals to The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, it was at significantly lower license fees.
Many viewers will miss the soaps, just as some miss the variety show, the big-budget miniseries and other TV fare of a bygone era. It's the price viewers pay for living in a multi-channel world, where they can watch what they want when they want.