Like a popular dead character suddenly coming back to life, the rising ratings of the remaining daytime dramas are a major surprise of the TV season.
All four soaps are seeing growth in total audience and at least one of the younger demographic categories (women ages 18 to 49 and women ages 18 to 34) that are important to advertisers. On CBS, The Bold and the Beautiful is up 12 percent in total viewers this season, giving the show its best start since 2007, while The Young and the Restless recently had its largest weekly audience since February 2012. In November, ABC's General Hospital hit a two-year ratings high among women 18 to 49. NBC's Days of Our Lives is up 12 percent among women 18 to 49 and recently had its biggest weekly audience since February 2011.
It looked like the genre was headed for extinction after ABC axed All My Children and One Life to Live in 2011. Since 2008, the number of soaps has shrunk from nine to four, and three years ago CBS cut the license fees it paid for The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless before giving the shows multiyear renewals.
So how are the remaining series — which have been on the air for an average of 41 years — making a comeback at a time when viewers have a seemingly endless array of choices? The biggest enemy of serialized dramas has long been lapsed viewers who, after missing some episodes, fall out of the habit of watching daily. But DVRs, which are now in 48 percent of households with TVs, are making it easier for people to catch up and stay connected to continuing storylines (the technology has also given serialized primetime dramas a boost). "We do see lifts from DVR viewing," confirms Angelica McDaniel, senior vice president for daytime programming at CBS. "Soaps are bigger than game shows or talk shows in daytime." As an executive at another network puts it: "Soaps are the ultimate DVR show."
CBS is also benefiting from the same-day cable airing that Y&R gets on TVGN, which is now 50 percent owned by CBS. Y&R is the highest-rated program on the network; B&B joined the lineup on Dec. 2.
General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, Y&R and B&B are also picking up viewers from All My Children and One Life to Live (which were briefly revived online before being canceled again.) "There are daytime fans who like the routine of watching during the day," says McDaniel. "Those people were looking for a new home."
Fans of All My Children and One Life to Live hoped they would get to keep up with their favorite characters when production company Prospect Park purchased the rights for the shows from ABC in order to relaunch them on the Internet. Many key actors returned when the revived shows debuted in April. But after less than a month, Prospect Park cut the run from four episodes per week to two, and after the company sustained losses of $30 million, production was suspended in late summer. (Prospect Park has filed a lawsuit against ABC, claiming that the network failed to live up to the licensing agreement by hindering efforts to promote the shows and by killing off two OLTL characters who briefly appeared on General Hospital.)
There are fewer soaps on their schedules, but the networks are making a stronger effort to promote them. "For about a decade, daytime television was losing about a tenth of a ratings point every year, and it was accepted thinking that you couldn't fight it," says McDaniel. "I said, 'We're not going to accept this fate.'" CBS's The Price Is Right and The Talk have become regular promotional stops for stars of Y&R and B&B. Both series employ social media to generate interest and often show up as trending topics on Twitter.
Amped-up storytelling has also helped the soaps. This year, Days brought back popular '90s character Kristen (Eileen Davidson) for a year of intense plotlines, and ABC banged the drum for the 50th anniversary of General Hospital as fan faves (including Genie Francis, Jack Wagner and Kin Shriner) returned for multiepisode arcs. Whether it's catfights, grand romances or stolen babies, viewers still look to the familiar to escape.