As The Soap Disappears

March 31, 2010

By now it’s semi-common knowledge that soap operas got their name from the soap manufacturers that exploited them to advertise to bored housewives during the daytime hours every Monday through Friday. They brought a sense of drama and excitement to the lives of women whose home lives seemed uneventful by comparison.

One of those manufacturers, Procter & Gamble, was one of the first companies to get into the act. But P&G didn’t just advertise – it owned at least 20 soap operas, beginning with radio shows in the 1930s. Two of the biggest – or at least longest lasting – bastions of daytime TV were P&G-owned: Guiding Light (GL) and As The World Turns (ATWT). Their time slots provided the perfect battleground for P&G and its competitors to market their detergents, tampons, toothpastes and toilet paper to the millions of women who couldn’t wait to see if Lily and Holden would stay together or if Reva would get married one more time.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, you’re not alone.

My mom was an ATWT addict when I was a kid, and like most women in their 30s and 40s, she became part of a very splintered demographic that disappeared from the soap-watching scene. The end result? Last year, CBS swung the axe and canceled GL and ATWT after 72 and 54 years, respectively. They were the last soaps owned by an advertiser, leaving only six more daytime dramas in their wake. And what’s replacing them? Among other things, a remake of “Let’s Make A Deal” starring Wayne Brady – really? Really.

Apparently it costs $50 million per year to produce a soap opera, and with audiences quickly aging, working or simply doing something else, the networks are increasingly getting rid of them. P&G spends more than $7 billion in advertising each year…making the cost of their little soaps the equivalent of a drop of Cascade in a fully-loaded dishwasher.

So just like every other marketer that used to enjoy a concentrated cluster of ripe-for-the-picking consumers huddled around their TVs, the “soap” companies are quickly losing what was once a gold mine: TV shows made on the cheap with the perfect – and highly engaged – audience. The housewife hanging on every word of her favorite character barely exists any more.

The sad state of the soap opera is testament to that irreparable audience splintering that leaves us all trying to find the most efficient and effective way to reach audiences that no longer collectively enjoy a common soapy bond. And that’s fine – just as long as they keep their hands off Days of our Lives (I’m a closet fan since 1984).