What Soap Operas Can Teach Newspapers About Survival
Those who know me best, know that I’m a total fan girl for soap operas. The juicier, the better. I even created a blog and launched popular social media fan pages honoring As The World Turns, a sudser that was canceled by CBS in 2010. My mother said she went into labor with me while watching World Turns and that’s probably where my love for high drama started. But like the news industry — my other passion — soap operas have struggled to remain relevant in recent years. Analysts argued that it was because audiences had stopped watching; ask viewers who have clicked on my soap opera fan page more than a million times and they will tell you different. Audiences were watching, just not how and when television networks wanted them to watch. The same philosophy holds true for daily newspapers.
Like soap operas, the newspaper industry has been slow to innovate and adapt to the digital age. Instead of embracing new ways to tell stories, and new platforms to tell them on, soap operas — like newspapers — resisted. That is, until now. This week Bloomberg TV interviewed veteran soap actress Deidre Hall and co-executive producer Greg Meng from the daytime serial Days of Our Lives, which has seen a four percent resurgence in ratings since the show revamped itself in 2011 (and it’s not even the most popular afternoon soap on air). The Bloomberg segment reveals several interesting points that I believe are applicable to the news industry in its report, “You thought soap operas were dead…. They’re Not.” The same holds true for newspapers.
When asked whether appealing to younger viewers had anything to do with the ratings rebound, Meng had this to say:
“We don’t attribute it to fans of other soaps. We attribute the success to fans who have come back to our show because we started telling stories again that they wanted to hear at a pace that they wanted to hear them in… We’re telling real stories that are more cutting edge at a quicker pace. There’s something for everybody.” Meng added that the show’s current storytelling is “about real issues that happen today, with a little bit of fantasy thrown in.” He acknowledged that the series had to cut costs “in order to survive,” but did not sacrifice high production quality. “We eliminated a lot of stuff that we thought was important, especially for old-fashioned soap operas. We’ve cleared the canvas and we’ve found that, creatively, we’re better, we’re cleaner and we’re quicker. We’ve upped our game and have become more like prime time shows because we’ve become more realistic, both in terms of the story line and how we execute it.”
The take-away for newspapers:
- Get real. Tell stories people want to hear, read and see. Make sure stories are realistic and reflective of how readers actually live their lives. Tell character-driven stories about real issues, “with a little bit of fantasy thrown in.” Be conversation starters. From homosexuality to domestic violence, back in their hey day soap operas often took the lead in discussing society’s taboo topics. As The World Turns, for example, was the first television show to feature a gay character. Soaps are now returning to their trailblazing roots of telling stories that help start public conversations; newspapers should follow suit.
- Something for everybody. Newspapers can’t just serve younger readers or high income earners (the former already know how to circumvent pay-walls, the latter can afford to pay for access now but will eventually learn to circumvent pay-walls as well). The trick is to tell character-driven stories that cross over and appeal to whole audiences, not just certain “desirable” demographics; stories in which nearly everybody in your audience can relate. For far too long newspapers have gotten away with featuring stale, pale stories that only appealed to a slice of their readership. With shifting demographics and readers who demand more, newspapers aren’t getting away with ignoring whole swaths of their communities anymore. They do so at their own peril.
- Pick up the pace and embrace technology. In today’s fast-paced media environment, journalists have to tell stories just as quickly as Meng does, maybe even faster. Just don’t sacrifice high quality in the process. More important, stop fighting technology. By initially refusing to air daytime dramas online, networks resisted technology and actually made it more difficult for viewers to watch their stories. Newspapers are doing the same thing by erecting pay-walls around much of their content. To many readers the walls equal cancellation. Like soap operas, regional and metropolitan dailies with pay walls will have to work to recapture the audience members they lose. Pay-walls may solve financial concerns in the short-term but not long-term, just like attempts to keep content off the Internet initially helped networks but eventually faltered when fans soon circumvented this decision by first using VCRs and DVRs, and ultimately turned to Youtube and piracy websites to watch the dramas whenever they wanted. Instead of relying on pay-walls, a better long-term solution would be to start telling stories and sharing information in ways people want to consume it. This means knowing how to use mobile, video, audio and text together effectively.
- Make on-demand videos provocative and spreadable. Not every story needs to be a video (i.e. most county commission meetings). But if the story is told using video, then make sure the video is provocative, engaging and easily spreadable (that’s shareable for non-Geeks). For years editors’ eyes glazed over when reporters pitched them multi-part investigative pieces; they believed readers no longer wanted them. Readers do still want multi-part series, they’d just rather watch the stories unfold at their own leisure — the way drama unfolds on short episodes of this web series about black men, prison and re-entry — than to be forced to wait for each part to be published as dictated by editors, online or in print.
- Eliminate stuff. Clear the canvas and figure out what is really important. This may mean reducing print schedules to three days a week, eliminating home delivery except on Sundays, and reducing executive compensation in favor of hiring and retaining videographers, photographers or more reporters. It may also mean giving up prime real estate the same way Meng got rid of “the flowers.” By eliminating stuff the way Days of Our Lives did, newspaper executives will likely find ways to be more creative, cleaner and quicker.