You know there’s a war on when TV channels start putting more episodes of well-loved soaps into their schedules. Either the channel or the soap is in trouble, and enhanced storylines are whipped out when they are most needed.
This week, the BBC is extending EastEnders with two hour-long episodes and a half-hour show, instead of the usual three half-hour programmes.
Coming just three weeks after BBC1 moved its 9pm news to 10pm, sparking the fiercest ratings war with ITV in 30 years, the move looks like another populist move by BBC director-general Greg Dyke to bolster peak viewing figures.
A BBC spokeswoman claims the “soap bubble” is all about Frank Butcher leaving Albert Square, rather than BBC1 competing with ITV.
But Frank has left before. Will this really be the storyline to topple Coronation Street from the top of the ratings? The BBC will only admit that a move to four episodes a week is “under consideration”, but it may not be long before the soaps meet head on in a battle that will make the recent skirmishes over the ten o’clock news look like a children’s squabble.
Soaps are vital in capturing and keeping a strong regular audience share: like the anchor stores in shopping malls, they pull in regular “appointment viewers” and can become the cornerstones around which entire schedules are built.
They can also be used strategically. Storylines can be timed to coincide with the strategies of the channels that show them. And with the avowedly populist Greg Dyke flexing his muscles at BBC1, the pressure is on commercial channels to fill their schedules with more strong soaps.
Death in the afternoon
ITV plans to use soaps to shore up its poorly-performing afternoon schedule. Advertisers are still broadly satisfied with morning ITV, as Richard and Judy continue to pull the audiences they want to reach. It’s after lunchtime that everything starts to go pear-shaped.
Bernard Balderston, associate director of UK media at Procter & Gamble, says: “Post-lunchtime ITV is still struggling – it needs real work.”
Richard Brooks, broadcast manager at
Western International Media, adds: “Daytime delivery of housewives is down 17.7 per cent year on year.”
Oliver Cleaver, European media director at Kimberly-Clark, agrees: “When housewives dip below 50 per cent, we are worried. ITV can currently only give about 48 per cent commercial share of housewives with kids.”
Trafalgar Road, ITV’s new teatime soap, is intended to replace Home and Away, which moves to Channel 5. Trafalgar Road is set in trendy Greenwich and features a group of families and their aspirations towards success. With adults in their 40s and kids in their teens and 20s, it’s a sort of Neighbours for south east London.
Agencies and advertisers have so far given the show a cautious welcome, saying they like what they have seen in presentations. But they are far less convinced by the other strand of ITV’s soap strategy – the return of Crossroads (to be made by Lord Ali’s Carlton Productions in Nottingham). This is pencilled-in for early afternoon transmission – if it ever gets that far.
Should Crossroads rest in peace?
Balderston says: “We’re a bit concerned about ITV re-using Crossroads. If a commercial brand has been closed, it’s usually for a very good reason. It would only be resuscitated if it could be seen to fulfil a need in the market again: say, in the case of a medical brand where a particular disease had re-emerged.” ITV’s disease is the haemorrhage of daytime viewers. Is Crossroads really the soap brand to staunch the flow?
The channel is defensive about its choice: “Our research indicated that audiences missed a narrative drama past lunchtime. And you should never patronise the viewers: Crossroads was a hugely popular show, and can be again.”
As any marketer will tell you, it is always easier to stretch an existing brand than to come up with a new one, and maybe this is the real reason behind Crossroads’ reappearance. It does enjoy some brand recognition and there are recognisable characters who can be brought back (though not, apparently, the much-mourned Benny).
For Crossroads to overcome its laughing-stock legacy of poor production values and ham acting, it will need to capture and convert viewers who tune in for a nostalgic peek with compelling
storylines and powerful characterisation.
“But TV buyers are a cynical bunch,” says Cleaver. “It amazes me that they are bringing Crossroads back. I can only see it raising a groan every time it appears on the buying schedule.”
Long-established soaps such as Coronation Street run the risk of becoming identified with the generation in which they were created and failing to move with the times. This can leave them with ageing, downmarket audiences who are of dwindling interest to advertisers and media buyers.
“The trick for shows like Coronation Street is to balance what they have in terms of audience with new characters and fresh storylines that will appeal to new audiences,” says Balderston.
Adventures in the Street
This year, Coronation Street has produced more daring storylines, addressing contemporary issues with Sara-Lou’s baby, the jailing of Jez and the armed siege in Freshcos. These dramatic developments, along with meaty storylines for older cast members, have put it firmly back on top of the ratings and helped it to pick up the coveted annual viewers’ award for TV’s best soap.
But major dramatic incidents take time to storyline and develop, and soaps that rely on constant fireworks slip easily into melodrama – a charge that has been levelled at Channel 4’s Brookside. The essence of soaps is the way the small beats of everyday life are handled: that’s what makes viewers identify with the characters, and that’s why advertisers and media agencies value good soaps so highly.
As Brooks puts it: “Coronation Street is one of the only shows that consistently delivers 30 per cent of the audience in almost every sector.”
Cleaver agrees: “Coronation Street is a remarkable cultural icon: it’s The Sun newspaper of British television. Whenever we use Coronation Street we see excellent conversion.”
The Independent Television Commission’s recent decision to allow ITV to shift an extra two-and-a-half minutes of advertising into peak time – which will probably put 30 seconds on the part break in Coronation Street – is likely to be welcomed by advertisers and agencies. But Cleaver is not so sure: “We’d rather see more memorable advertising in shorter breaks. They keep viewers with the show and keep their attention focused.”
Kimberly-Clark has recognised the power of peak time, says Cleaver: “We’ve moved about 60 per cent of our activity to peak time. There’s more appointment viewing, more attentive viewing and we also benefit from intangibles like increased stature for products advertised in peak time.”
BBC1 is sure to continue to devote considerable resources to EastEnders, and further soaps have not been ruled out. Balderston believes the ongoing ratings battle between EastEnders and Coronation Street is cyclical, with the competition keeping both shows healthy. Coronation Street will mark its fortieth anniversary soon, and ITV schedulers plan to make the most of the celebrations with soap bubbles galore. Given a rolling programme of judicious modernisation, both peak-time soaps should stay healthy for the foreseeable future.
The future of daytime TV, especially post-lunchtime, is much more difficult to foresee. The BBC looks set to continue with its slate of lifestyle and cookery shows from producers such as Bazal (cynics claim the ‘Z’ in Bazal is an ‘N’ which has fallen over), while ITV attempts to hit back with its soaps, both new and old.
But whatever the channels serve up, it may be that afternoon audiences are simply in terminal decline. Says Cleaver: “We’ve found that afternoon TV viewing is a pretty chaotic activity – especially in households with children.”
Brook of Western International Media goes even further: “There’s more for people to do than watch TV all day. The fight for share may no longer be with other stations, but against other activities – the Internet, video games and many other leisure activities.”
But whatever they get up to, viewers are sure to keep coming back to their best-loved soaps.