Daytime TV in a Post-Soap World: "The Revolution", "The Chew" and What the Networks Need to Do

posted Jan 19, 2012, 11:10 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Oct 19, 2012, 5:20 PM ]

Well, here we are.

When ABC controversially announced the cancellations of longtime soaps All My Children and One Life to Live last April, their respective end dates in September and January seemed so far off.

Time flies. All My Children has by now been off the air for four months and was replaced with the cheaper-to-produce food-focused talk show The Chew. One Life to Live aired its final episode on Friday and its replacement, the lifestyle-oriented talk show The Revolution, debuted on Monday.

The four endangered soap operas remaining – The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS, Days of Our Lives on NBC and General Hospital on ABC are a sad reminder of a genre that was once ubiquitous in the Daytime TV landscape. And General Hospital is not expected to survive the year as the deal for Katie Couric’s new talk show requires all stations picking up the show to air it in the 3pm EST time slot Hospital currently fills.

ABC fumbled their announcement about the cancellations of All My Children and One Life to Live by keeping mum about it despite the rumors. Once again, they foolishly refuse to confirm or deny the inevitable cancellation of General Hospital as if anyone believes a decision hasn’t already been made about their Last Soap Standing.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that the only reason General Hospital wasn’t also cancelled in April is because the then-rumored deal with Katie Couric was not yet in place since she was still hosting the CBS Evening News and therefore still under contract with CBS.

ABC should learn from their previous mistake and save themselves another PR nightmare by simply respecting their viewers enough to confirm what everyone already knows.

But these are network executives. They learn nothing from themselves or each other.

In an interesting article last Friday, Media Life Magazine posed the question as to what will happen to Daytime TV once all of the remaining soaps are cancelled. While they suggested more talk shows and game shows as well as reality shows, they wisely noted that the networks need to think beyond that.

Here’s the problem: they can’t. And this is exactly what killed the soap in the first place.

Yes, viewership has declined and continues to do so. A lot of that has to do with ever-increasing cable options. Much of it has to do with shifting viewing habits. But it can also be attributed to a general lack of support from bottom-lining network executives who have capitalized on these conditions to pursue their clear interest in cheaper programming.

But more shows like The Chew and The Revolution are not the answer – especially in these incarnations. The former has settled into viewership levels that are comparable to All My Children while the latter has already started out lower than One Life to Live. Both shows may be cheaper to produce than their predecessors and ABC will tout how pleased they are with their performances, but will all the controversy and ill-will from viewers really have been worth it at the end of the day?

Though the networks will probably try, it would be ridiculous for them to fill their entire daytime schedule with more talk shows, more game shows and more court shows. It would be even more ridiculous for them to continue on this food and lifestyle track. Entire cable networks, several talk shows and segments of each network morning show are already dedicated to it. What more does ABC think The Chew and The Revolution can bring to the genre?

So far, nothing. I watched Monday’s episode of The Chew about cooking meals for your mate. The first meal created was a Cajun Cod with Shaved Vegetable Salad. Later in the episode, a Pan Roasted Chicken on a Cucumber Yogurt Salad was prepared. The last demonstration, with guests Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka (who were both sickeningly adorable playing the Chewlywed Game), was a Pici with Butternut Squash.

Unless one or both of the mates really enjoy this type of cooking and can afford to do so, chances are neither of them is going to make any of these dishes. The average American is not a foodie. The show would be better served by focusing on meals that can and will actually be prepared by the average American. Recipes should be based on ingredients that people generally have in their homes or can reasonably buy at the grocery store without doubling their grocery bill.

While it may be fun to watch this gourmet-type food being prepared, it’s also fun on every other cooking show.

What’s not fun is watching the panelists eat each prepared dish in front of the studio audience. This is followed by a short discussion amongst themselves about the merits of each dish. While they pat themselves on the back, the studio audience is left to sit idly twiddling their thumbs with no reason to give a crap about what’s transpiring in front of them. With a well-timed joke, Harris himself essentially pointed out this awkwardness.

Considering how much more profitable The Chew must be in relation to All My Children, I can’t imagine there isn't a budget available to provide samples for the studio audience. This will give the audience a vested interest in the discussion and provide the show with a feedback component with which to actually engage with the audience. Perish the thought. This level of engagement (or any level at all) between the panel and the studio audience is sorely needed. Otherwise, the studio audience and the viewing audience are just watching a bunch of well-off people eating food they can neither afford to make at home nor eat at a restaurant.

Here is where The Chew could further differentiate itself:

  • Everything on all these cooking shows always comes out perfect but that’s not the reality of most people when they try out these recipes at home. There could be a component of the show where viewers call or email about the recipes they attempted that didn't turn out quite right. The hosts can then identify potential problems, point out any missteps, provide guidance for the next attempt and then follow-up with them for an update. 
  • Celebrities and so-called experts have more than their share of talk time. Shift some focus to how ordinary people, particularly the unemployed or the underemployed, prepare their meals on an ever-tightening budget.

Daytime TV is about engagement and relevance. Or at least it used to be. It can be again, but The Chew is missing both.

It is in this area that The Revolution is far superior. It more or less lives up to its slogan of being “about you” and its goal of “transforming all areas of your life” – health, fitness, personal style, household and well-being. Both are inherently engaging and relevant.

As with The Chew, however, we’ve been there (we’re still there) and we’ve done that (we’re still doing that).

There’s nothing new here, but that’s not to say there isn’t something to like about the show -- particularly this week’s “HEROES” segment with the Harris sisters. At the very least, these five hosts are far more interactive with the audience and far more entertaining than those of The Chew.

The glaring problem I have with The Revolution is the fact that it is so overwhelmingly female-skewing despite the fact that three of the five hosts are MEN. As a man, I find The View far more appealing and that chat fest is hosted by five WOMEN. 

The reasoning is obvious, but the mindset is outdated. Daytime TV should no longer just be targeted to women as it traditionally has been. Whether unemployed, self-employed or just working from home, men are also watching TV during the day and not all of them are tuned into ESPN or CNN.

If Daytime TV is to evolve and if there is any hope of stemming the tide of declining viewership in that daypart, then the broadcast networks would be wise to start appealing toward men.

Start with the everyday. Most people’s everyday right now is unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity and general job dissatisfaction. Most importantly, it’s about the need and/or desire to create their own opportunities.

An entire series can be built around that with a segment focused on each of those areas.

Ditch the so-called experts. They’re on the other side of most people’s situations. Have ONE non-famous, entertaining, engaging and knowledgeable host. Bring on people who are somehow surviving through all the uncertainty. Follow people to their job interviews and discuss what may have worked and what may not have worked. Provide updates on those who get hired and continue to follow them until they’re able to find work.

Find people who have found ways to earn a living by creating their own opportunities and launching their own small businesses or enterprises. This is where the world of work is headed. Keep it relatable, at times humorous and on the level of the average American viewer by staying away from those making six-figures because this should not be about being rich.

Keep the discussions about the WHAT and the HOW. What do I want to do? How do I go about doing it? What can I expect? How I keep pressing on?

Once again, it’s about relevance.

I can at least applaud ABC for not going the celebrity news and gossip route – yet.

This all goes out to CBS and NBC as well -- scripted programming in Daytime doesn’t have to die with the soaps. There will always be a market for well-written, character-driven stories and there are thousands of great scripts out there that can be produced economically with small casts, simple sets and a regular crew. Because these stories aren’t serialized, they have higher repeatability and DVD potential than the soaps.

At the same time, TV is over 60 years old. There are hundreds of shows that can be acquired and rerun. Up until a couple decades ago, the networks actually ran reruns of their own shows in daytime. I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Jeffersons are standing by.

I will never, ever be convinced that cancelling All My Children and One Live to Live in favor of The Chew and The Revolution was a good idea. At the same time, it will be interesting to witness the continued evolution of Daytime TV over the next few years. There is a great opportunity for new ways of thinking from which new forms of programming can develop that can better target a demographically-altered viewership.