It has been a season of loss for daytime broadcast TV.
Not only has the viewing audience continued its gradual decline, but daytime's biggest star, Oprah Winfrey, will be ending her show in 2011, and another talk host, Tyra Banks, announced last week that she would be leaving after one more season.
The soap opera world is taking a hit, too, as one of the most enduring soaps, "As the World Turns," will stop telling stories after 54 years in September, joining the canceled "Guiding Light."
"Viewership in daytime is down, and it's also unfortunately happening at a time of economic downturn. So the combination of the two makes it pretty difficult in the daytime arena," says Bill Carroll, vice president of Katz Television Group.
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Winfrey's choice is considered personal rather than connected to the daytime drop, although her top-rated show also has experienced audience erosion. Nevertheless, her departure will leave a huge hole in the daytime lineup that no current host will be able to fill, Carroll says.
Daytime's audience loss reflects ratings drops throughout the broadcast day as cable competitors chip away (Winfrey will be taking a major role in her own cable network) and innovations, such as Soapnet and the DVR, let viewers catch up with their shows at other times. But there are also fewer women, the target audience, available to watch during the day, a trend that has been building for decades.
The news isn't all bad, however. The top performers in the talk, soap and court genres still perform well, although most have seen declines over the past five years. Some newer medical shows, such as the syndicated "Dr. Oz" and "The Doctors," seem to be catching on by prescribing useful advice in an engaging way.
"Doctors" creator Jay McGraw says time-strapped viewers want more than just pure entertainment. "We like to think that we are a very entertaining show . . . but we make sure in every episode that we give our viewers usable information," he says.
The cancellation of the lower-rated "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" does not mean the demise of the soap, says Lynn Leahey, editorial director of Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly.
"There remains an avid following," she says. "If you tell the right story, people will follow it."
Networks are cutting costs on their own shows ("As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" are not network-owned) to make them financially viable, meaning lower salaries for stars and fewer lavish shoots, Leahey says. ABC, for example, is moving production of "All My Children" from New York to Los Angeles to save money. "Lots of times you can't see (the cuts) on the screen," she says.
Technology is bringing new competition and ways to reach women who aren't at home, says Leahey. TV soap actresses Crystal Chappell and Martha Byrne have launched online soaps "Venice" and "Gotham," respectively.
Networks and syndicators are embracing technology, too. "All My Children," like "General Hospital," will be shot in high-definition, and greater use of CGI will allow "spectacular stunts," ABC Daytime president Brian Frons says.
Terry Wood, who oversees new-program development and production for CBS Television Distribution ("Rachael Ray," "Dr. Phil," "The Doctors" and "Judge Judy"), says daytime must take advantage of technology, such as social networking sites, to reach potential viewers while providing information relevant to their lives.
"Years ago, (viewers) were just available. It's not a passive form of viewing now. It is about time, and it's got to be worth it. You cannot just expect they'll watch you because you're on," says Wood, noting that Ray is on Facebook and Dr. Phil tweets "informationally."
Interactivity can strengthen the audience connection. "The Doctors" added segments on pet health after viewers asked for that on producethedoctors.com, a section of the show's Web site that solicits ideas.
In the end, the strong shows will remain, Frons says.
"Some (soaps) have been on many years, so people feel the need to make sage-like statements about the future of the genre," Frons says. "Nobody makes those statements when a sitcom or long-running drama dies. It's the end of that program, and that's the way we should look at it as well."