The 1985-86 season: the decline of the super soaps

Discussion in 'Sundry Prime Time Soaps' started by Michael Torrance, Apr 27, 2019.

  1. Michael Torrance

    Michael Torrance Soap Chat Dream Maker

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    Alexis' studio
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    Two different articles here, with the later one having an even gloomier look

    To the executives who assembled ABC's current program schedule with the hope that the network's ratings slide could be stemmed, ''The Colbys'' must have seemed irresistible.

    ''The Colbys'' is a spinoff of the prime-time soap opera ''Dynasty,'' the campy, hugely successful program that was last season's top-rated series. ''Dynasty'' was a bright spot on an ABC schedule of programs that slipped to third place in the prime-time ratings competition.

    But ''The Colbys'' has struggled for an audience this season, and other prime-time network serials are performing below par. And the view in the television industry is that, after eight years as the hottest program genre on television, the prime-time soap opera is nearing its end.

    ''The shows are aging, they're getting tired,'' said Joel Segal, executive vice president in charge of television for Ted Bates Advertising. ''Serials are not hot. My guess is that we won't see as much in the way of serials next season.''

    It is a widely held view. M. Donald Grant, president of CBS Entertainment and the man who started the serial trend by putting ''Dallas'' on the air in 1978, says that CBS has informed Hollywood's production community that the network is no longer interested in nighttime soaps.

    ''There are just too many of them on the air,'' Mr. Grant said in a telephone interview. ''It's my hunch, instinctively, that this particular cycle is over.''

    If so, it will be a sudden and somewhat surprising end for a programming genre that dominated network television just last year. ABC's ''Dynasty,'' the story of the wealthy but uneasy lives of the Carrington clan of Denver, not only became the top-rated series but also led a group of serials that were the most popular shows among advertising's favorite audience - young women.

    According to Mr. Segal, ''Dynasty'' has rated No. 1 among women 18 to 49 years old, followed by CBS's ''Dallas.'' The other CBS nighttime soaps, ''Knots Landing'' and ''Falcon Crest,'' were rated fifth and 11th among young women.

    But this season, the top three shows among women are NBC's Thursday night comedies - ''The Cosby Show,'' ''Family Ties'' and ''Cheers.'' ''Dynasty'' has slipped to No. 4; ''Dallas'' and ''Knots Landing'' are tied for 10th, and ''Falcon Crest'' has slipped to 27th.

    Most of the serials have slipped among the general audience as well. Last week, for example, ''Dynasty'' ranked 18th in the A. C. Nielsen ratings, and its offspring, ''The Colbys,'' which has to compete with NBC's popular Thursday night lineup, ranked 54th among 69 network prime time shows.

    CBS's ''Dallas'' and ''Falcon Crest'' have both faltered slightly in the ratings as well. Only CBS's ''Knots Landing'' has remained steady.

    Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Entertainment, blames bad scripts for the decline of ''Dynasty.'' He recently said that new plots will be infused into the series. And Ted Harbert, vice president of program planning and scheduling at ABC, maintains that the weak showing of ''The Colbys'' is misleading because the NBC shows it competes against are so popular. He said the show may need a year or more to find an audience.

    But Mr. Grant of CBS thinks that nighttime audiences have just had too much of the serial form, which requires more consistent viewer loyalty than the successful daytime soap operas usually command.

    Mr. Grant noted that one of the problems with prime-time soap operas is that they do not fare well when the networks repeat episodes, a fact that has prompted CBS to replace its serials in the rerun season, from May to September. ''We're in a 52-week-a-year business,'' Mr. Grant said. ''We have to attract audiences in the repeat season as well.''

    None of the three networks have a prime-time serial in development for next season's schedule.

    Bill Crosedale, vice president for television for Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, the advertising agency, says he thinks that part of the decline in serials' ratings may be caused by viewers videotaping the shows and watching them later.

    But Mr. Crosedale said the more likely explanation was viewer fatigue. ''There's just a certain commitment that viewers have to make to a continuing serial, watching it on the same day, week in, week out,'' he said. ''How many hours a week can you commit to this programming?''

    On Feb. 26, viewers of night-time soap operas--make that prime-time serials--drew up in front of their sets in anticipation of one of the most heralded confrontations since the time six years ago when Bing Crosby`s little girl plugged J.R.

    This time, though, instead of a blood bath, it was to be a mud fight, as Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter (Joan Collins) squared off against Krystle Carrington (Linda Evans) at a land-dedication ceremony on ''Dynasty.'' As it turned out, though, the two exchanged not blows, but words, Alexis hissing at Krystle, ''You stupid bitch--look what you`ve done to this outfit,'' and Krystle hissing back, ''I`ve never seen you looking better.''

    Not a great moment in television history, perhaps--or, perhaps, it was a great moment in television history--but the hype was just one more attempt to pull ''Dynasty'' out of this season`s troubling Nielsen-numbers tumble.

    Not that the ABC Wednesday night show has been the only soap opera to experience a ratings dropoff that is disturbing to network executives, advertisers and viewers. In late November, for the first time since January of 1983, neither of the Big D`s--''Dallas'' and ''Dynasty''--finished in A.C. Nielsen`s national top 10. As of this writing, the latest weekly tally showed that although CBS` ''Dallas'' had made the 10th spot, ''Dynasty'' had been clocked in 15th. In fact, in the first 23 weeks of this season, ''Dynasty''

    has finished out of the top 10 nine times and ''Dallas'' has missed it on eight occasions. And CBS` ''Knots Landing,'' said to be the currently hottest soap, has made the Big Bracket only twice since its fall opener.

    At the end of the 1983-`84 season, the soaps were hulking around like prime-time television`s 900-pound gorillas. ''Dallas'' had finished No. 1, ''Dynasty'' No. 3 (behind ''60 Minutes''), CBS` ''Falcon Crest'' No. 7 and ''Knots Landing'' No. 9. And in the 1984-`85 season, ''Dallas'' was No. 2, and ''Dynasty'' No. 1 , although by February of `85 ''The Cosby Show'' had started to threaten first place.

    A while back, Brandon Tartikoff, president of the entertainment division at NBC, the only network that has eschewed this particular genre, observed that the era of prime-time soaps is ending and that the audience is ''tired of the superficial, glittery, back-stabbing characters in these shows.''

    Addressing some 80 TV critics during their January sojourn to Los Angeles, Brandon Stoddard, the new president of ABC Entertainment, started off by saying, ''The most important thing that you`ll be hearing in the next three days--let`s get it on the table--is what`s happening to `Dynasty.` We think a number of mistakes have been made.

    ''The two areas we`ve been working on right now are the Moldavia story and the kidnaping,'' he went on, referring to the serial`s much-publicized coup in a fictitious European country and the subsequent attic-stashing of key character Krystle Carrington--plot developments that, since Stoddard`s remarks, have been curtailed.

    In what seems to be a continuing circle-the-wagons mentality, executives of third-place-in-the-Nielsens ABC declined to be interviewed for this article. However, David Poltrack, vice president for research at CBS, concedes, ''I don`t see any of these shows returning to their original height. Because during their peak, when `Dallas` and `Dynasty` were fighting for No. 1, they were the lead story in the consumer press, like People magazine. Now, sitting in positions that are down a little, they can`t be expected to generate the same kind of promotional excitement. So, unless they get a megastar to play a role, or build a particularly intricate plot or kill off one of their characters in a traumatic fashion, I don`t see them moving up by any significant level.''

    ''The primary thing to remember is that these shows have been on for quite some time,'' says Harvey Shephard, CBS senior vice president for programming. ''Every television show reaches a point where it experiences audience decline, usually after five or seven years. When a show with key individuals has been on for so many years, you sort of run into dry spells as far as storytelling avenues are concerned. There are only so many stories about the oil or wine industries. Another factor is that, to a large degree, they`ve been effectively counterprogrammed, like `Miami Vice` going up against `Falcon Crest.` The soaps do play strongly to women--particularly those over, say, 35--while `Miami Vice` clearly is going for a younger audience.

    ''But the shows still do very well. `Knots Landing` consistently wins its time period (9 p.m. Thursdays); I think it`s the only one that hasn`t experienced an audience decline. I think too much has been made of the erosion. Basically, it`s a way of getting headlines.''

    ''There`s probably nothing surprising about the ratings trend,'' says Mike White, media director of Needham Harper Worldwide Inc. advertising agency. ''Virtually everything comes and goes--comedies, westerns. We use up television programs so fast. With the soaps, you probably get tired of watching the same casts of characters going through basically the same kinds of problems. Or maybe it`s the whole titillation thing, which was one of the reasons for their success. Titillation that is continual isn`t titillating anymore; it`s boring. These shows also lose their believability. They get more and more bizarre, and after a while you say, `I don`t need this.''`

    "Like any other program trend, the soap opera is in a bit of trouble,'' agrees Chris Geist, an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio. ''Part of the problem is that there`s just so much farther you can go with the form. There aren`t many intimacies and tricks you can pull. This season, in fact, the audiences rebelled against some of them--particularly the `Dynasty` audience. They want intrigue among the characters, like Alexis and Krystle, which is more appealing than fantastic plots, plane crashes, revolutions. And sometimes when you look back over those gimmicks, you`ll see that the characters are forced to act out of character, which always upsets the audience. We`ve already seen nuances in J.R. Ewing, and if J.R. is forced to act unlike J.R., it doesn`t work.

    ''I think producers sometimes lose track of the fact that they have a literate audience out there--literate, that is, in terms of television. We know when a series is second-rate. `Flamingo Road` (NBC, 1981-`82) is a perfect example. This year, `The Colbys` (ABC) is having the same problem; it`s derivative.''

    Besides repetition and derivation, the serials experience problems particular to the form. ''One economic factor is that the soaps don`t do well in repeat episodes,'' White says. ''That`s what keeps them from proliferating, because they`re basically one-shots.'' Consequently, down the road--`Flamingo` or otherwise--syndication, normally a great profit-maker for television programs, is ''often a soft spot'' for the soaps, according to Earl Hamner, creator and executive producer of ''Falcon Crest.''

    For a newcomer unaccustomed to the prime-time (or any-time) serials and assigned to pop in cold for several weeks--soaptus interruptus, as it were--the viewing revealed that scenes periodically switch from the home bases of Denver, Dallas, northern and southern California to such spots as Hawaii, Australia and Monte Carlo; that such personally-past-prime-time performers as Cesar Romero and Ruth Roman are in demand for guest appearances; and that some of the regulars nip back and forth between shows (in an apparent ratings push, Diahann Carroll was required to sing ''I`ve Got You Under My Skin'' on ''Dynasty'' and ''Come Rain or Come Shine'' on ''The Colbys'') and some (like the once-supposed-dead Fallon Carrington Colby) even change faces.

    As to recent plot maneuverings, there has been a wine-shipment hijacking and a vineyard-sale sting (''Falcon Crest''), an abduction during a Colombian emerald-mine expedition (''Dallas''), a paternity hearing, suspicious oil spill and equally suspicious suicide (''The Colbys'') and a water-reclamation scam (''Knots Landing''). And we`re not even talking about the wife pulling an elephant gun on the husband (''The Colbys''), the sleazy reporter posing as a nanny (''Dynasty'') and the sleazy reporter posing as a saxophone player (''Knots Landing'').

    Hamner says that the demise of the soaps--at least his own--has been prematurely reported. ''I can only speak for `Falcon Crest,` but I do not think its death is imminent. We have been told to go ahead with the `bible`(story line) for next season and to start setting directors, which is a healthy sign of life. ''In `Miami Vice,` we`re up against the steamroller of all time, yet we`ve been able to maintain a very decent audience. We still get 30, 33 shares (percentage of those TVs in use), which is damn good. In general, we are also kind of tied to the apron strings of `Dallas` because we inherit the audience from their timeslot.

    ''But when you spot the ratings going down, you examine it and see what you can do. For instance, later this month we`ll be introducing a new character, which I think will raise the temperature a bit: The daughter of Chao Li, the major domo at Falcon Crest, who arrives from Communist China and gets involved in an uncharacteristically uncomplicated love story. Then, too, since we have superb actors, we can more fully explore their characters` emotions. Now, most of the time, I will admit, we explore them on the bed, but our shows aren`t totally written from the groin.''

    CBS` Poltrack is cautiously optimistic about the next few seasons. ''The soaps may slip a little, but I don`t see them dropping beneath the acceptable level of performance--about a 17 rating. Which `The Colbys` is just about making. Perhaps they chose to spin it off at an inopportune time--`Dynasty ‘itself was struggling--and they also put it against `Cheers` and `Simon & Simon.`

    ''`Knots Landing` is the show that`s really holding up strong. The characters are right out of middle-class America and are a little more believable than those in the bigger-than-life fantasies. `Dynasty,` with the whole Moldavian thing, may have stretched the fantasy a little too far, and the readjustment of the whole protagonist-antagonist relationship on `Dallas` since the death of Bobby Ewing is perhaps its particular problem. There really hasn`t emerged a counterpart to J.R. with the power of Bobby, which is critical to the show. `Falcon Crest,` from the qualitative point of view, probably has gotten inherently stronger this season. And it`s lost only two rating points since last year despite being up against `Miami Vice.''`

    As for new night-time soaps, none is on drawing boards for the fall season. ''You have to look at where you`d put one,'' Poltrack says. ''Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights are covered, people don`t stay home every Saturday night and on Sundays and Mondays you have an established pattern of mini-series and major films that pull people away. For example, when CBS had `Emerald Point N.A.S.` on Monday nights, NBC had one big movie after another. So, Tuesday is the only night that has the potential.''

    ''There`s definitely a prejudice against this type of show,'' adds Hamner. ''At this point, I wouldn`t take one to the networks.''
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  2. TJames03

    TJames03 Soap Chat Addict

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    Totally correct. '85-'86 was the end of the line for the nighttime soaps....
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  3. Daniel Avery

    Daniel Avery Super Moderator Staff Member

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    I think it was the competition--skilled counter-programming--that caused the decline more than a loss of viewer interest. It was most obvious with Falcon Crest versus Miami Vice (having lived through the era and seeing Don Johnson on the cover of every magazine). The press loves to report on the "new, shiny thing" to the exclusion of last week's new, shiny thing. CBS foolishly moved Knots Landing up an hour to compete directly with both The Colbys when it premiered, which had the unintended consequence of a chunk of viewers choosing Cheers (on NBC) instead. When KL was on at 10pm, the viewer had not been forced to choose between KL or Cheers. CBS saw their error and moved KL back to 10pm, but by then some viewers had fallen out of the habit of watching. They had indeed wounded The Colbys in its infancy, but they also hurt themselves and helped the competition.

    I wonder how the perspective of the authors would have changed had they known they were smack-dab in the middle of the Dallas Dream Season. Much ink was spilled about the Moldavia mis-adventure, but I think the Dream Season did more to alienate viewers from the nighttime soap genre than Moldavia did.
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2019
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  4. Snarky's Ghost

    Snarky's Ghost Soap Chat Oracle

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    The return of sitcoms' popularity in the mid-'80s was a real thing, but the crash of the wealth-based nighttime soap genre was resonate and self-induced.

    There was an effectively grim finality to the mood of the cliffhangers in the Spring of 1985: Bobby's death, the Moldavian massacre, the return of Val's babies... and they felt as if they could have ended right there (and perhaps they should have, although I would have sorely missed S10, per DVD count, of DALLAS and Season 9 of DYNASTY, and the next five years of KNOTS as they singularly maintained quality).

    But, wow, these shows just fell apart post-Spring 1985. They stopped being character dramas after a while, and just started trying to "impress" viewers in some superficial way and to "fake it" somehow.

    What a painful, unnecessary slide it was. But once these shows seemed to lose their identities, their sense of self, their momentum into the dung heap couldn't be slowed.
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2019
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