As Daytime Soaps Circle the Drain, Ad Buyers Weep Loudest

As networks shift to cheaper alternatives, advertisers fear the domination of game shows and syndicated talk

As daytime soaps move toward extinction, it's not just restless housewives and the unemployed who suffer — it's advertisers, who prefer soaps to the game and talk shows that are replacing them.

Though the alternatives are cheaper and easier for networks to produce, media buyers tell TheWrap that soaps are still one of the most cost-effective buys on broadcast television.

"They are even more efficient than much of daytime cable programming," one ad buyer said. "I would be disappointed if all of the soap operas disappeared."

There's plenty of evidence that those sands are running out of the hourglass — and fast.

When CBS' "As the World Turns" airs its final episode this September, the Big Three broadcast networks will be down to six daily daytime soaps.

That's two less than two years ago, four less than in 2000 — and 11 less than in the heyday of soaps during the 1969-70 season.

And on Thursday, it was reported that ABC Daytime is seeking a waiver from the Writers Guild of America that would allow to trim up to 20 original episodes from each of its three soaps and replace them with repeats.

Broadcast network executives tell TheWrap that changing viewer tastes and escalating costs are conspiring against the genre.

"We're not prepared to say soaps are becoming extinct yet," one executive said, "but we are definitely less soap-centric."

When CBS took "Guiding Light" off last fall, "Let's Make a Deal" replaced it. "Guiding Light" was averaging 1.7 million viewers in the hour, while two half-hours of "Deal" has averaged about 200,000 viewers more. Clearly, it's cheaper for the network to produce the game show, but that additional 200,000 viewers is not bringing in a ton more money from advertising.

And media buyers aren't enthralled with game shows as replacements.

"If they are replacing a soap opera, a talk show like 'The View' or some other type of genre would be better than a game show," one media buyer told TheWrap.

Losing viewers or not, from the advertisers' point of view, the six soaps combined still reach 14.6 million viewers per day, and that's a sizable number that they can still buy at reasonable rates. And "Young and the Restless" reaches 1.1 million women 18-49 each day, the largest number of women in that demo of any of the soaps.

But losing viewers they are. Of the six remaining soaps, the highest-rated is CBS' "Young and the Restless" with a 3.6 for live and same-day, which includes DVR-recorded viewing within the first 24 hours.

If you take away DVR viewing, that rating falls to a 3.2, and that would rank it only 8th among the 10 soaps that were on the networks in 2000, when DVRs were not included in ratings measurement.

"Young and the Restless" had a household rating of 5.8 during the 2000-2001 season. But you don't have to go back 10 years for comparisons to show how steadily soap viewing continues to drop.

Of the six soap operas that will remain when "As the World Turns" leaves in September, the number of viewers lost over the past three seasons has cumulatively been 2.5 million, or 15 percent, of their total viewership, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

And while a person inside CBS told TheWrap that both surviving soaps "Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" are safe for now, the latter has lost 400,000 viewers since 2008, similar to "As the World Turns" did before it was canceled.

NBC only has one soap left, "Days of Our Lives," but its has been one of the most stabile, averaging the same live, plus same-day number of viewers, 2.3 million, for the past three seasons, Nielsen data shows. But "Days" has also aged up significantly over the past three seasons, going from a median age of 50.5 to 56.7.

ABC's "General Hospital" has the youngest median age viewer at 52.3, while CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" has the oldest at 59.5.

But before you gasp at the older median age for soaps, consider that "Let's Make a Deal," CBS' replacement for "Guiding Light," has a median age viewer of 58 — more than a year older than the media age "Guiding Light" viewer.

And the media age viewer of CBS' "Price is Right," which airs at 11 and 11:30 a.m. among the soaps, has a median age of 63. ABC's popular late morning talk show, "The View," has a median age of about 60.

CBS has not yet announced what it will replace "As the World Turns" with this fall, but it has greenlit pilots for a cooking competition show hosted by Emeril Lagasse, a talk show hosted by Rove McManus and Valerie Bertinelli, along with a couple of game shows.

So whatever the network selects will clearly target female audiences. How it prices the replacement show will determine to what level advertisers buy in.

"The loss of soap operas is just something we have to deal with," one ad buyer told TheWrap. "There are still a lot of alternatives in daytime and there are a lot of places to reach women. We've come to terms with the realities of economics. We get it and we just have to plan around it."