Is the sun setting on daytime programming?

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Related: NATAS might have questions of identity, but there's clearly no crisis in its confidence department

The Daytime Emmys will make history this year, but not necessarily the kind of history anyone wants: For the first time in 36 years, the awards ceremony will not appear on one of the Big Three broadcast television networks.

Call it the culmination of a gradual weaning process; while the three old-school networks once traded off airings of the show, NBC stepped back entirely in 2004 and left the trade to ABC and CBS. This year, CBS declined to participate.

"It was an economic decision," explains Barbara Bloom, CBS Entertainment's senior vp daytime programs. "Ratings dropped on the awards show -- as they have on most awards shows -- and at a certain point you're looking at what the purpose is of doing it."


"The Young and the Restless"
 
Bad news for NATAS -- which is itself retrenching (see sidebar) -- but a bad sign for daytime in general. The leeching of viewers from primetime is an oft-discussed topic, but little real attention has been paid to the slow degradation of daypart numbers. According to Nielsen (parent company of The Hollywood Reporter), the highest-rated network program in the daypart hours is CBS' "The Young and the Restless," which has held that spot for more than 20 years. But those ratings can't match the numbers generated by the top five syndicated daypart shows, which include "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Judge Judy" and reruns of "Two and a Half Men."

And none of those shows -- network or syndicated -- breaks out of the mid- to low-single digits.

The soap, game, talk and judge show hodgepodge of hours once provided enough income to support primetime programming, but that crazy quilt has been fraying for at least a decade. Women in the workplace and the ascendancy of cable television original programming sent daytime ratings on a slow, inevitable tumble -- and network executives clinging to a shrinking piece of territory.

So is daytime dead? Not yet, says Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at New York's Paley Center. But it's not healthy.

"Daytime pioneered so much, but so much of its uniqueness has been incorporated by other services," he says. "The whole idea of dayparts is evaporating quickly. The question is, do you have to totally rethink things?"

Currently, each of the major daypart-concerned networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- all operate on different concepts of what daytime should be. CBS, the unquestioned king of the road for years, exercises a careful, traditional strategy: It sticks with what works, and spackles over cracks in the foundation.

Not that there are many: CBS daytime is primarily comprised of "The Price Is Right," which earns numbers second only to "Y&R," despite the 2007 change in leadership, when Bob Barker traded microphones with Drew Carey. Along with "Price" is a block of soaps: "Y&R," "The Bold and the Beautiful," "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns." The last original show launched in CBS daytime, Bloom says, was "Bold" -- and that was 22 years ago.

But, she notes, "I don't believe any one of them is mired in the past. We constantly work creatively and collaboratively with our studio partners to keep these shows engaging and relevant for their audiences. That's validated by their success."

"Relevance" is a key concept at each network, which has led to tweaks at CBS with its two TeleNext Media-produced shows, "Guiding Light" and "World." Those shows have a particularly strong Internet component; "Light" has been experimenting with resembling a reality show in terms of cinematography and storytelling.



But the audience demographics for these shows (as with all top 10 network daypart programs) are highest in the 25-54 slot. When it comes to the 18-34 demos throughout the daytime hours, the top slots are held by news programs, comedy/talk shows and telenovelas on Spanish-language channel Univision. Univision might pull in smaller overall ratings -- but the numbers of demo-rich viewers make for strong competition with their English counterparts.

Bloom understands that what has been a two-decade hold on the top slots is no guarantee of future success. "The reality of anyone working in television right now is that nothing is a given," she says. "We are constantly analyzing how do we maintain our lion's share in the future."


ABC’s "The View"
 
ABC owns fewer spaces in the top dayparts, but in many ways has proved more eager to try out new and innovative forms of 360-degree marketing with its programming. The network has its own soap block ("All My Children," "General Hospital" and "One Life to Life") -- and an ace in the hole with gabfest "The View."

According to Brian Frons, president of daytime at Disney/ABC Television Group, "View" is up 19% in the ratings season-to-date, and 7% with women 18-49. (Nielsen puts "View" ratings largely in the No. 3 spot after "Y&R" and "Price," though it jockeys with other soaps for nongender-specific demo position.)

"('The View') panel has really come into its own," says Frons, who, like other network executives points to the importance of programming to women to secure those ratings. "Women are still the target group. We are very female-driven, and we are in an optimistic, empowering place."

That gender identification helps elsewhere on the network's schedule, he adds. "ABC primetime is very female-driven, and we provide a good promotional base to reach women, who are very heavy consumers of ABC primetime."

One factor that has assisted ABC with keeping viewers tuned in is the way it has branched out. The Disney-owned SoapNet channel (which does air non-ABC soaps) has done what no other network could: Created a space for soap reruns. According to Frons, 27% of the total viewers of a soap view it on SoapNet.

Of course, ABC/Disney also owns other cable channels, some of which provide programming that could compete with the broadcast channel's shows. But, notes Frons, "The entertainment company has accepted that reality; it's the point of view of 'eat your lunch or someone else will eat it.' "

Elsewhere, ABC's daypart strategy sends tentacles into mobile content and webisodes. "It's important to drive as many revenue streams as you can," Frons says.

Which comes back to that concept of "relevancy" -- daytime programming has to keep moving forward, like a shark -- or it risks dying. "The ability to grow and change," Frons says, "is the key to survival."




"The Today Show"
 
NBC, on the other hand, has spent the past decade or so practicing a steady disengagement from the daypart business altogether. The network's daytime schedule is made up of just one soap opera (the comfortably rated "Days of Our Lives") and "The Today Show" spillover past the 10 a.m. hour.

It's a small enough schedule that NBC's daypart head has a title that doesn't even include the word "daytime" and a job that allows him to oversee such major primetime programs as "Heroes" and "Medium."

" 'Days' is daytime for us," says Bruce Evans, NBC's senior vp drama programming, adding that the network's sole soap is up 4% in viewership from last year. "That's the one show we have a marker for. My job right now is to keep it on as long as I can. I don't want it going down on my watch."

The rest of that large block of hours -- Nielsen defines "daytime" as the hours between 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; NATAS prefers the block between 2 a.m.-6 p.m. (in some cases 8 p.m.) -- on the Peacock is all locally programmed with syndicated shows and reruns.

Like it or not, that might be the most survivable strategy of all. Nearly every one of the top-rated network shows airs between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., but after 4 p.m. syndicated shows regularly bring in equal-to or better numbers than their network-sponsored competitors.

While many networks are happy tinkering with their daytime programming, a complete revamp appears to be out of the question, as is taking back some of those locally available hours for original network programming.

Asked if that might be an option, Evans says he hasn't been asked to go find more programming to compete with "Days," Bloom insists that's a decision that would have to be made "further up on the food chain," while Frons explains, "once the network gives up those time periods, they're gone. I've never had a station calling me to say, 'Would you mind doing more programming?' "

Those answers might be all that needs to be said about the path daytime is currently on. Cable shows eat up audience share; much of that needed audience is in the workplace (higher-than-usual unemployment figures have yet to show a ratings uptick in any time slot) and networks believe they're doing just fine as they are -- even if they're holding on by their fingertips. It's not quite sunset in the world of daytime, but a once-constant light is dimming.

"The irony is that daytime is being defeated by smaller networks and daytime's old standby -- reruns," says the Paley Center's Simon. "Right now, all of broadcast media is in a reactive mode. Whether it can be proactive in creating certain new programming forms -- that's the major question. That's a real interesting question."
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