What Women Don’t Want? Soap Operas

At the start of the 2003-04 fall TV season, the question the networks desperately needed to answer was, Where did all the young male viewers go in prime time? It was a quandry that dogged buyers, sellers and put Nielsen on the defensive. This year, it looks like women will be media buying’s big soap opera.

Four weeks into this new fall season, the question is, Where did all the female daytime viewers go? So far, among the three biggest networks, the women 25-54 demographic is down a cumulative 9 percent—13 percent at ABC, 10 percent at CBS and 5 percent at NBC.

Season to date, daytime ratings on the Big Three networks are down a cumulative 13 percent in the daypart’s key demographic, women 18-49, spurring concern among advertisers and media agencies who need to target that audience. ABC, CBS and NBC daytime programming has lost a total of 1.2 million viewers in the daypart, compared with the same period in 2003. Ratings are also down 16 percent among women 18-34, and CBS and ABC are showing double-digit ratings declines among women 25-54, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

“I do not recall seeing these high levels of ratings decreases in daytime across all the networks at the same time,” said Lyle Schwartz, svp and director of media research at WPP Group’s Mediaedge:cia. “If these levels of audience declines continue to go forward, the networks are going to have problems meeting certain advertiser needs. There are advertisers who are going to want their makegoods in the fourth quarter, and not wait till next year. If too many advertisers want their makegoods early, it could create problems for the networks.”

The pain is spread evenly, as well. Every network daytime soap opera is down in the ratings. Among the biggest decliners in women 18-49 ratings are ABC’s One Life to Live, down 23 percent to a 1.7, and General Hospital, down 20 percent to a 2.0; CBS’ The Bold and the Beautiful, down 20 percent to a 1.6, Guiding Light, down 19 percent to a 1.3, and As the World Turns, down 18 percent to a 1.4; and NBC’s Passions, down 16 percent to a 1.6. Even CBS’ top-rated soap, The Young and the Restless, is down 12 percent among women 18-49 to a 2.3, as is NBC’s highest-rated soap, Days of Our Lives, down 12 percent to a 2.2 in the demo.

Another media buyer, who asked not to be named, pointed out that NBC—with only two soaps, compared with four on ABC and four on CBS—will have fewer places to offer immediate makegoods and might have to shift advertisers into other dayparts such as prime time. Also, if the networks sold out 85 percent of their daytime ad inventory in the upfront—at $1 billion, it’s the second largest daypart next to prime time—and have to use the bulk of the remainder for makegoods, they could be out of sale in the daypart without having brought in any new dollars.

So where have all the women gone? Researchers are as puzzled about this new disappearance as they were with the mystery of last year’s missing men. Overall, daytime homes using television (HUT) levels are unchanged from last season. Ad-supported cable ratings are up only 6 percent in the demo. Ratings for pay cable, PBS and syndicated shows are fairly flat.

The one area that is surging among female viewers is independent TV stations, up 38 percent (although off a lower overall viewership base) to a 1.1 from a 0.8.

Concerned about the daytime falloff, Havas media agency MPG contacted Nielsen, which said 90 percent of the independent-station category is comprised of Spanish-language broadcast. But an MPG report on the situation stated, “While [Univision-owned network] Telefutura’s ratings have increased significantly in daytime to a 2.1 from a 1.3 among Hispanic women 18-34, Spanish-language networks overall were only up 2 percent in the NHTI sample, hardly sufficient to have such a dramatic effect on the ratings.”

Nielsen began weighting the sample for Spanish-language TV at the start of this season, but MPG does not believe that should affect ratings. “Based on demonstration data provided, the weighting should not have resulted in such significant changes,” said the report. Both Mediaedge:cia and MPG have asked Nielsen to further investigate the situation.