20 March, 2014

The days of our soaps

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 20, 2014

Will Marlena air a sex tape in church to expose Kristen? Will Sami kill Nick so as to save Gabi's life? Don't worry, you won't miss out on these compelling questions when you tune once more to Days Of Our Lives.

Yes, despite its rude expulsion by Channel Nine last year, after 45 years of loyal pain and anguish, Days is back, rescued by Foxtel. Ten special episodes have been cut together to bring loyal fans up to date, and then they will run episodes the same day as in the US - so their world-wide network of devotees can email and tweet their discussions of events just passed.

Purple-prose dramas are the bedrock of the broadcast industry, going right back to Chicago radio in 1930. Then, they quickly became the housewife's afternoon staple, encouraging a continuing flood of detergent and floor polish advertisements that has never abated. Hence the title "soap operas".

In Australia the same pattern was followed, with Big Sister from 1942 and of course Blue Hills, from 1949-76.

Soaps have great advantages for networks. They are cheap to make, help to top up the local content percentages, and fill those long afternoon and evening hours in the programming. As an ad schedule they are much lower cost, and often more effective, than prime time.

While imports like Days and The Young and the Restless have their devoted following, it is the local programmes that have built the big ratings numbers.

From the 80s, shows like Neighbours and Home and Away caught the youngsters arriving home from school or work. This, in turn, locked Dad and Mum into the channel up to the evening news, and the belief in television is that once they are on the channel for the news, they will probably stay there for the rest of the night. So it is an important move in the chess game of TV ratings.

Soap operas have been so successful that they have turned into profit centres themselves. Neighbours sells into over 50 countries and many times has protected its long life by becoming more popular in its export markets than it is at home. In the UK it became the highest-viewed afternoon TV program outside of the News.

In 2008 it moved from the BBC after 22 years, to Channel 5, reputedly because Aunty would not agree to a fee of 300 million pounds. Now that's a useful addition to any station's budget bottom line.

But the soaps do a great deal more than earn coin in the markets they have conquered. Shows like Neighbours and Home are daily 20-minute commercials for Australia. The overall impression they leave is a country that's sunny, young and sexy.

No-one will ever calculate how much that's worth in terms of trade and goodwill, but every day the arriving Pommie tourists make a bee-line for Pin Oak Court, Vermont, to see the real Ramsay Street.

If we're talking about exports enriching Australia, we can't overlook some of the greatest creative wealth to come out of soap. Like Kylie, Jason, Russell, Guy, Delta and now Margot - they don't even need surnames any more, world-wide. When they eventually come home to retire, they'll help to balance the national debt.

As well as a training ground for young actors, soaps also provide the work expertise for directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, film studios - our movie industry.

So though imports like Days and The Young and the Restless have their avid fans, the local soaps are fiercely supported. This is one branch of industry we don't fear will be retrenched.

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