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Walt Willey Media > What Soap Operas Teach Us About Online Business Models

10 Mar 2013


What Soap Operas Teach Us About Online Business Models

Commentary By Sam Ford

Walt Willey (left) and Susan Lucci in a scene from ABC Daytime’s ‘All My Children.’

Many have called the demise of multiple U.S. daytime soap operas the end of an age, whether of the time in which women watched a full daytime TV lineup while they did housework, or of the dominance of a few broadcast networks in deciding entertainment options during the day, or of the soap as a prevalent TV genre.

But I’d argue the struggle of the U.S. soap is symbolic of the end of another era, too: the age of “stickiness.”

Stickiness refers to a model where content is put in a centralized, uniform location to which audiences are driven. Success is measured by how many individuals come, their demographics, and how long they stay. Stickiness has been the dominant way success is measured online. And, if that logic sounds familiar, it should. It’s how success is measured in the broadcast world, where mass audiences are similarly gathered and measured.

It’s not that surprising that entertainment companies would largely recreate models that adhere to their traditional logic when they came online. It’s the same impulse that led to the first cars being called “horseless carriages” and the first cell phones to resemble landline phones. To reduce uncertainty, online distribution is treated like traditional distribution: if you build it, they will come, and you should find as many ways to measure them as possible when they get there.

This way of thinking harkens back to the origins of broadcasting, and of the soap opera, as a vehicle for selling soap. The story draws individuals, and companies market to this “captive” audience. Meanwhile, the content isn’t valued beyond its ability to draw audiences to that one location. (That’s why episodes were rarely archived.)

This model seems especially restrictive in an era of spreadability, though. As my co-authors and I describe it in “Spreadable Media,” the logic of spreadability focuses on content being available in multiple locations, and on communities of audiences who have a diverse range of experiences with that material. Spreadability emphasizes audiences actively engaging with and sharing media texts.

In such an environment, the idea of locking content down and encouraging audiences to passively wander through a corral when they get there is counterintuitive. Instead, the soap company wants its audiences to engage with, react to, and share content they find useful, and the material is seen as having the potential to accrue value and meaning through its travels.

Entertainment producers who are focused on building new business models for the digital age should take note of the soap opera’s struggle. As for the soaps in particular, we will watch closely the model new indie soaps are taking in building new circulation models alongside efforts in 2013 to take staple daytime dramas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” into online distribution. Perhaps the soaps will find a way to value their spreadability, too.

Overall, the media industries must be careful that, by over-emphasizing stickiness and neglecting to seek ways to value spreadability, they don’t doom themselves to build new approaches to new media forms on outdated broadcast mentalities…lest we squander what could be by trying to make it conform to what was.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture,” (NYU Press). Sam can be found on Twitter @Sam_Ford.