Media Analysis: TV soaps and the media machine

BBC flagship soap EastEnders' ratings have slumped to an all-time low, while ITV's Coronation Street and Emmerdale are on the crest of a wave. Ian Hall asks how soap PROs use the media to get people to tune in.

When it comes to producing storylines to excite the media, the material dreamt up by scriptwriters from Walford to Weatherfield is 'PR-able' in the extreme. And with rising interest in soaps and Britain's celebrity obsession raging, the shows' publicists have their work cut out to satisfy journalists' desire for exclusive storyline titbits.

Each of the main soaps, such as EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Family Affairs, are promoted by between two and four publicists.

The BBC's flagship soap has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late - last month the show recorded its lowest ratings (just over six million viewers) in its 19-year run. This slump has followed revelations of cast members' real-life misdemeanors that have put the show's storylines to shame. From Jessie Wallace's (Kat Slater) rocky love-life to Leslie Grantham's (Dirty Den) webcam sex sessions, the red-tops have been having a field-day.

Soaps' popularity cyclical

EastEnders' current malaise contrasts with the continued success of ITV's Coronation Street and the resurgent Emmerdale. Each soap's popularity tends to be cyclical in nature, though, and most acknowledge that it's only a matter of time before it bounces back.

EastEnders senior publicist Sharon Hanley illustrates the difficulty she has in planning PR 'strategy' - for example, promoting one cast member if they have a good storyline coming up - due to the celebrification of the stars.

Coronation Street publicist Alison Sinclair says the emergence of the 'culture of celebrity' has been the biggest change during her 11 years in the job.

Hanley says her team gets 'annoyed' by the presence of paparazzi on Borehamwood High Street (round the corner from where the soap is filmed) as 'we often want to pull them (cast members) back (from publicity) - but we can't'.

The proliferation in soap coverage has made PR for the top soaps tougher, argue both Hanley and Sinclair.

'It used to be just Hello! and OK! - now there's Now, Hot Stars and the rest of them. But there's only so much (storyline) news to go round,' says Hanley.

Emmerdale publicist Hannah South points out that making cast members available for interviews has become more difficult since the show doubled its number of weekly episodes.

Much of each soap's PR involves, for example, telling TV-listings magazines about storylines six weeks in advance.

Pictures are sent out around a week before transmission - the aim, says Sinclair in the context of Coronation Street, is to 'hook in the two to three million viewers who dip in and out of the show'.

Glossy monthlies are targeted around four months in advance: for example, Kate Ford, who plays Coronation Street's Tracy Barlow, will be 'key' to storylines next year, so Sinclair is already targeting magazines such as New Woman with feature ideas. Similarly, Hanley is planning for EastEnders' 20th anniversary next February.

But proactive PR is far from the sole occupation of soap publicists - they are frequently on the backfoot, too.

Hanley says EastEnders has a 'constant' problem with storyline leaks and Sinclair reveals Coronation Street suffers around one leak per month - some soon after story conference, when the 30 people who devise the show meet every three weeks. A leak, says Sinclair, would normally be 'a long time in advance' and have 'no inherent publicity value' - they 'destroy the flow of a storyline' and so she would try and 'do a deal' with a journalist to hold off.

The Sun TV editor Emily Smith says: '(Publicists) don't want us to blow the storyline and usually we won't give the full outcome - readers complain if we do.' South adds, if there's a leak on Emmerdale: 'We will often offer exclusive pictures or suggest an alternative story.'

Ali Cowe, who promotes Five show Family Affairs, points out that whereas publicists for the major soaps have a role trying to 'stop and control' publicity, her show - which attracts 1.25 million viewers - has a tougher battle to secure coverage: 'For the big soaps, the storyline is enough (to win column inches). For the lesser-known shows, the strategic side is more important, such as how producers are doing things differently.'

Family Affairs garnered coverage earlier this year courtesy of a producer-led innovation that saw viewers vote on 'who got the man' in a love-triangle.

Publicists even get the chance to influence the plots. Cowe adds: 'We have regular meetings with higher-up people and advise on storylines.

Producers understand the shows need publicity.'

Indeed they do. And the media's appetite for storylines and stars will keep the publicists working overtime.

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