MEDIA: Should we call time on the soaps’ TV takeover?

Although audiences for all sorts of media - newspapers, TV, magazines - melt away in high summer, it is a fact that the most popular soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street buck the trend and hardly dip at all.

Although audiences for all sorts of media - newspapers, TV, magazines -

melt away in high summer, it is a fact that the most popular soaps such

as EastEnders and Coronation Street buck the trend and hardly dip at

all.



Their famed ability to get people, above all women, to come in from the

garden and switch on is something so highly valued by schedulers and

advertisers in today’s competitive market that all the channels have

decided to ramp up output. British TV is poised to get very soapy

indeed.



Even the new controller of BBC 2, Mark Thompson may be seeking the

channel’s first one to add an ingredient which eluded his illustrious

predecessors, and belatedly bring it into some king of parity with

Channel 4. Channel 4 is pushing up its teenage soap Hollyoaks to two

episodes a week in September and allowing Brookside two special weeks

when it is stripped five nights a week.



Coronation Street is moving permanently to four episodes from November

to the dismay of its pressurised and somewhat middle-aged cast.

Emmerdale, ITV’s ratings sensation of this year, regularly bringing

rural Yorkshire to 13 million and devastating BBC1 at 7 pm, will add a

third episode on Wednesdays, just as soon as its new set of a village

has been constructed.



The new Channel 5 will have a stripped nightly soap at 6.30 pm, when

everyone else is running regional news. Only the BBC, which added a

third episode of EastEnders two years ago, claims to be standing aloof,

although it is currently running an extra fourth episode of EastEnders

during the Olympics, for those who hate sport. It also has several soap

treatments in development since abandoning Eldorado in 1993 and the flop

of Castles last year.



If soaps are what most people want, should we be concerned at their

creeping takeover of the schedule, especially when neither EastEnders or

Coronation Street have suffered in quality from increased output in the

past? I’d say emphatically yes. Variety in prime evening viewing is a

treasure and should be preserved if British TV is to remain healthy in

the long run. For the key thing about ‘long form dramas’ as the experts

call them, is that they go on and on. They permanently colonise neat

little half hours which could be used for something else. They reduce

diversity.



The worst scenario is adding extra episodes of successful soaps,

especially on a Sunday: a sad demonstration of safety first. Schedulers

prefer to go with a tried and tested product rather than develop

something fresh which might be great or just might flop. The Independent

Television Commission’s recent programme review pointed to the dangers

of derivative, predictable programmes. Well it’s getting much worse.

Even soap addicts need to face the facts.



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