Burst bubbles

Three soap operas have been killed off in the past 12 months. Is the genre doomed? Not quite yet, reports Sam Conwy
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This has been a rough year for the soap opera. Brookside is dead, Night and Day is dead, Crossroads has died - for a second time. It's no wonder, perhaps, that Mal Young - as the BBC's controller of continuing drama, one of the most influential men in soap - is disturbed. The end of those three programmes, "sent out a message to broadcasters and programme-makers not to take anything for granted," he says. "It shook everyone up a bit."

Those still unsure about the mood in the industry ought perhaps to listen to ITV1's programming director Nigel Pickard, who used the occasion of his first interview after taking up the job to announce that ITV1 will not be replacing the two soaps - Night and Day and Crossroads - it cancelled this year. "I'm not looking for a new soap," he said. "There is a lot of evidence that our audience is soaped out."

Young is bringing Dirty Den back to EastEnders in September, in an attempt to remind audiences of the golden age of British soap opera. TV schedulers might not appreciate the reminder: when Den handed Angie divorce papers on Christmas Day in 1986, an incredible 30.1 million viewers were watching. These days, average audiences reach less than half that figure.

So is soap in crisis? Audiences are certainly on a downward trend, in line with the overall drift away from terrestrial TV onto other platforms or media. A decade ago, EastEnders pulled in an average 14 million viewers - a 66 per cent share - according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board. Its average for 2003 currently stands at around 12 million - a 54 per cent share, which it has maintained for the last five years. Coronation Street's average for 2003 is 13.8 million - a 56 per cent share, and higher than last year.

But in an environment where mass audiences are becoming rarer, these figures still represent huge numbers of families sitting round their televisions together. And soap opera is an extremely cost-efficient genre. Young says that to produce an hour of EastEnders costs around £200,000 - less than a third of the cost of other peak-time dramas.

Phil Redmond, chairman of Mersey TV and creator of Brookside and Hollyoaks, is, as one might expect, not much impressed by Pickard's analysis. "It's not the audiences that are soaped out but the broadcasters," he says. He blames Brookside's demise partly on the way Channel 4 shunted its flagship soap around the schedules to make space for cricket and Big Brother. "I always said it would be its death knell. Soaps need regularity and a fixed slot." ITV1 loses a couple of million viewers when Coronation Street is shifted from its habitual slot, to make way for live football, but it gets the support a flagship programme deserves. "Both the BBC and ITV know that real value comes from EastEnders and Coronation Street, and they never do anything to damage them," says Redmond.

But increased media choice and more sophisticated audiences mean that dramatists have to work harder to hold on to viewers, according to Young. "If a viewer isn't grabbed by the beginning of Casualty, they switch over," he says. "Audiences are more willing to go on tougher journeys now, as we found in EastEnders with the storyline about Kat Slater and sex abuse."

But push viewers too far towards extremes, and they will be reaching for the remote control, as Brookside learnt. "With a great storyline such as 'Who shot Phil?', there's the desire to top it with something even better," Young says. "But we knew we had to follow that story up with a domestic storyline, which we did."

Great writing is key, but soaps emerge rather than are born, he continues. "You can't sit around and say, 'Let's make a soap.' You come up with a great idea for a drama and if it's good enough you decide how many episodes you want. The good ones will hangaround. The weak ones will fall by the wayside. Soaps shouldn't be milked dry."

Redmond thinks the days of truly mass audiences are gone. Instead, soaps will be aimed at definite sections of the population, as his own Hollyoaks programme seeks to do. Targeted at the 16- to 24-year-old age group, it has a niche appeal that will be a template for soaps in the future, he believes. He is also working on plans to develop soaps for the fiftysomething audience.

But will niche programming mean an end to the mass advertising appeal of the genre? Chris Hayward, head of TV at Zenith Optimedia, which plans and buys media on behalf of advertisers such as Mars, does not think so. "As television continues to fragment they are consistent and reliable deliverers of audience," he says. "They are more and more important."

Indeed, John Whiston, director of drama, children's, features and arts at Granada, considers Coronation Street and Emmerdale the "cornerstones of the ITV schedule", and thinks that audiences will grow rather than decline. "Our ambition is to have the two biggest soaps on TV, in volume terms - Coronation Street and Emmerdale," he says. "There are two million people who currently watch Coronation Street who don't watch Emmerdale, and we have to convert them. To get that kind of mass audience, where the whole nation is on the edge of its seat, that kind of pulling power drives the rest of the schedule."

And Whiston believes the strategy for a successful soap is simple. "It's writing, writing, writing," he says. "Soap writers are the highest-paid writers on TV."