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CBS Keeps Up a Lather in Daytime

Television: Despite the network's woes elsewhere, a lineup dominated by soaps has helped it clean up in the ratings.

February 20, 1996|VERNE GAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This just may be among the strangest anomalies in all of television. For 363 weeks--that's just over 1,800 weekdays and just under seven years--CBS has had the top-rated daytime schedule in the land.

It is one of the great winning streaks in recent TV history--a feat to match NBC's long prime-time victory march in the '80s and CBS' own prime-time streak of the '70s.

But it is truly odd.

The reason is that this powerhouse schedule is on CBS. Isn't CBS supposed to be the "troubled" network--the one where late night, early morning and prime time have suffered recently? And isn't network daytime TV supposed to have its own peculiar troubles--buffeted by declining ratings, changing audience demographics and (when it aired) the O.J. Simpson trial?

It is. And CBS is happy to report that it couldn't care less. "People want to make [audience declines] into some sort of controversy," says Lucy Johnson, CBS' senior vice president of daytime programs and special projects. "But I don't think soaps ever went out of fashion."

CBS' long streak confounds the old "domino" theory of network programming, which says that when one key part of the schedule stumbles, others necessarily follow. But CBS' daytime lineup--led by "The Young and the Restless," the No. 1 daytime show, and "The Bold and the Beautiful," the No. 3 show--has actually gained strength in recent weeks.

In fact, for the first time in memory, the network is now leading in ratings among women ages 18 to 49. For years, this has been an ABC stronghold and the only rating advertisers pay much attention to.

The tale of the tape: Since the season began last September, CBS' daytime schedule--"Guiding Light," "The Price Is Right," "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "As the World Turns"--has a 5.5 rating and a 20 share (down slightly from the year before), compared to ABC's 4.0 rating and 14 share (down more than 11% from the year before). Each rating point represents 959,000 homes.

NBC is further back: Its average rating is 3.2 with a 12 share, although it has rebounded strongly from last summer, when Simpson trial coverage nearly devastated soap ratings. (NBC's ratings are up 14%.)

Since the beginning of this year, however, CBS' ratings have actually climbed 6% over the first two months of last year, while ABC's ratings have lagged behind 3% from a year ago. And the biggest conquest of all for CBS: It is leading ABC in young female ratings by one-tenth of a rating point. These figures are considered important because they reflect a period that was not affected by Simpson trial coverage. (According to ABC research sources, its ratings were hurt more than CBS' because its younger stable of viewers tended to watch trial coverage more than CBS' somewhat older viewers.)

If all of this is sounds like so much chest-thumping by CBS, it's worth noting that daytime TV shows are among the most profitable of all TV programs. To the leader go most of the riches. Industry sources say a top-rated show like "The Young and the Restless" grosses from $1.5 million to $2 million a week in advertising revenue, while profit margins regularly match or exceed 40%.

Observers attribute CBS' daytime success to two factors: a resolute willingness to leave well enough alone, and the Bell family dynasty--headed by Bill and Lee, who created CBS' two top soaps and have been affiliated with the network in different capacities for more than 40 years.

Indeed, the average age of CBS' daytime show is nearly 29 years old, with longevity champ "Guiding Light" on TV for 44 years.

"The basic philosophy in daytime has been and continues to be that you are successful if you don't have to change anything," says Johnson, who joined the network in 1987, shortly before the streak began. "This is not a day part where you try different things out. This is the original 'appointment television' and audience loyalty is almost more than you could imagine. They watch 52 weeks a year, over four generations. So you don't make arbitrary changes."

For this reason, changes have been glacial--but not unknown. A year ago, the Bells were asked to create another show to replace the fading "Guiding Light," sources say. But Procter & Gamble Co., which owns both this show and "As the World Turns," vigorously fought the change, and CBS relented. Johnson and P&G instead initiated a number of production changes on the show, which has seen ratings improve recently.

The Bells--including son Bradley, 31, who is head writer and executive producer of "The Bold and the Beautiful"--initiated some changes on both their programs too. As Johnson puts it, "We gave viewers what they asked for--more romance, more [prominence for] certain characters, and--depending on the show--a return to basics."

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