Why is a show so hot such a Nielsen Ratings flop ?

 By Michael Logan, Soap Opera Digest, 1989

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To the casual eye, nobody does it better than sassy, classy Santa Barbara. Winning the 1988 Emmy for Outstanding Daytime Drama, as well receiving thirteen nominations this year (the most of any daytime show), is a spectacular achievement considering the soaps embarrassingly shaky start a mere five years ago. Santa Barbara is envied for its nervy blend of romance, derring-do and satire, all seductively swathed in lush, movie-quality production values. No other soap has consistently lured such top-flight talent or mounted such an aggressive, expensive publicity campaign. And no other soap - save Days of our Lives - can boast such a zealous legion of letter-writing, fan club-joining followers. Internationally, it is a smash - often outranking such popular American products as Dallas and Dynasty. But, on the home front, just one look at the all-important Nielsen ratings - where the show has never been anything but a gutter ball - will reveal the surprising truth. Despite all efforts to the contrary, Santa Barbara is a certifiable flop.

To some, the reason is obvious. "We call its time slot the Death Zone," reveals Bridget Dobson, Santa Barbara's dethroned executive producer who, along with husband Jerome, created the sun-drenched sudser in 1984. Ironically, Santa Barbara competes with two long-running serials that are close to her heart : the still-rugged Guiding Light, which the Dobsons, as head writers turned from a dinosaur to a contemporary hit in 1975; and General Hospital, ABC's ace-in-the-hole created by her parents Frank and Doris Hursley.

Cumulatively, such competition constitutes sixty-three years of viewer loyalty and, against it, her own brainchild stagnates - especially with the not-widely-watched Another World as its lead-in. As we went to press, Santa Barbara's current Nielsen status revealed a 4.4 rating and a 14 share (each ratings point represents 904.000 households, while the share represents the percentage of all TV sets in use which are tuned to Santa Barbara), a level at which, for the past several months, it sadly seems to have stabilized. As shares go, the soap has sunk as low as 8 in its rockiest weeks and, on only the rarest of occasions, scored as high as 17. Compare this to Guiding Light's share (low '20s) and General Hospital's (high 20's) and the picture isn't bright. "No matter what we do or how many awards we win, the time slot is a wall that's, in many ways, insurmountable," believes Chuck Pratt, Jr., the show's head writer.

The sentiment that viewers would rather fight than switch is echoed by actress Nancy Grahn (Julia) : "Daytime audiences resist what's new. They don't like change. To them, tuning into your favorite soap is like slipping into your warm, snuggly, cozy bed slippers. It's comfortable - and viewers have to get uncomfortable with one show before they make the switch to another." That being the case, just how long will NBC and New World Television, the production company which owns Santa Barbara hand in there ? "As far as I'm concerned, General Hospital has always owned the time slot," says Santa Barbara's current executive producer, Jill Farren Phelps. "NBC has put many things up against it, but Santa Barbara is the only show that seems to have stuck." Adds Bridget Dobson, "The very fact that it's hard to start a show in that time slot also means it's hard to replace one. You'll wind up with the same low share Santa Barbara started with. I would think that to make a switch - be it to another soap or a game show or whatever - would doom the network to five years of even lower ratings." And Jon Feltheimer, president of New World Television, believes, "Soap historically take a long time to build an audience. We have great producers, great writers and great actors on Santa Barbara. We are sure to find a great audience as well." Concurs Justin Pierce, New World's director of TV publicity, "We have tremendous belief in the show and l believe NBC looks at it fondly too. We have a firm resolve to keep it on the air and to back it as much as we can. Even if it's not possible, within the next two to three years take the time slot, we believe it is realistic to come in a strong second."

ln the meantime, however, managers at some local NBC affiliate stations don't like Santa Barbara's paltry numbers and have exercised their right to relegate the show to odd hours, or not air it at all. "ln some parts of the country," says Jed Allan (C.C.), "we're on at nine o'clock in the morning - and how the hell can you win at that hour ?" One affiliate - WXFL in Tampa, Florida - dropped the soap altogether and replaced it with episodes of the old Jim Garner series, The Rockford Files. After several months, the picketing of irate fans, coupled with a bombardment of hate mail, resulted in a reversal of the decision - but, if the future doesn't get rosier more disgruntled affiliates may resort to the same drastic measure. Creating a vicious cycle, this would only send the ratings spiraling further downroad.

The overwhelming viewer disinterest sure can't be blamed on lack of publicity, though. Santa Barbara remains the only soap on the air that employs an in-house press/PR coordinator, Mary Andersen, and one of the few which has an independent, out-of-house publicist, Deborah Kelman. The joint effort has resulted in an extremely high profile for the show. "We have the image of a hit," says Robin Mattson (Gina). "It's written about (in the press) that way, people talk about it that way and because of the Emmy, people assume it's high-rated."

Sparing no expense, NBC and New World frequently and lavishly wine and dine the press with anniversary parties, Christmas parties and Emmy parties (so thrilled is New World about Santa Barbara's numerous nominations. It has flown even non-nominated actors to New York for pre-award soirées). With press whiz Andersen at the helm, a recent part menu included lemon veal, broiled salmon, sushi and pasta bars, and, of course, non-stop cocktails - while other soaps, it they entertain the press at all make do with cheese and crackers.

A bit of bribery ? New World's Justin Pierce responds, "There are no solid results from the parties we give. Yes, we like the members of the press to feel they are treated a little more specially, but we just consider it a gesture of good will. If the show wasn't of a high quality level, it wouldn't matter how many parties we threw." And, though the media has, in fact, given extensive support to Santa Barbara the boost hasn't sent it soaring into the Nielsen stratosphere. Continues Pierce, "All publicity can do is make more and more non-viewers aware of Santa Barbara and continue the interest of the people already watching it." Should the show's diagnosis reverse, he maintains that New World would still continue to cough up the promotional bucks, noting, "Once you get an audience, you have to work just as hard to sustain it."

Naturally, there are those who don't trust the accuracy of the ratings. According to Penn & Schoen Associates's 1989 survey on the lifestyles and opinions of soap opera stars, Santa Barbara ranked second amongst actors who watch soaps other than their own. And according to Grahn, "We are the hot show in the high schools and the colleges. The kids go crazy for it, yet none of those TV sets in the dorms or the VCR's at home are counted in the Nielsens." Adds Mary Andersen, "It doesn't make sense. We get tons of mail. I went to visit a friend in the hospital and every single TV set was tuned to Santa Barbara. Anyway, l have a theory that the Nielsen boxes are all owned by lame-o's."

Though viewers, if we are to believe the Nielsens, are small in number, there's no doubt that they are loud of voice. Santa Barbara and its stars often place just behind the outrageously popular Days of our Lives in soap publication polls and, sometimes, fan power shows itself elsewhere - such as in Star magazine's nationwide poll of "The Sexiest Men and Women on Daytime TV," in which Nancy Grahn and A Martinez (Cruz) each placed in the top three, outranking dozens of steamy stars from ratings champs like General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, All my Children and One Life to Live.

Without a doubt, the performances of many Santa Barbara actors give loyalists something to shout about. The aforementioned Grahn, Martinez and Mattson, as well as Marcy Walker (Eden), Lane Davies (Mason), and the sorely-missed Justin Deas (ex-Keith), have given lead performances so sublime, they easily stack up to the best the tube has to offer - be it on daytime or prime time. But such excellence, alas, hasn't brought wider audiences and neither has familiarity. Many of the above were previously popular on high-rated soaps, as were other Santa Barbara performers, including Vincent Irizarry (Scott), Frank Runyeon (Michael), Louise Sorel (Augusta), Jed Allan, Judith McConnell (Sophia), Kristen Meadows (ex-Tori), Lenore Kasdorf (ex-Caroline) and Nicolas Coster (ex-Lionel). While the soap is to be applauded for enticing such mega-watt talent, there's no evidence that their former followers even noticed, much less cared. And though the luminous Robin Wright drew bravos as The Princess Bride while still playing Santa Barbara's Kelly Capwell, her movie fans didn't tune in to the soap in droves, either. One Santa Barbara staffer, preferring anonymity, says, "It doesn't matter that we have the best actors. Lately the story lines suck. You see the same thing day after day after day. I can see where viewers would be tempted to say, "Hey, let's check out what's happening on General Hospital"."

Is it possible that the incapacitating time slot isn't the only cause of Santa Barbara's Nielsen troubles ? Few can argue that, while many plot-lines have been nothing short of stellar, others have been stinky enough to draw flies. Such bad scripting, often made more noticeable because of certain mediocre casting choices, can lead to viewer turnoff, according to Chuck Pratt, Jr., who admits, "We writers call them "lump stories". It's where a whole bunch of characters - invariably played by the worst actors - get lumped together in a story. Even if some of the actors are good, they are still destroyed by the lousy plot. The story just sits there, dying a slow death, and every week at the story meetings we ask each other, "OK, what do we do with the lumps ?" The audience, however, watched this story "unfold" and winds on wondering, "What is this ?" Definitely not the way to impress viewers we already have, much less any new ones."

Pratt ponders the possibility that Santa Barbara's audience just might be a bit too left of mainstream. "Yes, we have a very loyal audience but it's also a very particular audience. We appeal to a yuppie group that doesn't come anywhere near to representing the whole country. They don't represent the vast majority of people living in urban centers in the Midwest and the South, which is where we are the weakest. We have to branch out to wider audiences - and not by changing the show, but by opening it up a bit with new characters that have wider appeal. Of course, nobody really knows what works and nobody trusts their instincts. I'm always being told, "Throw this in, throw that in," and often it's hard to make such suggestions work. Many times it's, "Put in a black family - that'll do it !" And I'll say, "How about we just put in a good character ?""

A Martinez also sees certain creative decisions as partly to blame. "We were approaching a bit of a ratings roll when Harley Kozak was let go," he recalls, referring to the actress who played ex-nun Mary DuVall and was fired by the Dobsons in 1986. "It took us eighteen months, if not longer, to get the same share we had the week her character was killed. Of course, I don't think this has any effect on who does and who doesn't watch today - but it's still a sobering statistic. I don't know why we're not drawing bigger numbers now but sometimes I do wonder if it has to do with the fact that we run so many characters through the show so quickly. Perhaps some actors have been let go prematurely, before they had a chance to catch on and build the audience."

Robin Mattson suspects quality might be the culprit. "Our show," she says, "has tried to portray certain subject matters. Eden's rape, for example, in a responsible manner - especially when compared to General Hospital, which had Luke rape Laura on the discotheque floor and then turned them into the romantic couple of the century. Even if that storyline perpetuated the myth that all women really want to be raped and that there's something loving and romantic and glamorous about it, it was hugely popular. The reality of the rape on Santa Barbara - with all its fear and grief and suffering - was possibly less pleasing and less entertaining to watch. Ours was a much better way to deal with the subject, but maybe it was more uncomfortable to see."

Though the serial frequently raises eyebrows for what it presents on screen (like a cross-dresser named Bunny), the much publicized behind-the-scenes legal squabbling between the Dobsons and New World have been just as controversial. To Jed Allan's way of thinking, this, too, has had an adverse effect. "When the show was at its peak, quality-wise, we also had our best ratings," he remembers. "The internal combustion occurred when we were at that point and it just knocked the pegs right out from under us. The writing got discombobulated and the viewers didn't know who was doing what to whom. That's what killed our momentum - and it's been very tough to get it back."

Whatever the cause, and whatever the outcome, panic isn't likely to set in. "I don't even think about being canceled," says Robin Mattson. "I figure that, since the show is so well distributed and is such a hit in foreign markets, somebody must be making good money somewhere." And, according to Jill Farren Phelps, "It's not likely we'll ever (write) plots with the ratings in mind. What you've seen, and will continue to see, is indigenous to the show and its style."

Chances are, Santa Barbara's hardcore enthusiasts are too riveted to panic. Says New World's Justin Pierce, "Millions of people love Santa Barbara. To them, it is a hit - and you're not going to tell them otherwise."