Is daytime TV in decline, or just getting ready for the next ‘big thing’?

Daytime soaps are dying and Oprah is leaving, sort of, so where is daytime TV headed? With changing demographics and women's evolving tastes, it's not yet clear where the next hit will come from.

Chris Pizzello/AP/File
Oprah Winfrey during the Discovery Communications Television Critics Association winter media tour in Pasadena, Calif. As The Oprah Winfrey Show winds down, where is daytime TV headed?

When nominations for the 38th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards came out Wednesday, there were no “gasp!”-level surprises amid the nods to shows in such durable daytime genres as talk shows, soap operas and children’s programming.

Everything from “The View,” Rachel Ray, and Dr. Phil to Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek, and Sesame Street was recognized.

The list was a snapshot of the daytime landscape as it is today, but it was released against a backdrop of big changes that leave a question mark in the minds of many.

With a dwindling number of soap operas on the air – TV’s oldest and most adaptable daytime format, down by two-thirds compared with a decade ago ­– and the May 25 departure of daytime talk show colossus, Oprah Winfrey, where is daytime television headed?

“This could be a great opportunity for a new genre or some new talent to emerge,” says Yahoo! TV Editor Matt Whitfield.

While he is not convinced that Ms. Winfrey will exit the daytime real estate for good – “It’s her strength, so why not keep playing to it?” ­– he points out there are a number of candidates jostling for daytime air.

Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, and “Real Housewives” alum Bethenny Frankel are among those being touted for reality or talk shows, he says. Broadcast networks are also beginning to treat the daytime hours as a second lap for content from their cable subsidiaries, he says. NBC already broadcasts reruns of “Real Housewives” episodes from Bravo, which it owns, he notes.

“Great shows happen by accident,” says Chris Auer, a former writer on “As the World Turns,” who now teaches media at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Back in the 1980s when Oprah first started, he says, “who could imagine she would become as powerful a media force as she has?” he asks. For a brief moment in that same decade, he says for instance, it looked as if David Letterman’s morning show might lift off and become a daytime hit, “but that didn’t happen,” he says.

Shifting demographics and changing tastes

The lesson of so many new ideas such as the chatty foodie Rachel Ray or the doctors such as Dr. Phil is “you never know. Sometimes the idea is so simple you just smack your head and say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”

Shifting daytime demographics and the proliferation of other entertainment options are largely driving the changes, points out author Susan Shapiro Barash.

“As the lives of women change, so does their taste and interest in television,” she says. “With more options for women today, there is a shape shift. Long gone are the days when stay-at-home mothers watched soaps as an escape, as a fantasy.

The Food Network isn’t about Ms. Homemaker but about food as art, as a creation, and about saving time in our fast-paced world,” she notes via email. The chefs themselves, as personalities, “are appealing, since celebrity culture in general is quite riveting for women these days.”

As Oprah departs, she says, we will have to wait to see how the networks read what women want in order to fill the void. “No one really knows what women want yet – that is still the big question and any home run is going to be a guide,” she says.

These changes are not happening without some nostalgia, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.

“There are generations who actually experienced soap operas as a family,” he says, pointing out that the long-form serial, stretching out over decades, will disappear when the final soap opera goes black.

Money is a key factor

“Other than the newspaper comics, that doesn’t exist anywhere else in our popular culture,” he says. Money is a key factor. “Those shows are very expensive with their large casts and writing staffs,” he says.

With the many more choices now available, he says, it’s also highly unlikely we will see a big audience-aggregating hit such as Oprah in the future.

The standard for “success” in daytime will be far more modest than in the days when three broadcast networks split the daytime audience among themselves. Daytime content in the future will reflect a greatly reduced economic landscape. Whatever is cheapest and most likely to draw viewers into watching in real-time – versus recording and skipping commercials – is what will help shape the future of daytime content, says Thompson.

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