Susan Bower took over as executive producer of the Australian soap Neighbours in this, its twenty-third, year and was faced with the challenge posed to executive producers of programmes that have been on for decades: How can the show be kept interesting and fresh year after year, but without scaring away the core audience?
The first thing Bower did was tell the set designers to put newspapers on the coffee tables and ruffle the couch cushions – teenagers were supposed to live there after all. "Nearly every [Neighbours] home has a teenager in it now, but they are always so tidy. I live in a house with teenagers and I know that is not how homes with teenagers look," she says.
She hopes that touches like that – along with tweaked camerawork, lighting, and dialogue – will change the tone of the programme just enough to get audiences talking, but not so much that it will turn off die-hard fans.
Most dramas can only dream of reaching the iconic status of Neighbours, which is distributed by Fremantle across Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Norway and the UK. Channel Five recently snatched the UK rights to the show from the BBC in a deal believed to be worth £300 million ($600 million) over 10 years.
Executive producers of so-called evergreens all have opinions about what might be the formula to develop a show that will last generations. But none knows for sure.
Bower says: "I guess if we really knew the answer to that we’d all be producing dramas that last for decades. It’s got a lot to do with luck."
Some producers say a show needs new faces every so often to freshen a show, while others say familiarity is key to maintaining high ratings.
In the US market, The Bold and the Beautiful is one of the newer kids on the block. It battles for ratings with soaps such as All My Children, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital and As the World Turns, which all have roots in 1930s radio broadcasts and made the jump to television more than 30 years ago. The Guiding Light was first to make the move to TV in 1954. They have all been updated to reflect modern styles and some changes have been successful, some have not.
The Bold and the Beautiful, distributed into more than 147 countries by its own dedicated sales company, has freshened its look over the years with fashion updates and set changes, but never shifted any part of the show too dramatically.
"I’ve seen that happen over and over with soap operas. They fire all their writers and hire all new actors and suddenly no-one is watching," David Gregg, vice president of international publicity, says. "We’ve never done that and we would never do that. We would never betray our core audience. They’re looking for an experience that’s very specific and unique and you don’t get that with any other show."
However, the show’s producers are actively seeking younger viewers by reaching out to them outside of broadcast TV. As teenagers watch more and more content via other media, The Bold and the Beautiful plans to position itself where they can find it. "We are toying with the idea of going to VOD or we might put it on iTunes. And we’re experimenting with a two-minute recap episode. We’ll make sure we’re present on all of those platforms," Gregg says.
The producers of UK soap Coronation Street, distributed by Granada International and sold into Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Ireland and Canada, regularly hosts focus groups to ask viewers if the plots have gripped them. If staffers find that a storyline has not grabbed attention, writers will change direction.
"Any long-running show will go in cycles," says the show’s executive producer Kieran Roberts. "There are times that it will go stronger and I know there was once a perception that Coronation Street wasn’t firing on all cylinders."
Coronation Street, along with fellow ITV series Emmerdale, plays an important role in the UK’s culture, Roberts said.
But how long can a show survive on its brand name? Some producers argue that, with the right writing, stories can develop to the point where the resulting show is unrecognizable from its first incarnation. Scottish detective drama Taggart, which has been running for 25 years and remained on air after actor Mark McManus, who played its main character, died during the show’s eleventh season.
The show’s producers, SMG Productions, considered ending the show then, but it was decided that the writers would instead develop storylines for other characters and continue under the Taggart moniker. Eric Coulter, head of drama for SMG Productions, says: "When Mark passed away the other characters in the show were pushed more to the front. In the last few months leading up to his death, they were just as much as a part of the show as he was."
Producers guided Taggart’s audience through the transition by incorporating his death in to the storyline, and keeping the look and tone of the show the same so that watchers knew that they could count on the familiar. Ratings never dipped and fifteen years after the lead character’s death, the show still scores top ratings in the UK and internationally. It is sold into 80 countries by distributor Target Entertainment.
"There was a core audience that, when Mark died, they left the show. But I think there’s only been two occasions when it hasn’t won its [time] slot in the past seven years," Coulter says.
Taggart’s success through the cast changes, and through the years, may lie within the procedural storytelling it uses, Coulter suggests. Taggart is a whodunit mystery around a fresh crime every week.
UK public broadcaster the BBC’s emergency room drama Casualty has been on the air since 1986 and is the longest running hospital drama in the world. NBC’s ER, distributed by Warner Bros., has been scheduled to go off the air this year after its fourteenth season.
John Yorke, head of the BBC Drama department, believes that long-running series may provide a comfortable backdrop for viewers, but the only thing that will keep them coming back is quality writing.
He oversees the production of the soap EastEnders, which broadcasts 30 minute episodes four times a week and centers around the lives of people who live in a neighbourhood on the east side of London. Yorke says shows like EastEnders, which has consistently gained impressive ratings in its spot since its launch in 1985, are vital to broadcasters.
"The big thing about planning a schedule is inheritance. If you’re going to launch a new programme you always launch it after EastEnders. It’s what we call the halo effect. It’s of massive importance to the BBC," Yorke said, adding. "The shows that I look after are all institutions. They are brands that are ingrained in the British psyche."
And not just the British psyche. These evergreen dramas have enjoyed success throughout the world, and are still finding new homes. The 21-year-old Australian series Home&Away has been distributed to the UK, Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand. New Zealand’s South Pacific Pictures produces Shortland Street, which was launched in 1992 and is distributed by All3Media International, which has sold it into the UK and elsewhere.
Granada International recently sold Coronation Street to Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
Coronation Street has had success in international markets that either speak English, or are very tolerant of English-language programming like the Nordic and Scandinavian countries. Now Granada International is working to localize the show in emerging markets where audiences prefer local-language originated programming. As markets mature in Eastern Europe local broadcasters and production houses are producing more and more. First on their creative lists are long-running soaps.
"Broadcasters have realised that they want an ongoing success," Granada International senior VP of Europe Tobias de Graaff says. "They come to us because we have the expertise in writing these shows. We’ll take our scripts and then make them work in those countries. For example, what might be a pub in Coronation Street would be in Russia a tea house."
Granada International is close to signing format deals in a few countries, but it is being very careful about the licensing of one of its most recognizable brands. The distributor wants to ensure international Coronation Streets go the same distance as the UK version.
"We need to get the level of involvement from our side right, we need to have control over some things but let the local production team breathe. It’s a balance we have to strike," de Graaff says.
Grundy UFA in Germany produces one of the most successful commercial evergreens produced in a language other than English. Its daily drama, Good Times, Bad Times, was launched in 1994 as one of the first locally produced programmes for the German market and continuously gets top ratings. But it was not an instant success, and took about a year to find its core audience. Long term serials sometimes need to find their feet, Grundy UFA CEO Rainer Wemcken says.
In fact, Good Times, Bad Times was based on an Australian soap called The Restless Years, which was on air only between 1977 and 1981.Wemcken recalls other dramas that tried to start up in Germany just after the launch of Good Times, Bad Times, and failed.
"It’s a big experiment to launch a serial drama," he says, "They didn’t start very well in Germany, we had very, very bad press in the beginning. All these people said that it was rubbish; it’s not a real drama. Others said it’s not possible to shoot 25 minutes a day. The ratings were quite bad for a year or so but RTL said they would stay with it."
Wemcken believes that Good Times, Bad Times faced a challenge in the German market because audiences did not know how to respond to ongoing dramatic productions. "Today it’s different," he says. "People are used to seeing soaps or telenovelas. They know how to judge it and they know how to see these products. They have certain expectations, and if you meet them they will stick to it."
Probably every producer’s dream is to create the next Law&Order or CSI – long running dramas that consistently see the highest ratings, and then breed new spin-offs that go on to become individual success. The CSI franchise, broadcast on CBS in the US, comprises three popular programmes, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.
The 18-year old US drama Law&Order is the longest running franchise on US television. Created by Dick Wolf and broadcast on NBC, it has spun-off two successful programs, Law&Order Special Victims Unit and Law&Order, Criminal Intent. But the spin-offs have not generated the same ratings as the original.
The BBC has created two programmes that exist in the same setting as its hospital drama Casualty. One, Holby City (pictured), explores plots around the hospital’s surgical ward, while the other Holby Blue, is set in the police station next door. Ratings may be boosted and audiences may be intrigued when characters cross over between programmes, but each title must stand up on its own if it is to be a success.
"What you get is your opening weekend," says John Yorke, head of the BBC Drama department. "You will get a guaranteed audience then. But after that you’re on your on your own."
A spin-off must have its own tone, too. Yorke believes that an attempt to make a programme that is a direct copy of a hit show would not work.
"Audience do seek the familiar, that’s what ratings tell us. But if a show is repetitive, they do get bored quickly as well," he said.