How To Best Unlock THE GATES

Daytime broadcast network television, which at one time actually drove the profit margins of their companies in an era when they actually did make money, has deteriorated into little more than a vast wasteland of legacy formats and lots of news and news-adjacent content.  In a world where timeshift viewing and catch-up streaming options proliferate, even in an era where more people are available to watch in a work-from-home dominated world, what ratings exist are neglible, old-skewing and downscale.  And a quick glance at the advertising within it reinforces those realities.  Direct response, big pharma, reverse mortgage and Colonial Penn life insurance, with an octogenarian Joe Namath now reminding us how the sands of time have dwindled for those of us who actually used to stay home from school to watch housewives get a few moments of fame by solving a puzzle or successfully guessing the cost of a grandfather clock.

So it was more than a bit surprising when earlier this month when, almost out of nowhere, TV LINE’s nuanced Michael Ausiello, among others, dropped this little nugget about what’s brewing at what’s left of CBS:

If daytime soap operas are a dying art form, no one told CBS.

The network behind The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful announced Wednesday that it is partnering with the NAACP to develop a new daytime drama about a wealthy Black family living in a posh, gated community.

Titled The Gates, the potential series will be shepherded by veteran soap scribe Michele Val Jean, whose credits include General Hospital, B&B and Santa Barbara. Val Jean also served as a script writer on daytime’s first Black family-focused soap, Generations, which aired on NBC from 1989-1991.  

If The Gates comes to fruition, it would mark broadcast television’s first new daytime soap opera since the launch of NBC’s now-defunct Passions 25 years ago.

Generations and passions would seem to define Val Jean and those who remember GENERATIONS with more than a bit of fondness.  For some African Americans of Val Jean’s vintage, that fondness and passion is, for lack of a better phrase, still white hot, as evidenced by a moving tribute penned by A HOT SET’s Megan Beauchamp on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the show’s launch back in September 2019:

When you think about some of the first television shows with a largely African American cast, cultural staples like The Cosby Show or A Different World are sure to come to mind, but when Generations premiered on NBC in 1989, it was the first of its kind. 

The first American soap opera that featured an African American family at its origin, Generations was groundbreaking in paving the way for future Black soap stars and the visibility of people of color today. 

Tackling love, family dynamics, and social standing, the series intertwined the world of two Chicago families: the Marshalls, a black family  and the Whitmores, a white family. The underlying themes between the families was not only a comment on race, but the concept of new money and old – the Marshalls who embodied a nouveau riche, up and coming family, while the Whitmores were faced with their grandeur fading. The premise was based on three generations between two families, since the matriarch of the Marshall family, Vivian Potter (Lynn Hamilton), worked as a housemaid for the head of the Whitmores, Rebecca (Patricia Crowley/Dorothy Lyman). 

Sure sounds like the Marshalls would fit in quite well in a community like The Gates.  Sure sounds like Val Jean has carried this idea around for, well, generations.  Only this time she’s got a few supporters in high places.  As Ny MaGee of EUR WEB reported:

George Cheeks, CEO of CBS and chief content officer for news and sports at Paramount+, recently unveiled the genesis of “The Gates” and the team behind the series.  The new soap will be a collaborative effort between CBS Studios/NAACP production venture and P&G Studios, a division of Procter & Gamble.  

Cheeks told Vulture that “The Gates” is being developed with Sheila Ducksworth, president of the CBS/NAACP Production Venture, which develops content for the CBS Television Network and increases the visibility of Black artists.

“When we hired Sheila Ducksworth to run the NAACP venture, she and I had multiple meetings talking about what different genres she was going to lean into, and we talked a lot about daytime,” Cheeks explained.

“One of the things that the data made very clear to both of us is that daytime soap operas over index with Black women, and yet when you look at soap operas, it’s usually sort of a white-led family with supporting characters that reflect more of our society,” Cheeks continued. “So we just thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to flip that and make the core anchor family a Black family, and then make the other characters reflect more the broader scope of society?”

And Duckworth appears to be all in on the idea, if the statement she supplied to Ausiello’s piece is to be taken at face value:

The Gates will be everything we love about daytime drama, from a new and fresh perspective,” said Gates EP Sheila Ducksworth, who also serves as president of CBS Studios’ NAACP venture. “This series will salute an audience that has been traditionally underserved, with the potential to be a groundbreaking moment for broadcast television. With multi-dimensional characters, juicy storylines and Black culture front and center, The Gates will have impactful representation, one of the key touchstones of the venture.”

But more than ever, the realities of a workable business model still need to be addressed even amidst the chasm of representation.  When GENERATIONS was cancelled in early 1991, its fan base was up in arms enough to inspire THE NEW YORK TIMES’ C. Gerald Fraser to report on some of the noisier laments, long before social media would have allowed them to do so organically.  Among those Fraser reported on:

One New Jersey working couple taped the 30-minute show daily for evening viewing. They were perturbed “on the day of the final segment to find out that most of it was superseded by a war bulletin, leaving a seemingly inexplicable ending and adding insult to injury.” ‘It Was Different’

The cancellation also upset Marsha Hunt, a Philadelphia novelist. “It was a very good show,” she said in a telephone interview. “It was different. The story line was not who’s sleeping with whom. It showed a real relationship between the two women.”

Ms. Hunt did not rest on her disappointment. “I don’t sit back,” she said. “When people say blacks don’t write in, I’m not one of them. When they say blacks don’t call in, I’m not one of them.” She wrote, she called and she organized “The Coalition to Save ‘Generations.’ “

She said she had 12 people in 12 states “running groups” that had sent “around a thousand” save-“Generations” letters to local stations, NBC, prospective syndicators and PBS, which they view as a potential broadcaster of the serial.

Ms. Hunt even took issue with some business realities, correctly pointing out that the serial had been broadcast in poor time slots. In New York, it came on at 12:30 P.M., opposite the No. 1 soap, “The Young and the Restless.” In some cities, Ms. Hunt said, “Generations” came on at 2:30 A.M. She also said that the soap had not been given enough time on the air to develop an audience.

But then Hunt’s impassioned argument broke down when she attempted to add inaccurate measurement to her laundry list.  Continued Fraser: She questioned whether the show’s low Nielsen ratings accurately reflected the number of viewers. “There are few Nielsen boxes in homes in minority communities,” she said.

As someone who dealt with this kind of argument with an impassioned Latino community that challenged FOX’s station licenses, the harsh truth is that Nielsen, for the most part, accurately represents the proportion of a minority audience that exists.  At the time, 11 per cent of the U.S. was African American (it’s now roughly 14%).  That’s what the Nielsen sample reflected.  And in an era where breadth of audience mattered far more to determine success, GENERATIONS began low-rated and declined.  Here’s how Wikipedia chronicled the show’s ratings history:

  • 1988–89 season: 2.7 rating (Ranking: #12 out of 13 soap operas)
  • 1989–90 season: 2.6 rating (Ranking: #12 out of 12 soap operas)
  • 1990–91 season: 2.4 rating (Ranking: #12 out of 12 soap operas)
    • Final week ratings (January 21–25, 1991): 2.7 rating/8 share (12th out of 12), against Loving (3.2 rating/10 share, 11th) and The Young and the Restless (8.4 rating/26 share, 1st) [3]

NBC spokesman Rob Maynor, quoted by Fraser, offered this sobering reality check:’

(T)he network had dropped “Generations” “because it didn’t get the size of audience we wanted.  “We wanted more than we had,” he continued. “It was the lowest-rated soap opera on the air. It had the smallest audience, it didn’t deliver for advertisers and it wasn’t attractive to affiliates…(i)f it doesn’t deliver, it doesn’t stay on the air.”

Well, that was then.  A fraction of that 2.4 rating would suffice for a renewal in this day and age.  And the good news for Duckworth, Val Jean and others is that they have alliances with a playbook that dates back way farther than GENERATIONS.  For decades, Proctor and Gamble produced the lion’s share of CBS daytime soap operas.  THE GUIDING LIGHT.  AS THE WORLD TURNS.  THE EDGE OF NIGHT.  SEARCH FOR TOMORROW.  They pitched their brands shamelessly during the soaps, with the staff announcers giving mid-show plugs and premium positions to the brands our parents and grandparents regularly brought into our homes.  And they bought plenty of spots on the game shows, sitcom reruns and talk shows that rounded out the schedule.

And the even better news is that CBS still has something resembling a daytime schedule, unlike its competitors.  And per DEADLINE’s Lynette Rice, there is a current weak link that needs addressing:

The Talk, which remains the lowest-rated show on the CBS daytime lineup. Produced by CBS Studios and now in its 14th season, The Talk recently underwent change by hiring Rob Crabbe, the former executive producer of The Late Late Show with James Corden, to replace longtime EP Kristin Matthews.  Crabbe has already made some much-needed improvements, like extending the first act of the show and injecting more intimate interview segments. But this is only Crabbe’s first season and he needs more time to make his mark. For now, The Talk is still down double digits in persons and women 18-49, though it remains the third most-watched talker in daytime behind The View and Live! With Kelly and Mark. Most recently, CBS let go of The Talk‘s current executive, Laurie Seidman, as well one of the show’s PR reps as part of the company’s widespread layoffs.

Talk, literally and figuratively, tends to be cheap, and historically cheaper than scripted dramas are.  But talent is expensive and despite the promotional benefits of having as many spokes in the car wash approach to promote corporate priorities that proliferates at NBC and ABC, a low-rated TALK is perhaps not all that appealing.  Especially when the potential of parts such as the Paramount studio being sold off are as likely as ever in the wake of Apollo Global’s $11B offer for it that was reported yesterday.

And Proctor and Gamble was previously part of a coalition of advertisers that helped networks with ratings issues expand their missions.  Recall if you will how one of the more beloved shows of this century saw the light of day, again per our friend Wikipedia:

The pilot episode of Gilmore Girls received financial support from the script development fund of the Family Friendly Programming Forum, which includes some of the nation’s leading advertisers, making it one of the first networks shows to reach the air with such funding.

And yes, they bought more spots on the WB beyond just the show.

So, Ms. Duckworth, it might behoove you to remind your partners what they’ve done in the past, and then show them one of the advertising pods in your network’s current daytime schedule, perhaps one of those endless 120-second appeals for Shriners’ Hospital donations?  As is still being intoned in one of your more enduring series, “all this can be YOURS….IF The Price Is Right!!!”.

If you can provide the kind of financial support that can give you and Mr. Cheeks the chops to stand up to your beancounters and accurately contend there’s more upside than a watered-down copycat of THE VIEW that largely saw the light of day because one of Mr. Cheeks’ predescessors wanted his wife to have a show of her own, you might just be able to make THE GATES a reality.  And by the way, you don’t necessarily HAVE to produce a soap opera in a union studio in Hollywood these days, either.  A lot has changed production-wise since 1989 as well.  Take advantage of those evolutions, too.

The persistence and fervor of Ms. Val Jean after lo so many years is to be applauded.  Few of us maintain such a torch.  Fewer of us get to a place where we even have a chance to reignite it.

Just be open to the fact that in today’s daytime landscape, the color that matters most is green.

Until next time…

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