Soaps and continuing dramas have a strong relationship with their regular viewers. They are part of daily or weekly routines. Break that routine and the bond with viewers can be broken.
For some time, there has been speculation concerning EastEnders and the long-term decline in its ratings.
In general, of course, it’s important to remember that what really matters is how many people overall see the programme – including iPlayer hits – and not just the overnight ratings.
But the BBC’s scheduling of its soaps and continuing dramas has become somewhat erratic. It isn’t just an EastEnders issue.
Casualty disappeared for several weeks during the autumn.
The revival of Waterloo Road was, in effect, the replacement for Casualty’s sister programme Holby City. Its first season has now ended after barely a month-and-a-half. It will return but the date has not been confirmed.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the scheduling of the local soap River City has become a little erratic. It was off air last summer and is now off the air again until May. For its first 18 years it never took a break.
Why is this a problem?
For a soap or a continuing drama, regularity is vital. The viewer needs to know it is there at a certain time. Otherwise the relationship goes. When the relationship goes and the ratings fall, a programme’s future can inevitably fall into question.
There is s strategic argument to explore here though.
Does the BBC really need to have soaps and continuing dramas? Should it focus its resources on one-offs, short-run dramas and big hitters with, say, annual runs of 8, 10 or 13 episodes?
The respected writer Russell T. Davies recently suggested the number of episodes of EastEnders should be scaled back. Certainly it could open up slots in the schedule and you might wonder if it might be easier for those with busy lives to follow soaps again if there were fewer episodes.
You also wonder if Casualty could be revived if it was, once again, an annual series of – say – 13 episodes.
Of course any moves like these would be difficult and no doubt controversial.
But Is it simply the case that the market is saturated and that ITV has the upper hand? Should the BBC put up a white flag and accept there are other ways to win ratings? Or should ongoing dramas remain part of the mix as they can connect with people the corporation sometimes struggles to reach?
PICTURED: Waterloo Road, EastEnders, Casualty and River City opening titles. COPYRIGHT: BBC.