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The Substitution Effect: How Reality TV Killed the Soap Opera

Photo: dno1967b

The Wall Street Journal has a story about all the long-running soap operas that are going off the air. A cohort of die-hard fans is protesting the move, arguing that the shows are more popular than their ratings suggest, and even threatening to sue ABC’s parent company Disney for causing them “mental distress” by canceling the shows. But the fact remains that their viewership is down, and sponsors have been pulling out, making the shows unprofitable for the television stations even in non-prime-time slots. One might think it is because of rising female labor-force participation–but the increase has been quite slow for the past 20 years. The reason is competition for viewers with a new, cheaper product—“reality TV.”
Apparently soaps and reality shows attract similar viewers—they appear to be substitutes for the average consumer. As with any new product that is hot, its substitutes suffer when it enters the market. As the World Turns and Guiding Light have given way to such pathetic substitutes as The Apprentice and Let’s Make a Deal.