‘Soaprah Formula’ Vies for Daytime Converts

Daytime, the traditional domain of soap operas, quiz shows and chat programs, has some new competition in the U.S. market in the form of reality format Starting Over.
January 1, 2004

Daytime, the traditional domain of soap operas, quiz shows and chat programs, has some new competition in the U.S. market in the form of reality format Starting Over. Launched in September 2003 on American network NBC, the format involves six women, living together in a house alongside two ‘life coaches’ who are there to lend them support and help them reach their personal goals, which range from overcoming depression to becoming a stand-up comic. What differentiates this program from its primetime siblings is its self-help, aspirational tone; what makes it stand apart from Oprah is its soap opera-ish continuing storylines. As the primetime market reaches the saturation point, will daytime be the new battleground for the reality format?

Starting Over is the brainchild of Van Nuys, U.S.-based Bunim/Murray Productions, the creators of youth cable giant MTV’s The Real World, an often-overlooked precursor to today’s reality programs. For many years, people throughout the industry – including programming executives at syndication companies, TV networks and even advertisers – had approached Jonathan Murray and partner Mary-Ellis Bunim about the idea of bringing The Real World to daytime in some form. Two and a half years ago, they finally hit upon what they felt to be the right concept when they noticed that women were engaging the services of life coaches in increasing numbers. Combine life coaches with Big Brother voyeurism and voilà! A concept for a ‘real-life daytime drama series’ is born.

Bunim/Murray first brought Starting Over to Santa Monica, U.S.-based TV syndication company King World Productions (distributor of The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil). According to Murray, their pitch was received enthusiastically by everyone except Roger King himself, the company’s CEO, who was unimpressed with the show’s absence of big-name stars (like Oprah and Dr. Phil). Nine months later, the format was pitched to Burbank, U.S.-based network NBC. The project was greenlighted by Linda Finnell, SVP for programming and development at NBC Enterprises, who says, ‘The reason we took a shot on Starting Over was two-fold: it was a great idea with great producers in Bunim/Murray, and quite honestly, this was a reality show that could be done at a cost that made sense in the day[time].’ The show has already been renewed for another season and recently signed a hefty marketing deal with Cincinnati, U.S.-based Procter & Gamble’s Clairol Nice ‘n Easy.

On the other side of the pond, the daytime TV landscape has undergone a shift in the past few years. Jill Robinson, head of daytime for London-based prodco RDF, says, ‘The people who watch are [now] no different to the people who watch peak time, [so] schedulers are interested in ideas that have a wide appeal rather than a niche appeal. Daytime [programmers] are getting more ambitious and demanding as to what they can get for their money, i.e., how quickly and cheaply you can make a program that looks good.’

Starting Over does meet some of this criteria – it’s cheap, or at least, it’s much cheaper than daytime soaps and primetime reality formats. Says Caroline Beaton, joint-MD of London-based Action Time, the international distrib for Starting Over, ‘The U.S. budget [for Survivor] was a million-plus per episode.’ Though she would not divulge exact figures for Starting Over, Beaton says ‘the number it’s costing [NBC] per episode is incredibly low.’

Beaton feels there is a definite trend toward daytime reality programming. ‘When I heard about Starting Over… I thought, if there’s anyone that can bridge soap and reality and make a show successful, it would be Bunim/Murray.’ She adds, ‘I’ve no doubt there will be a U.K. version of [the format], and we’ll be doing that deal fairly imminently.’

Not everyone thinks a format like Starting Over will succeed in the U.K., however. Says RDF’s Robinson, ‘[Broadcasters] have flirted with series that were about relationship problems…and they have not done very well over here.’ She feels this is because the daytime audience has changed. ‘They are younger than what you think of a daytime audience traditionally being, and also it has more men in it.’ But, she also notes the audience is ‘quite aspirational,’ which is exactly who producers of daytime content seem to be targeting. David Lyle, president of entertainment and drama at FremantleMedia North America, concurs: ‘We have done a lot of makeover/ aspirational shows in other parts of the world that we think could adapt to the daytime market.’

This fits with what is taking place over at NBC Enterprises, the network’s international distrib arm. NBC recently announced plans to develop a daytime series called Gal Pals – a sort of sequel to the popular primetime format Queer Eye for the Straight Guy – in which five gay men help a straight woman to improve her personal style.

For the most part, daytime everywhere is a bastion of cheap programming – acquisitions, reruns and studio-based shows – and is ripe for something new and relevant. In countries such as Sweden, where the population base can’t afford to develop expensive original daytime fare, American soap operas are popular, as are local quiz shows. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever reach the point where we’ll produce a daytime reality,’ says Malte Andreasson, head of planning for Stockholm-based pubcaster TV4. ‘However, if someone does a great [one] in the U.S., we might buy it.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.