Twitter aids soap opera’s return from the dead

Eric Audras | Getty Images

Like a hunky doctor killed pulling cute children from an orphanage fire, soap operas seemed to have died a grisly death. But, in a shock plot twist akin to Bobby Ewing's return in Dallas, an unlikely renaissance could be on its way as soaps harness social media.

Ratings for U.S. daytime soap operas had been in freefall and long-running programs such as "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" were axed as viewers tuned into reality shows and advertisers left to find a younger, more lucrative, demographic.

"Soaps were also a victim of the recession. They're more expensive to produce than reality or lifestyle shows," C. Lee Harrington, a professor of sociology at Miami University, and an expert in soap operas, told CNBC.

However, in the third quarter of this year, ratings for CBS's "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," ABC's "General Hospital" and NBC's "Days of Our Lives" all went up compared to 2012 for the first time in years.

(Read more: Soap operas stage online comeback)

Part of this is due to new storylines and characters targeting the key female 18-49 demographic but the answer may also lie in using social media and the internet.

The number of tweets about TV increased by 38 percent between the second quarter of 2012 and the same time in 2013, according to Nielsen. TV shows such as "Breaking Bad", "Scandal" and "The Voice" were among the most tweeted-about shows of the year. And for the first time, Nielsen identified a link between a spike in Tweets about a TV show and its ratings.

In South Korea, which has been particularly successful in exporting its soap operas to emerging markets, soaps are often filmed as close to broadcast as possible – and producers have even used social media and discussion boards to work out which characters to stick with or kill off.

"Prime time television has been very successful at utilizing some of the elements that people could always find in soaps, like long-term character development and big, dramatic plots," Harrington said.

In fact, the online world could have had a part to play in some soaps demise due to poor advertising numbers. U.S ratings body Nielsen didn't act quickly enough when it came to measuring ratings on non-traditional ways of watching the soaps, such as TiVo or downloads, or discussions in chatrooms or social media, according to Harrington.

"Soap opera was actually one of the first genres to go online, through chatrooms and so on, as people discussed their favorite characters," she said.

(Read more: How Nielsen measures Twitter TV ratings)

Also entering the online storyline are "One Life to Live" and "All My Children", which are being broadcast on the Hulu site after being cancelled by ABC – although the network is now embroiled in litigation with the company which bought the rights to the programs, Prospect Park, which means that the shows are on hiatus.

There are risks for soap operas in changing format, if it means that more of their core viewers leave them.

"The typical viewer profile is very old, rather than in the key 18-34 demographic which uses streaming most," Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, told CNBC.

"I don't think those die-hard fans are going to migrate to online streaming."

The trend towards binge-viewing of box-sets and watching television on catch-up or streaming services like Netflix or Hulu could play into soap opera's hands, Adgate argued.

Another solution may be reducing the number of hours broadcast per week, and setting a finite limit on the number of seasons for soaps.

"It's a really big time commitment to watch soaps," Adgate pointed out. "If it was online and on demand, three hours a week would be better."

(Read more: How Breaking Bad broke records)

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc.