The long-running soap operas "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," plagued by declining ratings, are planning to drop their serial format to become episodic dramas if the shows are renewed by CBS for the 1988-89 television season.
CBS' other prime-time soap, "Knots Landing," will maintain its serial format but will feature shorter story lines than it has in the past, bridging a few episodes rather than a full season, executive producer David Jacobs confirmed.
Those involved in the programs, all of which are produced by Lorimar Television, downplayed the question of whether prime-time soap operas are still viable, saying the changes are being made to freshen these well-worn series and for several economic reasons, including boosting their value in syndication.
Leonard Katzman, executive producer of "Dallas," who proposed the new format, said he did not do so because of slipping ratings or because the soap genre is dying, but because "the show is getting long in the tooth" and simply needed a fresh approach.
Lorimar's confirmation of its new approach comes on the heels of recent statements by CBS programming chief Kim LeMasters and his NBC counterpart, Brandon Tartikoff, that the night-time serial genre--the most popular on the air just a few years ago--is in trouble.
LeMasters told TV critics last week at CBS' semiannual press tour that the prime-time soap may have been rendered obsolete by dramas such as "L.A. Law," which feature one-episode stories and stories that continue over several episodes.
Audiences for all four prime-time soap operas--the three on CBS and ABC's "Dynasty"--are down this season compared to last, ranging from 7.5% for "Knots Landing" to 18.8% for "Dallas." However, Arnold Becker, vice president of research at CBS, said he attributes much of the decline to the changeover to a new audience-measurement system this season, and the rest to a normal drop-off in viewership as hit shows get older.
Even with the ratings decline, "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" continue to win their time periods, and "Knots Landing" runs second.
If CBS renews its three, as seems likely, 1988-89 will be the 11th season for "Dallas," the 10th for "Knots Landing" and the eighth for "Falcon Crest."
After Katzman proposed the format change for "Dallas," Lorimar thought it might improve "Falcon Crest's" performance as well. And the network was delighted with the idea, said Barbara Brogliatti, vice president of corporate communications at Lorimar.
"We tested it with audiences and they loved it," she said. "We think it's a very creative idea that everybody is excited about."
In the case of "Dallas," Katzman noted that it had started out as an episodic drama, "then it gradually became a serial, which is when it really got hot. We now have done 10 years of that, and it changed the viewing habits of America. And we can do it again--but not by continuing in the vein we were in.
"I'm not sure that the (serial) form has necessarily run its course, but all the shows that are in that genre that are on now have been on for quite awhile, and you necessarily use up a lot of material," he added.
Katzman said the episodic format will give "Dallas" writers a chance to use guest stars for one episode rather than having to add a new character to the cast in order to bring him or her into the story. One possibility, he suggested, would be to have the character of Bobby Ewing, who was a high school basketball star, involved in one episode about the death of his coach and needing to find the coach's daughter to convey a deathbed message. Guest stars playing both coach and daughter would only be needed once.
The episodic form would also allow series principals, whose salaries have escalated astronomically over the years, to appear in fewer episodes, thus saving money for Lorimar.
Katzman added that free-lance script writers with fresh story ideas will now be able to write for the show, instead of relying on staff writers to create a continuing plot that puts a principal character in crisis every week.
"How many times can you have Bobby and Pam move in and out of South Fork (the Ewing family ranch)?" he asked.
Katzman believes contained stories make each episode more viable for summer reruns; serial dramas have performed unusually poorly in repeats and "Dallas" and "Knots Landing" have not been aired in the summer at all in recent years. It also offers the company more options for selling the programs into syndication, since episodes will not have to be run in sequence.
"Knots Landing" producer Jacobs said that his show has been moving toward shorter story lines because "my own unscientific opinion is that it was sometimes hard to follow a 'Knots Landing' story" so new viewers did not begin watching and tended not to return to the show if they missed it one week for a special program on another channel. He said shorter stories might encourage new viewers to tune in because of its subject or a certain guest star.
ABC's "Dynasty," now in its eighth season, will probably not follow Lorimar's lead if the show is renewed for fall, said "Dynasty" executive producer Esther Shapiro.
"One of the things that people traditionally liked is the fact that you're building on a story, and people want to know what's going to happen," she said.
She disagreed with Katzman that dropping the serial format would allow for less tedious exposition because the audience will not need to be updated on what happened in the preceding weeks.
"Generally, in an hour show (that is not serialized), you have to do a lot of exposition to introduce a new story, since each new character and story will need to be explained," Shapiro said. "But after 10 years, I applaud them for trying to do something different."
All three producers defended the soap genre against the attacks from the network executives.
"I think it (the serial) is the best genre for network television; it's a natural," Jacobs said.
"I don't think network television can compete on a lot of levels with feature films, which are our competition on cable. We can't be as glitzy or sexy or extravagant in our production values, " he continued. "The only way TV can compete is with engaging, ongoing stories."
Said Shapiro with a chuckle: "I think it's more likely those network chiefs will be dead before the shows are."