Despite Efforts, Soap Operas Lose Ground


Babies are born, disappear and come back a couple of years later as troubled teenagers. A Latino fashion designer is introduced into an all-white cast. A doll becomes human.

These recent plot twists on network soap operas were designed specifically to expand an audience that gets older and smaller every year.

A report out this summer provides fresh evidence of how steep the challenge is for an industry older than television itself. Not only have ratings declined--28% for the most popular soap, "The Young and the Restless," since 1994--but so has the soaps' ability to deliver the young female viewers whom advertisers seek.

Over the last 10 years, the median age for viewers of daytime dramas has gone up an average of seven years, according to the advertising agency MindShare.

The median age of those who watch "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" was 36 in 1991-92. Now it's 45.

Advertisers used to consider soaps a reliable way to reach young women, and cheaper than prime time. No more.

"I don't know if it's a dying genre, but it doesn't bode well for advertising dollars flowing into the marketplace," said Steve Calandra, senior managing director of MindShare.

With more young women working, and those at home having more choices about what to watch, there are fewer people available for soaps.

The industry also hasn't recovered from the O.J. Simpson court trials during the mid-1990s. Television coverage of the trials pre-empted soaps for months, and many viewers either lost interest or became hooked on real-life dramas.

"How do you get that next generation?" asks Lucy Johnson, president of daytime TV at CBS. "That's all we've talked about for 20 years."

There are experiments taking place across the soap spectrum.

Taking note of census figures showing a burgeoning Latino population, and the popularity of telenovelas among Spanish-speaking viewers, CBS has begun Spanish-language translations of "The Bold and the Beautiful." It also introduced the character of Antonio Dominguez, a Latino fashion designer.

ABC has also tried using the structure of telenovelas on the show "Port Charles."

In contrast with American soap operas, in which different story lines weave in and out and may take years to finish, telenovela stories begin and end over the course of two months.

"What we've heard over the years is, 'I just don't have the time to invest in another daytime show. I'm afraid I'm going to get hooked and have to watch the show for three years,"' said Felicia Behr, senior vice president for daytime programming at ABC.

Many shows, including NBC's "Days of Our Lives," have emphasized story lines with troubled teens to entice young viewers, even if those characters have mysteriously aged a decade in a year or two. That's especially true in the summer, when school's out.

'Passions' Has Youngest Audience

NBC's "Passions" is designed exclusively for young people. It frequently repeats plot points, to the point of annoyance for those who watch regularly, because NBC doesn't want casual viewers to get lost, said Carolyn Hinsey, executive editor of Soap Opera Digest.

"The perception that it takes five days a week and one hour a day to stay committed and get the total experience I think scares people away," said Sheraton Kalouria, NBC daytime president.

Some of the wilder plots on "Passions," with the lifelike doll and a bride killed by a poisoned ring, should resonate with viewers of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," he said. NBC also sent six teenage characters on a Puerto Rican trip reminiscent of "Temptation Island."

The median age of "Passions" viewers is 36, the youngest of the 10 network soap operas, MindShare said.

In recent months, Susan Lucci's character on "All My Children" has been reacting to the news that her daughter is a lesbian.

Behr said ABC executives didn't introduce that story line specifically to reach out to a gay audience, but it has helped.

Networks have to tread carefully not to upset older audiences of long-running shows. "Guiding Light" on CBS, for instance, began on radio in 1937.

In an industry that often recycles creative talent, some producers and writers may just have gotten lazy.

"I think they take the audience for granted a little," said Stephanie Sloane, editor of Soap Opera Digest. "Some shows expect the audience to stay with you no matter what you put on the air."

None of the networks has any new soaps in development. There were 11 soaps on the air 10 years ago, one more than there are now. Some experts predict further contraction in the next few years.

"It will be survival of the fittest," Johnson said, "the way it's never been in this industry before."

After a period of trend-hopping, in which some soaps tried to squeeze in outrageous topics as a way of emulating talk shows, Johnson believes daytime dramas are getting back to their tug-at-your-heartstrings roots. People don't want to see their lives reflected back at them--they want to see their dreams, she said.

"We can't keep blaming O.J. anymore," she said. "It's a few years back now. If we haven't recovered, it isn't because of O.J., it's because we're not giving the audience what it wants."

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