Who's killing off older soap stars?

Special to The Times

Like sands through the hourglass, this is the nightmare of her life.

Suzanne Rogers has played Maggie Horton on "Days of Our Lives" since 1973, but Tuesday afternoon, the veteran daytime Emmy-winning performer will be savagely killed off as the third of the mysterious Salem Stalker's 10 victims.

It's not an on-screen killer who is scaring denizens of nearly all daytime soaps but the off-screen financial realities of smaller budgets and reduced salaries, resulting from shrinking audiences.

Indeed, earlier this year -- months before the serial killer's bloody rampage began -- it appeared as though the famous "Days of Our Lives" hourglass itself had run out of sand, after slowly rotating on NBC for 38 years.

"Days of Our Lives" is tops among women ages 18 to 34 (the demographic most coveted by advertisers) and overall ranks somewhere in the middle of its sister soaps, averaging just over 3 million viewers a day. But in the early '70s, before the days of cable and the Internet, it wasn't unusual for a soap to lure 10 million or more viewers.

"Days of Our Lives" isn't the only soap in trouble. Mirroring the life-or-death cliffhanging scenarios they often present on-screen, the nine daytime dramas (down from 19 in 1970) have seen their ratings dwindle -- as much as two-thirds in recent years. Unable to meet advertisers' expectations, soaps are trimming casts and asking actors to take hefty pay cuts to stay afloat.

Soap staples such as "One Life to Live," "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "The Young and the Restless" are paring their casts, particularly the older performers.

To listen to "Days' " head writer Jim Reilly -- famous for elevating the show's ratings in the '90s with a demon possession story line -- "Days" was dead on arrival when NBC brought him back in May to revive the soap. "I was told that the cancellation notification had already been written," he said.

"Days' " Executive Producer Ken Corday rebutted cancellation rumors but acknowledged that his show, created in 1965 by his now-deceased parents, Ted and Betty Corday, is facing its darkest hour.

To keep his show on NBC for five more years, Corday was ordered to trim the fat. "NBC explained that they were in economic crises [in their daytime division]," Corday said. "So we had to take a reduction in fees, and that kind of trickles all the way down." Corday has frozen salaries and hints that future pay cuts may be necessary.

"The networks are very possibly going to be paying less for [soaps], and we have to adjust accordingly," said Bradley Bell, executive producer of CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" and co-owner of "The Young and the Restless." "We're planning on paring down the cast of 'Young and Restless' to focus on fan favorites and trim off the rest."

Actress Heather Tom, who was 15 when she joined "Y&R;" in 1991 as Victoria Newman, recently was asked to accept a revised contract that would have dramatically reduced her work guarantee and salary. Tom declined, choosing instead to accept a more lucrative offer from ABC's "One Life To Live."

At only 28, Tom is atypical among the soap casualties. Like 59-year-old Rogers, the majority of the "Days" serial killer victims are over 50. The Salem Stalker's known hit list includes actors Jim Reynolds, 53 (the first victim); Peggy McKay, 73 (the fourth victim); and Thaao Penghlis, 57 (the sixth victim).

"I think there's a bit of age discrimination," Penghlis said. "It's almost like telling the youth that to get older is not worthy. We're being slaughtered for the advertising."

Last week, McKay learned just how dire the situation is when four senior actors were brought on the soap for just one day to play mourners at her character's funeral. "The mature [day players] say they seldom work anymore," McKay said. "They're having a very hard time. When you look down Salem Place (the show's fictional shopping plaza), there's nobody older than 40 years old -- which isn't normal."

Rogers agreed, asking, "How's a soap going to look with only 40-year-olds and younger?"

Well, a lot like the other NBC soap Reilly pens -- the youth-obsessed "Passions."

In defense of her show, "Days" star Deidre Hall, now in line to be the show's matriarch at age 56, said, "in daytime, we're looking for the younger audience, and the younger people want to tune in and see what their own generation is doing."

As one of the younger fans of "Days of Our Lives," Tom said she finds its current serial killer story line both gripping and troubling. "If you're over 40 on that show, watch out," she said. "The most important thing daytime has is this crazy history. When you start killing that off, it's dangerous."

Ironically, just as Tom is about to join "One Life to Live," that soap introduced its own serial killer story line on Halloween and will be killing off half a dozen of its characters through spring. Attempting to distance "OLTL's" maniacal Music Box Killer from "Days' " sinister Salem Stalker, ABC daytime president Brian Frons said theirs "is not a story about elder-cide. In fact, most of the people that will be killed are [women] between the ages of 20 and 40."

When plotting "Days' " murders, Reilly selected victims whose loss would profoundly impact his audience. The gimmick has paid off, with ratings increasing 20% in the wake of the initial slayings.

Rogers' long, long, long suffering Maggie Horton has overcome alcoholism, paralysis, the loss of a child and the fictionalization of her real-life neuromuscular disorder and resulting weight gain during her three decades on the show. The former Radio City Music Hall Rockette said she was shocked when Corday phoned her at home to inform her that Reilly had decided to knock her off in the middle of a contract that ran through next October.

"My soul is Maggie," said Rogers, who for the last 10 years had been appearing on the show only, on average, twice a month. "I was so hurt. And then I got scared and worried that I might not be able to keep my house."

Corday acknowledged that letting Rogers go was personally crushing. "It's like losing a sister for me," he said

In keeping with a genre in which understated is never in the script, Rogers was feted with an extravagant event Tuesday at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome when two of her "death" episodes were screened at a movie premiere-style event. The stunt was the brainchild of NBC Senior Vice President of Daytime Programming Sheraton Kalouria, who put the cost in excess of $100,000 -- "a drop in the bucket," he said, "if we can get people to watch these shows."

It's not only veteran performers such as Rogers, Reynolds, McKay and Penghlis who are getting their walking papers. The Salem Stalker also has claimed fan favorite Matthew Ashford, 43 (who's joining "One Life to Live"), and newcomer Alexis Thorpe, 23, who agitated her bosses after she leaked news of her firing on her Web site. Reilly promises more younger and older victims are on their way out to make room for new characters in their 20s and 30s.

"Days" co-star Kristian Alfonso, who'll turn 40 next year, said fear has spread among the cast members, all of whom wonder who might next be slain as the Salem Stalker continues to strike through early next year.

"The impact of losing Suzanne is huge ... and heartbreaking," Alfonso said. "I think every one of us is probably living in fear that we're suddenly all replaceable."

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