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Daytime soaps are in peril and it just may be that prime-time is riding to the rescue.
While soap opera audiences continue to dwindle, SoapNet, the Disney-owned cable channel devoted to sex-and-suffering serials, is embarking on a mission to revive the genre in the evening hours.
In a bid to lure new fans as well as to goose the performance of daytime soaps, the network this month will begin production on its first original drama, "General Hospital: Night Shift," a spinoff of the long-running daytime show premiering in July that will serve as a weekly companion to the ABC series.
"Night Shift" marks the first time a daytime soap has spun-off a nighttime counterpart.
The show is being described as an episodic medical-mystery drama -- think equal parts "General Hospital" and "House" -- starring one of the mother ship's hottest new couples, Drs. Robin Scorpio and Patrick Drake (Kimberly McCullough and Jason Thompson) as resident physicians on the Saturday night shift.
Will it flat-line?
It's a risky operation: Although SoapNet will save in production costs by using some of the same cast, crew and sets as "General Hospital," the TV landscape is littered with prime-time's soap opera casualties.
Rookie channel MyNetwork TV last fall gambled its launch on a pair of telenovelas, a sort of limited run prime-time soap format, and flat-lined. Ditto "Monarch Cove," a weekly format tested out by women's network Lifetime. Newer daytime entries, including "Sunset Beach," "General Hospital" spinoff "Port Charles" and NBC's soon-to-be-canceled "Passions," have also ended in short-lived runs.
Meanwhile, daytime soap audiences continue to fall. Year-to-date ratings for the nine afternoon serials are down 4% versus the same time period in the previous year. Among the key women 18 to 49 demographic, figures have fallen 6%.
But SoapNet is hard at work on what it hopes will be the remedy. "Night Shift" will not only feature existing characters from "General Hospital," which is on a ratings high following the show's February hostage crisis story line, it will also expand the focus from a soap's trademark tangled web of romance to include the patients and their illnesses.
"We're hoping to attract not just lapsed fans but viewers who aren't hooked on a soap yet," said Jill Farren Phelps, executive producer of "Night Shift" and "General Hospital," and a 20-year veteran of producing daytime serials.
McCullough, one of the new show's stars, is not yet 30 but has spent nearly half her life playing Robin Scorpio on "General Hospital." She first joined the cast at age 7 as the daughter of Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers), returning two years ago as a now HIV-positive doctor. She began her romance with the womanizing neurosurgeon Patrick Drake, son of Noah Drake ( Rick Springfield) last November.
"These are the kids of legacy characters Robert Scorpio and Noah Drake, giants of 'General Hospital' history," said SoapNet executive vice president and general manager Deborah Blackwell. "She's HIV positive, he's trying to change his ways, and they're in love. It's an incredibly compelling story line."
Anchoring the show around the fresh-faced couple gives them a leg up, Phelps said. "It's nice to start with the premise of a love story. Viewers know Robin and Patrick but haven't seen a ton happen to them just yet. It gives us something to follow and root for right away," she said. The pair will continue to appear on "General Hospital."
Daniel R. Coleridge, TV Guide soap columnist and author of "The Q Guide to Soap Operas," said that power pairs like that are precisely what is missing from the daytime genre.
"What soaps lack isn't slapping or catfights. It's romance," he said. "Soaps are really devoid of good romance. There are no super couples anymore," he said citing "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura characters.
But executives don't want "Night Shift" to be your mother's "General Hospital" and Robin and Patrick's love story will get some company from the various ills and plagues of their patients, who will be played by a variety of guest stars.
"The heart of the show will be about the cases and how they impact our doctors," said Brian Frons, president of Disney-ABC TV Group. The series will also tackle "grittier" and more "controversial" subject matter, according to Blackwell, who added that "daytime standards are different from what we can do in prime-time."
Also in pursuit of new viewers, a faster, close-ended structure similar to that of other medical dramas, such as "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" will be used. "You won't need to know the entire history of 'General Hospital' to watch," Blackwell said.
That invitation to new viewers is essential for SoapNet, as was sexing things up with a younger cast. That's because more troubling than the genre's overall dips in daytime is the steep 21% drop in ratings among younger women 18 to 34 -- a stat that questions the future of the genre and its weakening grip on female viewers.
One might argue that "General Hospital" has already gone "prime-time" in some ways, fending off audience fragmentation by deploying a series of dramatic turns that stand out from standard soap fare. During February sweeps, the show's various story lines intersected in the intense Metro Court hostage crisis event that took place over the course of a month. Writers deployed a "24"-style real-time storytelling approach, flashing back to the 16 hours leading up to the crisis.
The stunt paid off. "General Hospital" was the No. 1-ranked program in daytime that month, delivered a 2.3 rating/13 share and 1.5 million women 18 to 49. The show also topped all key women demos, the first show to do so in a decade.
Even with the demise of MyNetworkTV's telenovelas, prime-time might just be ripe for a new serial, columnist Coleridge said.
"It isn't that prime-time soaps aren't a viable genre," he said. "MyNetworkTV's soaps failed because, even with all the familiar faces, the stories sucked. The creative wasn't there."
SoapNet, now available in 61.4 million homes, is also taking more chances in how it programs to future generations of soap fans. The cable channel already has a sturdy franchise in "I Wanna Be a Soap Star," a search for the genre's next talents, going into its fourth season this summer. Also in development are more scripted dramas and even a few unscripted ones.
"There is some stuff we're working on that is reality-based, like [ Bravo's] 'Real Housewives of Orange County,' which is like a new form of soap," Frons said. "SoapNet has to hit on it all, old and new."