New York Carrie Lannon eagerly looks forward to unwinding at the end of a hectic day. When she completes her work, which sometimes spills over into the night, she rushes home, kicks off her shoes and watches a videotape of her favorite soap opera.
"For me, instead of having a cocktail or doing something else to calm down from work, I can't wait to get home, sit on the bed and turn on 'All My Children,' " says the director of public relations and promotions for Chicago's Inter-Continental Hotel on Michigan Avenue. "It's a harmless way to unwind. It gives me something to look forward to. It's been my little secret."
Ms. Lannon isn't alone with her little secret. An increasing share of the soap opera audience is made up of corporate executives, investment bankers, lawyers and other professional women who set their VCRs to tape their favorite soaps and watch them in the evenings or on weekends. And many of them are finally, though sometimes reluctantly, disclosing their little secret: They enjoy watching daytime soap operas and if they can't watch them during the day, they'll make sure they see them at night.
"There used to be a certain stigma attached to soap operas -- this was lowbrow entertainment and not for those with an education," says Denise Slaughter, a program officer with the National Press Foundation in Washington and graduate of Brown University. "It has evolved to the point where we now admit to watching them."
Mimi White, head of Northwestern University's radio, TV and film department, says the fact that these women are being more open about their soap fanaticism -- not the fanaticism itself -- is a new phenomenon. And that, she says, can be attributed to the fact that soaps are more widely accepted in mainstream culture.
"Also, many of us are baby boomers who are coming out of the closet about a lot of things," Ms. Slaughter says. "People are openly gay, there is a willingness to discuss our marriages and this is a generation that is not afraid of discussing private things in public."
Private things like taping two soap operas every day. Ruby Alston, a personnel coordinator for the Xerox Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., says she has watched soap operas on a regular basis for 20 years and she has no intention of quitting.
"It may be late in the evening, but I watch them," says Ms. Alston. "If for any reason I don't get an opportunity to watch them at night, I guarantee you that I will see them in the morning before I go to work. Xerox will never see me until I've seen 'The Young and the Restless' and 'The Bold and the Beautiful.'
"I love them," she says. "I look forward to seeing them every day. A lot of people think it's a fantasy world and a bunch of garbage. But that's not true. I find that, at times, it parallels my life and the lives of a lot of people I know.
"Basically, I like a true story. And as dramatic as these soap operas are, they are realistic. It's great entertainment."
Judging by the ratings, many women -- and some men who are still reluctant to go public -- share that enthusiasm. More than 50 million households tune in to the soaps every day.
Some want to know if Erica, who was blackmailed into becoming Adam Chandler's wife on "All My Children," has ever gotten over her extramarital affair with Jackson Montgomery. And they want to know what Dimitri will do now that Natalie has broken off their engagement because Dimitri's wife, given up for dead, has come out of her coma. And how long will it take before Dimitri and the manipulative Erica begin a tempestuous love affair?
David Turkat, an Atlanta psychologist who studies the effects of television, says that often watching soaps can be beneficial.
"In the overwhelming majority of cases, viewing soap operas has a lot of positive benefits, particularly if it's used as a way to look at your life and how you've handled similar situations or situations you may be facing down the line," Mr. Turkat explains.
"At least, it gives you some prospective options in terms of how you can behave in those situations."
He says soap viewers form emotional attachments to characters the same way they become emotionally attached to close friends.
Ms. Lannon, the hotel executive, says she likes becoming absorbed in "All My Children."
"It's the most enjoyable part of my day," she says. "I can turn everything else off and turn that show on. It's the way I make the transition to being at home," she added. "I decompress. I can then go about my activities and not think about work."