Another world for daytime dramas

Like so many of its long-suffering heroines, the soap opera is being undone by a lack of commitment -- from its viewers.

April 25, 1999|By los angeles daily news

Nearly 50 years ago, television soap operas were a housewife's best friend. In between doing laundry and preparing dinner for the family, the lady of the house could tune in to tales of romance and family squabbles, love triangles and lost loves.

But times have changed. Increasingly, today's women spend their time in school or at work, talk shows rival soaps for outrageous can-you-believe-it shockers, and cable gives viewers many more places to look for entertainment.

While even the viewer-tracking A.C. Nielsen Co. says it's hard to compare today's TV audience with that of nearly a half-century ago, it's clear that fewer people are captivated by daytime drama today.

In May 1953, with only three soaps on the air, the No. 1-rated "Search for Tomorrow" drew viewers from 4.6 million households -- 22.6 percent of all homes with a television set turned on, according to Nielsen records.

Soaps' popularity continued to grow. In 1969-1970, there were 19 daytime serials -- an all-time high -- on the air. By November 1981, when the teen-age Laura Webber married rogue Luke Spencer on "General Hospital," soap analysts estimate 30 million people's lives ground to a halt as they watched.

But by May 1998, "The Young and the Restless," No. 1-rated among 11 daytime dramas, was pulling in 6.5 million viewers -- only 6.7 percent of households with sets turned on.

Many blame the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in 1994 -- and the networks' pre-empting of fictional daytime drama to air the real-life courtroom drama -- as a harsh jolt of reality for soap opera audiences.

"Soap operas are an addiction," said Mimi Torchin, editor in chief of Soap Opera Weekly magazine. "And during the O.J. trial, there were people who found that they weren't going to drop dead if they didn't see their soaps.

"Soap operas are a form that take a great deal of commitment, and we just don't have that time anymore. ... And after a certain amount of time, if you haven't kept up, you've lost interest."

Soap producers desperately trying to hang onto viewers have been upping their quotient of evil twins, back-from-the-dead villains and ever-in-peril ingenues, mixed generously with stories of demonic possession, space aliens and natural disasters. But the ratings have barely budged.

Two newer daytime dramas that premiered in 1997 are consistently the lowest-rated in the Nielsens. NBC's "Sunset Beach" steadily places No. 11 in the lineup of 11 soaps. And "Port Charles," an ABC spinoff of venerable "General Hospital," regularly ranks No. 10.

Still, NBC hopes to involve viewers in the lives of four New England families on a new soap, "Passions," set to air beginning July 5.

The show will replace "Another World," which will cease airing June 25. The show, which has been on the air since 1964, was the first soap to expand to one hour, and was the first daytime drama to give birth -- albeit briefly -- to spinoffs, "Somerset" and "Texas."

Disney is trying a dose of night-time soap broadcast to boost daytime ratings. In mid-January 2000, Disney, which owns ABC, will begin a 24-hour channel for soap opera fans, featuring same-day rebroadcasts of the four ABC soaps ("All My Children," "General Hospital," "One Life to Live" and "Port Charles") as well as episodes of vintage ABC soaps and movies "with special appeal to this audience," said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks.

The all-soaps channel test-marketed well during six-month trials last year in Chicago and Houston, said Sweeney. And the idea of airing old soaps got a broadcast tryout in spring 1997, when ABC gave its daytime ratings a boost by airing past highlights from "All My Children," "One Life to Live" and "General Hospital."

Judging from those responses, there's every reason to believe soaps will always be a popular medium, said Michael Logan, TV Guide's soap opera writer.

"The human race digs the cliff-hanger, digs the continuing story," he said.

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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