FLASHBACK: Putting Pizazz Into Soaps 1989

Lathering up Producers put pizazz into soaps to keep loyalty of old audience

By Alan Carter
New York Daily News
May 18, 1989

As late as 1969, you wouldn't dare say the word "pregnant" on daytime television. Today, you can practically witness conception-or a fairly convincing facsimile.

What's going on here? Nothing more complicated than savvy salesmanship.

As the daytime audience has dwindled over the last decade, mostly because of a burgeoning female work force, programmers have snazzed up and jazzed up their daytime dramas in an effort to hold onto the old audience.

This approach works. There is evidence that, if the material is sufficiently compelling, even those who go out to work will set their VCRs so they can watch their favorite soaps at night.

At the same time, daytime dramas have attracted a new, hipper, younger audience. Organ music and gossiping over coffee are out; sex, rock music, topical issues are in. Especially this month, which is a "sweeps" month-an important ratings period that is used to determine advertising rates. We can expect even more sex, more adventure, foreign intrigue, more weddings, and more sex. And occasionally they'll throw in a few lines of dialogue.

Cheap talk? No way. It's daytime TV, after all, where the major networks make their major profits. With lower overhead and cheaper production costs than prime time, daytime programing is an industry worth billions of dollars a year.

Okay, advertising revenue has been down slightly as a result of the audience slippage, which means the network profit margin is lower. But the dip hasn't stopped NBC (third in the afternoon ratings race, behind CBS and ABC) from launching a new drama: GENERATIONS. If successful, this half-hour soap could mean more than a $50 million profit for the Peacock Network.

Granted, many of those bucks will result from GENERATIONS following the lead of other soaps by titillating viewers with characters who are apt to appear in compromising positions.

It wasn't always so. Veteran daytime actor Don Hastings (for the last 30 years Dr. Bob Hughes on CBS' AS THE WORLD TURNS) remembers when even actors portraying married couples couldn't be shown in the same bed.

Brian Frons, NBC's vice president for daytime, does concede a small audience erosion. He attributes it to the "independent stations who throw popular movies against us, and to HBO, which is on 24 hours a day. The networks, especially in the afternoon, are basically being nibbled to death by other programing sources."

But JoAnn Emmerich, ABC's senior vice president for daytime programing, says the Nielsens "are not measuring where many people watch soaps. Like in colleges, in hospitals and the many people who watch in offices during their lunch hour. They are not measuring the Mets' locker room-or the Phillies' or the Cardinals' or the New Jersey Devils' or the Cincinnati Bengals.' Lots of people watch the soaps who are never surveyed-lots of rich young men and lots of working women. I would tell the advertising community to take another look."

Ironically, the supposedly dwindling audience has forged changes in the daytime medium. "Stories we used to tell in six months are now told in six weeks," Don Hastings says. "We're a story smorgasbord."

And programmers are now willing to put more meat on the table. Today's daytime dramas have more adult, intelligent fare (the occasional escapist sci-fi clinker notwithstanding). And once-taboo story lines-homosexuality (on AS THE WORLD TURNS), interracial marriage (on GENERAL HOSPITAL, ALL MY CHILDREN and a number of others), as well as an overall increased minority presence (on the new GENERATIONS, which has introduced to daytime audiences a rare black nuclear family)-turn up with more frequency.

The reasons, as Frons says, are simple: "It's a competitive time. And no one is going to lie down and concede a single viewer."

Despite the possibly dwindling audience, industry insiders regard the genre's future as bright. MTV has said it intends to create a daily soap, and each network has others in pre-production. NBC is even toying with the idea of an afternoon all-comedy/soap amalgam.

Helen Wagner, for 33 years the matriarch of AS THE WORLD TURNS in the role of Nancy, worked in daytime when the shows were black and white, live and 15 minutes long. She toiled in the medium when the prestige level was low, and has seen all the changes.

Wagner likens the soaps' enduring popularity to the human penchant for a good story: "The tribe will always gather around the fire at night to hear the storyteller weave a tale," she says. "Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone wants to hear our stories."

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