Wednesday, December 31, 2008

FLASHBACK: Focus The Dirty Battle Over Soaps 1992

Focus The Dirty Battle Over Soaps

By Paula Span
Los Angeles Times
July 5, 1992

Hot news! Soap Opera Weekly staffer Gretchen Keene was on the set of ALL MY CHILDREN, dutifully reporting a cover story on the Pine Valley High prom, when a gossipy crew member confirmed the rumors: Ceara was leaving the cast. The informant even slipped Keene the date of Ceara's final episode.

"We're the only ones to know when!" Keene, back at her desk, calls over to news editor Gabrielle Winkel, at Soap Opera Weekly's Manhattan newsroom.

Ceara, played by former GENERAL HOSPITAL star Genie Francis, has had a heckuva year, what with the incest revelations and her killing her father, followed by marriage to her onetime fiance's dad. But lately her story line's been dribbling out. Reporters on the ALL MY CHILDREN beat had been speculating about her exit for months-fatal crash? crime of passion?-but Keene nailed the specific day before her rivals.

In a period when more magazines seemed to be dying than being born, soap opera publishing has become a boom industry.

First the old standby, Soap Opera Digest (a biweekly), introduced the timelier Soap Opera Weekly in late 1989. Last fall the National Enquirer people launched a competing weekly, Soap Opera Magazine.

Two television networks, watching other media companies feast on their programming, began offering their own glossy soap magazines, available through 900 phone numbers: ABC's bimonthly Episodes and NBC's less regularly published Daydreams.

Now the owners of the Digest and the Weekly, believing that the market still isn't saturated, are about to unveil Soap Opera Illustrated, a picture-heavy monthly expected on newsstands in late August.

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"This has been one of the most overlooked categories in all of publishing," says Bill Abrams, who runs soap opera marketing for ABC. "The interesting thing is, everybody's doing well."

Soap opera fans are famous for their loyalty: Two-thirds of those who tune into the hourlong soaps have been watching for five years or more, Abrams says. And it is clear from the 17-year success of Soap Opera Digest that they want to learn more about the stories, characters and actors than daily viewing can provide.

"The soap opera audience is insatiable," says Mary Ann Cooper, associate editor of Soap Opera Magazine. "Lucky for us."

The audience is also, perversely, smaller than it used to be, the women who once hung on a character's every affair having marched off in record numbers to join the work force.

About 8.7 million adults (three-quarters of them women) were daytime drama watchers in 1991, down more than 3 million from 1987, according to the data keepers at Mediamark Research Inc. More than half of those viewers worked full or part time.

So the soap books offer pages of show-by-show recaps and previews and highlight those episodes worth programming a VCR for. "We make it possible for people who can't watch every day to still be soap fans," says Mimi Torchin, editor in chief of the Weekly.

Close to 1.5 million buy the Digest, according to the latest figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and another 529,000 buy the Weekly. The Magazine hasn't been audited yet, but Editor Joseph Policy says it's selling about 360,000 a week.

Add in the 1.5 million who get ABC's Episodes every other month, the 7,500 or so "hard-core fans" and industry types who subscribe to the weekly newsletter Soap Opera Now, and readers of assorted smaller magazines, then quickly the number of fans who read about DAYS OF OUR LIVES and ONE LIFE TO LIVE begins to approach the number who watch them.

But soap opera journalism is a specialized form. "They don't want their illusions destroyed," Policy says of his readers. "They want to know things about actors, but only certain things, not the bad stuff. Not that they're having affairs or are alcoholics." All those betrayed spouses and long-lost siblings and licentious reprobates on daytime are "not just characters, they're friends. So you treat them as friends."

The magazines treat the industry gently, too. Even at the Weekly, which is probably the most journalistically aggressive and has the largest staff, "it's our policy never to reveal things that would ruin a story for viewers," Torchin says.

Each tabloid assigns reporters to each show, tracks the inevitable cast comings and goings, hints at outrageous adventures to come, interviews the stars and pours on the photographs. The differences between them have to do with attitude.

The Magazine buys into the fantasy more. Tales of backstage tensions and such realities as Nielsen ratings are considered of little interest; editors tend to keep their opinions to themselves.

When Policy was planning the launch, a prominent producer cautioned that to succeed, the new publication should be a love affair with soaps. "That's exactly what this is, it's a fan magazine," Policy says.

The Weekly is not a fan magazine, Torchin says. It pays more attention to the business and airs more opinions from its own columnists and readers. She writes a weekly editorial in which, last January, she offered pointed New Year's resolutions ("DAYS OF OUR LIVES should resolve to bring back from the dead only one person a year.")

Meanwhile, everyone's circulation is up and the scramble for scandal continues apace.

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