Webs lather up with new soaps

After years of broadcasting bigamy, burglary and bitches through inexpensive talkshows, networks have suddenly switched course in the battle for daytime supremacy and are now offering … well … bigamy, burglary and bitches through a red-hot stream of revitalized soap operas.

Sudsers have long been a risky property for daytime — production costs can skyrocket to $1 million a week for an hourlong soap because of elaborate sets and rising star salaries, with no repeats. In contrast, talker costs average about $10 million a year delivering around 39 weeks of original programming.

The last soap opera to hit the airwaves and survive was “The Bold and the Beautiful” in 1987 on CBS. Before that was “The Young and the Restless” in 1973, also on CBS. With a difficult track record at best, why are two new soaps “Port Charles” and Aaron Spelling’s “Sunset Beach” finding their way to the tube?

“Dramas are in,” says Susan D. Lee, NBC’s veep of daytime programming. “I think what we’ve learned is that talkshows have a limited shelf life. They may be cheaper but they have a very limited run.”

Pro-soap policy

With $40 million a year in profits — significantly more than the average talkshow — networks execs looked past the 30 percent drop of the targeted 18-49 year old female viewers in the past decade.

The new pro-soap policy marks a turn for NBC, long lagging in overall daytime ratings. In the beginning of the decade, the network canceled “Santa Barbara” and “Generations” despite an enormous fan following overseas. “We actually are already in more countries than Santa Barbara ever was,” says Gary Thomlin, exec producer of “Sunset Beach,” which has also struck a cord with international viewers. Spelling’s company, Worldvision is sharing a percentage of worldwide sales with NBC while the show builds domestically. “In Israel, where we’re shown at 8:00 p.m., our stars got mobbed.”

Spelling’s show came in with a goal of bringing “nighttime into daytime,” but producers of the $30 million show quickly learned that daytime soaps were designed differently for a reason.

“Audiences generally can’t watch daytime television five days a week,” says Thomlin, “they started to lose track of storylines when we moved at a nighttime pace. So we had to trim down the characters and focus on fewer storylines or risk losing viewers.”

While rumors of NBC programming all daytime talkshows surfaced in 1993, “Days of our Lives” suddenly shot from the lower echelons of the ratings to the upper rung when a favorite character was buried alive. Suddenly, net execs rethought their strategy, and started planning more dramas for the daytime plate.

“You really get larger audiences through soaps,” says Lee. “The viewing audience is huge, and so many young people go unaccounted in the Nielsens. We have been making an effort to attract all the 17 to 18 year old girls now because they will eventually grow into loyal viewers.”

Talkshows still popular

Still, with the unexpected success of “Rosie” and the slew of clones preparing to launch a similar formatted program by Fall ’98, including Howie Mandel, Roseanne, Barbara Walters and Donny and Marie Osmond, clearly talkshows aren’t quite ready to go gentle into the good night.

But with a disappointing 2.4 rating and 9 share from Walters’ first week with “The View,” ABC execs are counting on the longterm popularity of its daytime dramas to carry the momentum. In June, “General Hospital” spin-off “Port Charles” debuted to solid ratings. Now producers are counting on a fan base to start building, a process that can take up to two years.”When we talked about the spin-off, we recognized that 70% of ‘General Hospital’ viewers were still accessible to watch ‘Port Charles,’ ” says Wendy Riche, executive producer of the spin-off. “We’re holding our audience, and we are pleased. Now our goal is to draw in viewers new to daytime. After all, viewers to these kind of programs get passed down from one generation to the next, and that’s a substantial foundation to work with.”

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