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Sudsers go for the kill

Murder and mayhem soak up strong ratings

Luke and Laura, get over yourselves.

Dusty from years of audience erosion, soap operas are looking to restore their sudsy sheen by introducing a round of shock-and-awe plotlines more melo-operatic than ever before.

Wackiness is nothing new in daytime, a genre well-known for its bizarro plot twists. But in recent months, suds scribes have moved from over-the-top to off-the-cliff.

Consider these recent jaw-droppers:

  • Fans of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” recently discovered that one of the most beloved characters on the show — Dr. Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall) — is the serial killer who has murdered seven popular characters this season. Before the radical “Salem Stalker” storyline ends next January, three more characters will have been killed. Plot was the brainchild of “Days” head writer Jim Reilly, who returned to the suds in September.

  • ABC Daytime has just set a fire — literally — on “General Hospital,” with the net forking over an unprecedented $1 million for production costs associated with the inferno. In the plotline, “GH” characters gathered at the Port Charles Hotel when a fire broke out. The aftermath of the blaze will create a wealth of fresh storylines, according to ABC Daytime prexy Brian Frons.

  • Currently wreaking havoc on Alphabet sudser “One Life to Live” is the “Music Box Killer,” a plot twist that has allowed writers to inject a police procedural storyline (call it “CSI: Daytime”).

What’s more, the nets are putting their money where their melodrama is.

“The fire lasted well over two weeks on air. We took over another set stage. We commissioned CGI special effects. We used 200 extras. We hired a helicopter for a rooftop rescue. That’s something soaps never do. That’s not what our stock-and-trade is,” Frons says.

Exec says the nets have no choice but to start investing more resources in daytime.

“The world has become much more congested,” Frons says. “In the old days, there were just the three of us networks. We need to not only tell good stories but also invest in production, creating a more compelling environment for our advertisers.”

Adds NBC senior VP of daytime Sheraton Kalouria: “For too long, we’ve operated under the cloud of declining ratings. We needed something to show that the tales of our demise were grossly overstated.”

There’s evidence the megaplots are paying off for daytime. Season-to-date, ABC, CBS and NBC are all seeing growth over last year, whether in total viewers or key demos.

“Days” viewership has gone up dramatically, with the show shooting to No. 1 in women 18-49, the key daytime demo.

“Since Jim took over the show again around Labor Day, we have doubled our household ratings and our demos. That’s remarkable in the course of four or five months,” says Ken Corday, whose company produces “Days” in association with Sony Pictures Television.

At ABC, the daytime lineup also is showing growth over last year, including female teenagers. Daytime execs are still waiting to see what impact the “GH” fire will have on ratings. CBS suds remain the most watched in terms of total viewers.

And despite years of erosion, daytime is still valuable to Madison Ave.

Total daytime ad sales for ABC, CBS and NBC were up in 2003 for first time in six years. Combined revenues topped out at roughly $890 million last year, up 6% from 2002, when ad revenues totaled $841 million.

“I think soap operas are a healthy business. During the last upfront, we saw some strong movement into daytime because it is the most cost-efficient daypart for advertisers,” says CBS exec VP of research and planning David Poltrack. “People always talk about cable being the bargain, but the real bargain in television may be daytime.”

The bottom line remains, however: Daytime still faces an uphill struggle.

And the hyped storylines are something of a behavior modification program, designed to get the semi-loyal viewer to tune in again five days per week, versus once or twice.

Long gone are the lazy afternoons when soaps had large enough audiences to become a cultural phenom, as happened with the wedding of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital” in 1981. Those nuptials drew 30 million viewers.

Daytime TV was hit hard by the advent of cable. Suddenly, viewers had plenty of other destinations and types of programming to choose from. At the same time, large numbers of women were entering the workforce.

Suds also took a punch in the stomach during the O.J. Simpson trial, when regular programming was often preempted to carry coverage of the real-life soap drama. Significant declines continued sporadically throughout the 1990s, and again in the first part of the new millennium.

Worried that daytime could go the way of syndication, nets have brought in a new generation of execs to lead an overhaul of the sudser universe.

NBC’s Kalouria arrived at the Peacock in 2000 from ABC Daytime, where he was VP of marketing and promotion. Frons arrived at the Alphabet in the summer of 2002 after spending time in Europe working for TV station group conglom SBS Broadcasting. Barbara Bloom was named senior VP of CBS daytime and children’s programming a little over a year ago.

All three execs share a defining quality: a strongheavy background in marketing, which is translating into more soap promos on primetime and more advertiser tie-ins.

Indeed, save the occasional Luke and Laura storyline, the soap world has usually been self-contained. It’s rare to see a major daytime plot twist covered on “Entertainment Tonight.”

The “Salem Stalker” proved to be an exception, with strategically placed primetime promotions catching the attention of non-suds-viewers.

Kalouria said NBC Entertainment, News and Cable prexy Jeff Zucker allowed for such promotions to air on NBC during the Golden Globe Awards.

“All three of the networks are really trying to challenge and inspire their shows, and shake up any sense of complacency,” Bloom says. Exec isn’t completely sold on the value of NBC and ABC’s hijinks.

“The question is, what is the story going to be when it’s over?” Bloom says. “You can spike the numbers –my hat is off to NBC — but once you get the audience here, how are you going to keep it there?”

Kalouria says the decision to introduce the serial killer on “Days” wasn’t made lightly. He and Corday looked at each with some amount of alarm when Reilly pitched the stalker storyline.

“If we didn’t have some anxiety, I don’t think we would be getting these results. A risk factor is a must,” Kalouria said. “We needed to put electrical paddles on the chest of the patient and give it a jolt.”

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