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New hopes for soaps

With ratings falling, daypart migrates to high-tech platforms

TIP SHEET
What: Daytime Emmy Awards
When: April 28, 2006
Where: Kodak Theater, Hollywood
TV: ABC (live)
Factoid: This is the first time the kudofest has been held outside New York.

While elements of daytime have returned to the go-go ’80s — Rick Springfield is back on “General Hospital” — the days of watching soaps in the traditional sense are long gone.

Daytime content is migrating to different platforms as has product found in primetime and other dayparts. From soaps to talkshows to children’s programming, it’s all about finding the best ways to maximize content.

The industry gathers for the Daytime Emmys on April 28 in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, the first time in 33 years the awards have been held outside New York. There, bizzers will hand out trophies and discuss ways to keep the daypart an integral — and financially rewarding — part of the TV landscape.

The move to new platforms has become necessary as traditional daytime broadcast ratings have been tanking for a while now. Numbers have been soft for more than a decade, following the O.J. Simpson trial and the proliferation of niche cable nets and wider access to the Internet.

According to Annamarie Kostura, VP of NBC daytime, “All our lives have changed, and, as an industry, we have to adapt to that and all the different formats that are now available. We have to make our product available to viewers wherever they are.”

One of Kostura’s two shows, spooky sudser “Passions,” recently joined the daytime lineup of NBC Universal sibling Sci Fi Channel in reruns. “This is a chance for viewers to (go outside traditional viewing timeslots) and see how their favorite characters have evolved,” she observes.

The daypart is actively embracing new technology. CBS decided to podcast its two oldest shows, “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns,” which harkens back to the genre’s radio roots.

“We view new technology as an asset,” says Barbara Bloom, CBS daytime topper. “I’m a very proactive person in terms of selling a story in different ways, and I believe that our stories will hold water across the board.”

Unfortunately, technology isn’t the only thing that’s changing in the soap world. According to “As the World

Turns” actress Helen Wagner, a mainstay since the show’s premiere 50 years ago, “Soap characters have gone from being friendly neighbors to people who are looking for trouble and trying to do other people in. Perhaps that’s true in life, but I don’t think we should reflect society as much as we should look at the audience with respect and consideration.”

ABC Daytime president Brian Frons doesn’t subscribe to Wagner’s rose-colored outlook.

“The pattern of the last decade is to tell faster-paced stories about characters that are more contemporary. Viewers are looking for their lives mirrored in their soaps. On ‘General Hospital,’ we have a young female doctor who is HIV-positive. These kinds of touchstones are what the audience is looking for.”

Frons also understands that fans no longer watch en masse in college dorms, or at their grandmothers’ knees.

“We’re going out of our way to let people know what’s happening right now on their shows and what’s coming up next week. Also, now they can have musical ringtones and characters’ voices from their soaps. The new media stuff, in terms of daytime, has been like the bonus material you find on a DVD. It augments the action and rewards the viewer.”

Even the high priestess of perfection, Martha Stewart, is making a concerted effort to make her daytime syndicated show more viewer-friendly, as ratings in her first season have been disappointing.

“We try to find the sweet spot that makes it challenging and unique enough to be interesting, but not so over the top that it’s unattainable,” explains Sheraton Kalouria, president of Martha Stewart Living Television and a vet of ABC and NBC’s daytime divisions.

“Martha” was thought to have an advantage, being executive produced by reality guru Mark Burnett, but that hasn’t proved true: Burnett brought press, not ratings.

Press attention is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

“We’re getting a little bit of money from our new media initiatives right now,” ABC’s Frons admits about the daytime industry, “and hopefully, in the not-to-distant future, there will be a stronger stream of positive income.”

When that day will arrive is anyone’s guess.

“I’ve always said that if you build it, the audience will come,” quips one daytime programming veteran. “Our challenge today is to find an undeveloped neighborhood and build it stronger and cheaper than we’ve done in the past.”