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Daytime Emmy Contenders Tackle Tough Social Issues

Soaps continue long history of turning spotlight in taboo topics

Social issues, disease, death and musical numbers are all familiar territory on primetime television — and fodder for awards — so it should not be a surprise that some of the past year’s most poignant moments of daytime TV cover that very same ground.

“What we can do, which sets us apart and makes this genre unique, is to explore all of the moments of the story and all of the beats and feel like the audience hasn’t missed a moment of the emotional journey that the characters are going through,” says “General Hospital” exec producer Frank Valentini.

This year, there were certainly many moments worth exploring. On CBS’ “The Bold and the Beautiful,” fans said a final goodbye to one of its original cast members in November with the death of Stephanie Forrester (Susan Flannery).

“I was so proud of that whole story,” says exec producer Brad Bell. “It was a great sendoff for a great character and a great actress. It was one of the highlights of the series.”

Flannery had approached Bell about her departure from the show in time for him to give the character a proper farewell. As Stephanie was already in the middle of a cancer storyline, Bell thought the most honest choice was to have her lose that battle. To have her die in the arms of her arch-nemesis, Brooke Logan Forrester (Katherine Kelly Lang) only made the moment more memorable.

“It was a story about forgiveness,” says Bell. “It was a story about celebrating differences and really realizing that hating someone who is so different from you is so easy, but it gets you nowhere.”

CBS’ other daytime show, “The Young and the Restless,” explored disease from the angle of survival. This spring Nikki Newman (Melody Thomas Scott) was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which seemed like a harsh destiny for a character who had already been plagued by divorce, death threats and alcoholism. But as she struggled with her diagnosis and the symptoms of this debilitating disease, it ultimately couldn’t stand in the way of true love — Nikki and Victor (Eric Braeden) ended up remarrying in March.

“One of the things that we wanted to be able to do is to show that people do live with this disease, and Melody has received a tremendous amount of positive fan reaction especially from our viewers who have MS and who are happy that we’re showing that the disease is not fatal,” says exec producer Jill Farren Phelps. “We should be able to show that people can have life happen and live happily ever after … or not.”

Meanwhile, at a hospital across networks, ABC’s “General Hospital” paid tribute to its long history by bringing back the iconic Nurses’ Ball after more than a decade — and extended it to three days.

“The audience was dying for it,” says Valentini. “It was something that they really missed, and in terms of celebrating the 50th anniversary of “General Hospital,” we wanted to focus in on something that was like a lightning rod for the celebration.” The event, which included a performance from “Dancing With the Stars” alumni Kelly Monaco and Maksim Chmerkovskiy and songs sung by Jack Wagner and Rick Springfield, resulted in “GH” ranking as the seventh-most trending show on social media that week.

“This audience is very savvy,” Valentini says. “And they love music, so we sold the two songs on iTunes and they scooped them up. We sold about 4,000 units without any promotion whatsoever.”

If further evidence is needed of how progressive the daytime audience is, it would be their acceptance of the coming-out storyline on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”

“Even before the story started, I started getting mail from people saying, ‘We support it a hundred percent,’ ” recalls Chandler Massey, who last year won a Daytime Emmy for his portrayal of Will Horton. “It was a nice surprise.”

While some criticized the daytime show for taking its time with the storyline, Massey sees Will’s coming out, gradual acceptance by his family and eventual relationship with Sonny (Freddie Smith) as happening at a pace that it would in the real world.

“The advantage of daytime over primetime is that there’s so much more air time to tell these stories and make them realistic,” Massey says.

For an industry that was given its last rites not too long ago, the creative teams behind the remaining four daytime dramas are feeling a renaissance of sorts, with excitement to push the storytelling for years to come.

“It’s such a positive time now,” says Farren Phelps. “I’ve been through the times when it still wasn’t even a thought that daytime would ever go away, and I’ve done it during the time when show after show was being canceled. So to be in a place where we’re being supported and we’re excited about what we’re doing is just thrilling. It’s not actually a thing I thought I’d see again, but we’re here.”

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