Daytime Emmys Preview: Soaps Keep Audiences With Long-Term Characters

It’s debatable that there are any “new viewers” out there willing to commit to watching a network soap five days a week. However, the remaining four broadcast soaps have a strategy to maintain their existing audiences, and ward off the threat of cancellation, which has claimed their rivals in recent years: Shine a spotlight on beloved, long-term characters.

That strategy is evident in the episodes each of the four surviving soaps (“The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital” and “The Young and the Restless”) selected as submissions for the Daytime Emmys drama series prize.

Both “General Hospital” submissions are loaded with veteran players, but couldn’t be more different in terms of content. An anniversary episode, featuring black and white segments, harkens back to the show’s early days. The episode resolves the “Fluke” storyline, explaining Luke Spencer’s bizarre behavior and how his parents died.

“The anniversary episode was a concept that (head writer) Ron Carlivati came up with,” says exec producer Frank Valentini. “I was completely blown away by it. It was a fun episode to do and it made the past the present and the present the past. We loved it on paper, loved it when we shot it, and the fans loved it on-air.”

The second “GH” episode involves high-stakes drama set against a charity gala backdrop and features a musical performance by India Arie. “There were a lot of great legacy characters in that episode,” says Valentini.

Days of Our Lives” also opted for an anniversary episode, which features a sentimental flashback using late original cast members Macdonald Carey and Frances
Reid. “From the writing to the acting to the directing, these shows were captivating drama and we are very proud of them,” says exec producer Ken Corday.

The “Days” submission also includes Susan Seaforth Hayes’ character Julie advising step-granddaughter Ciara on the hazards of shoplifting — a poignant beat as Julie had been busted herself for trying to swipe a mink stole from a local department store in the show’s 1965 premiere.

“That’s the riches of this medium,” says Seaforth Hayes. “I was delighted that someone remembered that Julie has a past and got to share that with Ciara. Our audience hasn’t melted away. It’s the stalwarts who remember us.”

Half-hour sudser “The Bold and the Beautiful” exercised its option to submit two sets of back-to-back episodes instead of merely submitting two half-hour episodes. Executive producer/head writer Bradley Bell says the show’s material — featuring the romance of transgender character Maya Avant and legacy character Rick Forrester — was worthy of the added time. “It really gives a sense of story, the arc,” says Bell. “We thought we should go for it. Social issue stories have been a part of daytime since the beginning. You see that everyone is human, trying to navigate this thing called life.”

Carol Shure, a two-time Emmy-winning producer of the departed soap “As the World Turns,” applauds “Bold” for its social issues but notes that voters used to see more ground-breaking content in Emmy submissions. “Over the years, soaps went from being topical, daring and nervy to being more cautious,” Shure says. Why the shift? “Perhaps because of the way the country was moving, more towards conservatism.”

The Young and the Restless,” daytime’s top soap, has kept its core veteran cast intact for years, which is exemplified in its Emmy submissions. The back-to-back episodes highlight the reactions of the Newman and Abbott clans to the revelation that Adam Newman, the late Delia Abbott’s hit-and-run driver, was alive.

“These episodes showcase an umbrella story with outstanding writing, directing and performances and are an excellent representation of one of our most impactful stories from the past year,” says exec producer Jill Farren Phelps.

Drawing new viewers continues to be a challenge as budgets for promotion, like resources for the soaps themselves, continue to be cut. However, Angelica McDaniel, CBS executive VP of daytime programs and syndicated program development, recently launched “Not Safe for Daytime,” a series of digital videos promoting the daytime lineup.

“We’re realistic to the evolution of how viewers consume TV, and how many distractions there are” says McDaniel. “We all live in a multi-screen world. ‘Not Safe For Daytime’ lets us thank our 28 million weekly viewers by giving them more content in a fresh, fun and irreverent way.”

“It’s very innovative of Angelica and the folks at CBS to come up with this,” says Bell.

Additionally, web serial nominees Martha Madison (“Winterthorne”) and Lilly Melgar (“The Bay”) reach out to soap fans on the TradioV.com show “SoapBox With Martha and Lilly.” “We target younger soap fans and we have direct access to our guests’ online social media following,” says Madison. “When we had Kirsten Storms (“General Hospital”) on we got almost four times our regular viewership. She has a huge social media presence.”

There’s universal agreement as to the one thing, in addition to veteran characters, that will both hold audiences and also likely earn Emmy gold. “Good story drives tune-in,” says Phelps.

Corday echoes: “Great storytelling with layered characters that the fans root for are the hallmark of any successful soap.”

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