The sad reality is that viewers have bid farewell to too many soaps recently. In addition to 'ATWT''s demise, 'Guiding Light'ended its 72-year run on Sept. 18; ratings for ABC stalwart 'General Hospital' hit record lows this summer. Are these struggles an indication that the heyday of soaps is over? These days, with more women in the workplace, there are fewer stay-at-home moms who are able to watch soaps in the daytime -- what effect, if any, has that had on soap opera viewership?
There are also encouraging signs as to the genre's potential over at NBC's 'Days of our Lives.' The week of Nov. 16-20, 'Days' ranked second among network daytime series with women 18-49. "Everyone in the industry is looking at 'Days' and asking why, in the midst of all the negativity facing us, is 'Days' not only doing well, but alsogaining viewers?" Bruno asks. "That's something people didn't think could happen anymore."
Bringing on fresh faces tied to existing characters is also key to a successful soap. "[Late soap opera head writer] Doug Marland said, 'You have to introduce new characters, but you have to careful how you do it,'" explains Grant Aleksander, who played Phillip on 'Guiding Light' on and off from 1982 until the show's cancellation. "You try to do it in a way that brings [newcomers] through existing characters and you hope that it takes. Anyone responsible for those decisions will tell you that you wait for the audience to tell you that you've brought one on that you want to keep."
'Days' has kept up its publicity and marketing campaigns, too. The show spent four days in Detroit in November making appearances at hospitals and reached out to college campuses including the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Concordia University with a talent and "ultimate fan" search.
But what of the gradual change in who watches soaps, and when? For decades, soaps relied on stay-at-home moms to watch and also encourage their children to get hooked on the drama. "If women were not in the workforce as much, we'd have more viewers," suggests Bruno. "You come home from school and your mother and grandmother are watching and you watch, too."
Given that shift in viewership, the future of soaps may ultimately lie in the Web. Byrne is one of a handful of actresses who've created Web soap operas. Her program 'Gotham' utilizes familiar faces from daytime, as does Chappell's 'Venice.' "I certainly think that we're going to see more shows pop up on the Web," says Chappell, who hastens to add, "I'm not convinced that daytime network TV won't survive. It'll have to tweak itself and do it for less money."
Industry folks and fans alike agree that grabbing and maintaining viewers comes down to story -- not the special glitzy effects that started popping up on soaps in the '80s. "The truth of the matter is we got comfortable in the '80s and '90s," says Bradley Bell, executive producer/head writer of 'The Bold and the Beautiful.' "We did four or five takes [per scene]. None of that was really organic behavior to what soap operas really are about. We're more reliant on scripts and less on bells and whistles."
"Story is 99.9% of the success of anything dramatic," concurs Aleksander.
'B&B' delivered powerhouse scenes recently with guest star Betty White, whose character Ann Douglas made peace with her daughters Stephanie and Pam before dying. The episodes were shot economically on a beach and had a film quality to them in terms of acting, writing, producing and directing.
The key to the future is to keep soaps under budget. "The shows that can do that will be the ones that survive," Bell says.
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