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Summer Soap Plots Heat Up for the Young Audience

July 01, 1990|Libby Slate

Summertime, and the living is easy--unless you happen to reside in Pine Valley, Port Charles or the other settings of the daytime soap operas. The weather isn't the only thing that heats up from mid-June to mid-September. So do the soaps' story lines, with sizzling romances and provocative issues.

The soaps' summertime pace accelerates to counteract the season's real-life languor, when more viewers are apt to be on vacation or spending time outdoors. And the important influence on many of the shows' hot weather happenings is the influx of younger viewers--teen-agers and college students--for whom school vacation can mean more time in front of the TV.

Consider, for instance, some 1989 figures provided for CBS' top-rated "The Young and the Restless." From Jan. 2 through May 28, viewers age 12 to 17 numbered 260,000, but from May 29 through Sept. 3 the figure rose to 840,000--a whopping 223% increase. Women 18 and older--the soaps' primary demographic target--registered only a 2% increase.

"It is to all of our best interests, in terms of ratings consistency, to appeal to young people during the summer, though never at the expense of the traditional audience," said Lucy Johnson, vice president of daytime programs for CBS Entertainment.

"Soaps are such a flexible form, with lots of plots and characters at any given time, that you can bring to the forefront a plot that spotlights young characters and direct a story line to your added audience. And soaps as a form have a greater chance of hooking someone than do other daytime shows--if you get someone intrigued, they will keep watching."

Though it seems an obvious summer strategy, the practice of featuring younger characters alongside the older ones may have been stumbled upon inadvertently, according to Douglas Marland, head writer of CBS' "As the World Turns." He was responsible for the phenomenally popular early-1980s pairing of "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura when he was head writer for that ABC show.

"It was not a conscious decision (to bring in Luke during the summer); it happened because of the way the story was structured," he said. "But we had the young audience, and the ratings soared. Then everyone else said, 'That has to be the way to do it: do young stories in the summer.' "

With romance as the soaps' bedrock, so to speak, it is no wonder that younger characters find new or existing relationships intensifying during the summer. "What you hope to inspire," Marland explained, "is a rooting section for the (couples) you want to see together, and people hissing and booing those who complicate that."

On NBC's "Days of Our Lives," for example, Patch and Kayla will remarry this summer, and Roman and Isabella, who now face obstacles, will find the course of their true love running smoothly by summer's end.

Summer is often the time when new characters are introduced, whether to provide romantic complications or figure in other steamy plots. On NBC's "Santa Barbara," senior executive producer John Conboy has introduced what he described as "three hot, attractive young characters," all around age 19. One mystery woman is even named "Flame."

Or popular characters of the past may return, such as "Santa Barbara's" Lockridge family and Robert Barr--in a dual role this summer as his twin brother Quinn--and the two-years-absent heartthrob Holden Snyder on "As the World Turns."

Some soap producers deliberately take advantage of their larger youthful audience to dramatize issues directly relating to that age group. "We are unquestionably aware of our young audience, and we want to do something that will have a positive impact on their lives," said William J. Bell Sr., co-creator with his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, and executive producer and head writer of "The Young and the Restless." He and his wife are also creators and executive producers of "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Last summer "Y and R" tackled the issue of date rape, which is still drawing viewer mail; other plots have dealt with teen-age drunken driving, runaways and baby selling. This summer's plan to spotlight sexual harassment on the job was jettisoned after Bell discovered that charges are usually difficult to prove, thereby creating a story line that would frustrate viewers. The show, instead, will deal with the environment, drugs and young people living together.

On NBC's "Days of Our Lives," supervising executive producer Al Rabin recalls that three years ago he delayed a Jack-and-Jennifer story line on teen-age sexual responsibility until the summer, after learning from the Center for Population Options of the dire need to educate teens about birth control.

"We had Jennifer's grandmother tell her, 'If you're going to do it, be protected,' and we did actual shots of her getting a diaphragm," he notes. As it turned out, the couple abstained from sex until late last month.

Of course, not all the soaps cater to their younger summertime audiences. Despite its title, ABC's "All My Children" shies away from the practice, according to Jozie Emmerich, senior vice president of daytime programs at the network.

"We've been criticized by our viewers, gotten letters saying, 'We just don't want all these kids,' " she said. "We have a wide panorama of viewers, so we have something for everyone. We try to do something youth-oriented year-round."

Still, as Douglas Marland of "As the World Turns" says, "We do have a strong young audience watching all year long, but I think they look to the summer months as 'their' months. They look to the soaps to feature more stories exclusively for them."

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