NEW YORK — Television's 10 major daytime soap operas may go on forever but the 11th, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, will inevitably come to an end. And perhaps no one is awaiting its conclusion as anxiously as the three broadcast networks, whose daytime dramas--traditionally cash cows--have lost 10% of their audience in the past year.
The biggest cliffhanger in daytime programming these days is, post-O.J., can soap opera ratings be resuscitated?
"I certainly think that when the trial is over, viewers will return to sample their old favorites," says Lucy Johnson, senior vice president for daytime programs and special projects at CBS.
Other daytime executives aren't so sure.
"I hope we get back the O.J. audience, but I don't know if we will," says Felicia Minei Behr, executive producer of ABC's "All My Children." "Once you break the audience participation, it's difficult to get them to reinvest that time. It's up to us to lure them back. It's going to be tricky for a while. Actually, it's going to be one tough battle."
"We're going to have to fight, fight, fight to get back our normal audience," agrees Susan Lee, senior vice president for daytime programming at NBC.
Lee says she has special promotional campaigns for her soaps ready to break when the trial is over, the details of which she won't disclose. But beyond promotion, producers say there isn't much they can do: Because of the continuous nature of daytime soap operas, it's impossible to prepare special stories timed to kick off at the end of the trial.
"Our stories are planned out and written months in advance," Behr says. "For example, right now we're working on November sweeps and beyond. There's no way for us to adjust stories to when the trial is over. And only a person with a crystal ball knows exactly when that will be."
Behr says soaps have little choice but to simply turn out the episodes as usual. "What we've been doing here at 'All My Children' is what everyone else at other soaps have been doing all along--which is try to tell stories that are so invigorating and fun that people will be intrigued with them no matter when [the Simpson trial] ends. And please, God, may that be soon."
Her plea is understandable: The whole soap opera genre has been suffering serious audience erosion for more than a decade.
"It's been a slow tidal wave, but the factors causing daytime audience decline were appearing a long time before the murders [of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman]," says CBS' Johnson.
First, competition from cable and video cut seriously into daytime numbers, just as in prime time. More recently, soaps have been squeezed aside by the proliferation of talk shows.
In fact, in 1970 there were 20 afternoon soaps on the networks--twice a many as there are today. It was about that time that substantial numbers of women began to combine homemaking with full-time jobs, a lifestyle change that has had more of a severe effect on soap numbers than any other factor.
Now the Simpson trial could turn out to be a deciding factor in reducing the number of soaps to eight. CBS' "Guiding Light" and ABC's "Loving" had already been having serious internal problems before the trial began.
"Guiding Light," daytime's longest-running show (it debuted on TV in 1952 and on radio in 1937), had been in good health until early 1994, when changes in the writing staff apparently led to viewer defections.
Last February, KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles switched the show from afternoons to 9 a.m.; Johnson says that was done to keep it from being preempted by coverage of the Simpson trial. But when WCBS-TV in New York City, the nation's largest TV market, recently announced it will move the soap to 10 a.m. on Sept. 11 to make room for "Day and Date," a new afternoon newsmagazine, rumors of "Guiding Light's" eventual cancellation swept the soap world. Moving a soap to a morning time slot was the harbinger of doom for two now-defunct NBC soaps, "Texas" (d. 1982) and "Santa Barbara" (d. 1993).
"Loving," which has been the bottom-rated soap since its 1983 debut, was in such bad ratings shape as the year began that a substantial number of affiliates threatened ABC with dropping the show unless big changes were made. So the show is now in the midst of killing off half the characters in its cast via a serial murder story line. In November, youthful survivors will be moved to Manhattan's SoHo, and Morgan Fairchild will be added to a revamped show called "LOV*NYC." If the show's vaguely "Melrose Place"-ish formula doesn't take, viewers can expect soapicide.
Until the trial ends, however, the soaps will have no way of knowing the long-term impact.
"We're going to have to do a lot of promotion and praying," says NBC's Lee. "Actually, I find it very hard to talk about the O.J. trial, because a man's life is in the balance and all we do is treat it like it's just a programming problem."