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Intrigue, Lust and Merchandising

By tapping into a devoted fan base, networks and others hope to clean up on product tie-ins to TV soap operas

June 10, 2002|CLAUDIA ROSENBAUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The parents anxiously await the DNA results on their switched-at-birth child, a missing woman miraculously stumbles into her own funeral, and a teenager discovers her mother hid an Internet Web camera in her boyfriend's apartment.

Welcome to Soapland. The never-never daytime world where everyone looks great whether they are comatose, locked up at Statesville prison or getting married to the evil twin. Yet, even as a character is in the midst of falsely confessing to murdering a daughter's lesbian lover, it is hard not to notice that her house, her clothes and her jewelry all look marvelous.

The dedication soap operas engender in some fans has as much to do with the fabulous fashions and divine decor as the sometimes ludicrous plot twists. Fans keep tuning in, day after day, some for more than 30 years, watching such characters as Erica Kane of ABC's "All My Children" wind through nine marriages to six different men. (Her real soap name should actually read Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick. )

Think of all those engagement rings.

The market potential of this zealous fan devotion has not gone unnoticed. Network television stores are putting aside the traditional logo coffee mug and T-shirt because the real money, it turns out, is in allowing viewers to create their own piece of the TV towns of Salem, Pine Valley, Llanview, Port Charles and Harmony.

ABC debuted its Shop the Soaps feature last summer in "All My Children's" steamy Pine Valley by having the character Dixie Martin wear a "wishing star" necklace. The first commercial break directed viewers to ABC's Web site, informing them they could own their own wishing star necklace. The necklace, along with three other pieces of jewelry featured on the show, drew respectable sales on ABC.com and on the Home Shopping Network, which handles customer service and merchandising for ABC.

Before Dixie could be saved from a mysterious death under questionable circumstances, the Shop the Soaps line was vastly expanded. Now viewers can purchase items showcased on three ABC soaps, such as a pair of 14-karat gold, faux-diamond drop earrings for $69.95. If the "One Life to Live" story line is any guide, these earrings are a must if one happens to find out the baby one was told had died during childbirth is alive and living in one's home as an adopted son.

Or perhaps a viewer would be more interested in Simone's "Shimmering Nights" comforter. The "All My Children" character found it handy to use as a cover-up when she was caught topless while fooling around with her best friend's father. Pillows are also available, but be advised, they do not provide as much coverage. Items from "General Hospital" round out ABC's offerings.

Like an awkward understudy, the merchandising on ABC is anything but subtle. Now when the camera comes in for a close-up in a crucial scene, it's likely not focusing on a telltale facial expression but on a bracelet, which will be featured in the teaser on the next commercial break.

On "All My Children," when Leo du Pres decided to propose to his off-again, on-again love interest Greenlee Smythe, he did so perched strategically on Greenlee's "Fantasy Nights" comforter bedroom set ($199.95). Momentarily stunned, Greenlee accepted the sterling silver engagement ring ($62.25) as she sat on her bed buttressed by her throw pillows ($24.85) and neck pillow ($17.85).

All that will look like simple Economics 101 compared to the cross-promotion NBC has in store for its daytime fans. Starting in late July, viewers of NBC's "Days of Our Lives" will be able to re-create their daytime dreamlands down to the diamonds dangling from Dr. Marlena Evans Black's ears or the computer in Victor Kiriakis' office.

In a strategic venture with NBC, ValueVision Media, a multimedia shopping company, will soon offer soap opera tie-ins on its own cable shopping channel, ShopNBC. The channel will go a more upscale route than ABC's offerings.

"Our fans know their soap character wouldn't wear cubic zirconia," said Steven Goldsmith, ShopNBC senior vice president and general merchandising manager. "So we are not going to cheat them on the things we sell. Soap fans are very devoted to their soaps and to their characters. We are going to explore that devotion and give them exactly what they want."

The merchandise will also be available for purchase at ShopNBC.com and NBC.com. "We are trying to create the 'infotainment' bridge between entertainment and shopping," said Brandon Burgess, NBC's executive vice president of businesses development.

If the Winter Olympics are any indication of the potential success of this "synergy," NBC expects the money will soon flow freer than the sands through the "Days of Our Lives" hourglass. With a long line of Salt Lake City shoppers behind him, an NBC commentator this winter casually mentioned that the popular Olympic berets were available at ShopNBC.com. Within days, the network had sold 75,000 hats at $25 each.

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