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Soaps Work Up Lather During the Summer

Television* Networks pile on plot stunts, love triangles and pop music during these months in the hopes of hooking vacationing young adults.

June 25, 2002|T.L. STANLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It might be summer doldrums for network prime-time shows, with reruns doing much of the place-holding on television, but the daytime soaps will be turning up the heat over the next few months, planning high-profile stunts, focusing on teen love triangles and adding pop music to the stories.

The main goal is to latch onto viewers at the most desirable end of the TV demographic, the 18- to 24-year-olds who are out of school and available to watch in numbers unmatched the rest of the year. If they become samplers now, the theory goes, they could grow into long-term soap addicts later.

Another aim of summer stunts is to win back lapsed viewers or lure new ones who are bored with prime time and looking for alternatives, even if they have to tape the shows and watch them later. The bigger the "wow" factor, the better.

"The audience will only give you 15 to 20 seconds, especially the younger end of the spectrum," said Felicia Minei Behr, senior vice president for daytime programming at ABC. "The pressure is on for quicker payoffs, more drama, more envelope-pushing."

ABC's "One Life to Live" has an ambitious set of story lines planned, following a recent stunt week in which all the shows from May 13 to 17 aired live (on the East Coast), a soap first. Regis Philbin did daily intros, and the week's ratings bumped up about 8% with the key soap demographic: women between the ages of 18 and 49.

A number of summer episodes--involving two ongoing story lines--were shot recently in Hawaii, the longest-distance remote the show has ever done. An upcoming song-and-dance episode will feature nearly a dozen extras from Broadway shows, along with cast regulars who have musical theater and singing backgrounds.

The musical, dubbed "Babes Behind Bars," will center on actress Catherine Hickland, who starred as Fantine in "Les Miserables." Her felonious character, Lindsay Rappaport, is surrounded in jail by singing and dancing co-convicts and visitors. Among that chorus are veterans of Broadway shows including "Grease," "Annie" and "Chicago" doing vamp versions of "Bad Girls" and other breakin'-the-law-themed pop songs.

"We all need to do something to make ourselves distinct," said Gary Tomlin, "One Life to Live's" executive producer. "We're trying to give our show a different feeling."

"Babes" will air July 4, a date the show is trying to stake out as an event. The episodes last July 4, in which characters switched places, helped "One Life to Live" win its first Emmy for outstanding daytime drama.

Young characters will play prominent parts this summer on NBC's "Days of Our Lives," when Shawn (Jason Cook) and Belle (Kirsten Storms) spend weeks trying to unravel a mystery together.

This will come after a meteor shower hits the mythical setting of Salem on July 3. Also, a young love triangle, with a terminal illness thrown in, will get major face time.

But for balance, two former characters return to the show: The allegedly dead villain, Tony Dimera, has come back (played again by Thaao Penghlis), as will Billie, a character played by Lisa Rinna.

"Last summer, we focused so much on the young characters that we gained younger viewers, but we isolated certain parts of the audience," said Ken Corday, "Days' " executive producer.

"They got dismayed, they complained and they stopped watching. We'll balance better this summer."

Soap viewing has gone through a much-documented decline over the last decade, as lifestyles have changed and women viewers aren't home during the day. Making matters worse, soap and network executives say, are multiple cable choices and the difficulty of keeping soap stories fresh for some 260 episodes a year.

"Our viewers like soaps, sitcoms, 'Spider-Man' and 'Law & Order,' " said Sheraton Kalouria, senior vice president for daytime programs at NBC. "Everyone has a finite amount of time to devote to entertainment, and we're competing with all of it. We have to earn our place at the table."

NBC's "Passions" has been able to do that with young viewers, in particular, by establishing itself as the campiest of the melodramas. Those antics will continue this summer as the character Timmy, a talking doll-turned-real boy, will put on a Don King fright wig and take part in a pro wrestling spoof with the show's master villain, Julian Crane.

A pop music tie-in featured the emerging band Seven and the Sun performing its single, "Walk With Me," on a May episode of "Passions." The song will be used in the show throughout the summer as it's getting airplay on Top 40 radio stations.

"The People's Court" Judge Marilyn Milian and her bailiff, Douglas MacIntosh, will preside over a trial on "As the World Turns," one of two Procter & Gamble-owned soaps airing on CBS. The series also will have a high-profile but trouble-plagued wedding.

"Guiding Light," the other P&G soap, will feature the third-time-around wedding of a super-couple. A well-known character will die as another fights for his life.

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