Advertisement

Television & Radio

Let the soap games begin

With NBC taking a hiatus from faux drama to cover the Olympics, ABC and CBS take up the ratings challenge. Bachelor Bob returns.

August 04, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Will viewers ditch "The Young and the Restless' " Nikki and Victor for a fling with hunky Olympic athletes? Will absence make fans' hearts fonder for "Passions' " Eve and Julian? Will soap junkies remember to watch "General Hospital's" Nikolas long after he has recovered his memory? Tune in later this month.

Soap opera plotlines may thrive on change, but there's usually precious little of it in the ratings for the networks' daytime lineups. In fact, CBS, already atop the prime-time summer ratings, racks up another bragging right this week. Its bloc of daytime shows -- "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the Beautiful," "As The World Turns" and "Guiding Light," plus the game show "The Price Is Right" -- has been TV's most-watched for 800 straight weeks, since the days when the first President Bush was in the White House and "Dynasty" and "Family Ties" were still on the air.

The program rankings seldom move, executives say, because soap opera viewers develop intense loyalty to the shows and to such characters as Nikki and Victor Newman, the love-and-hate couple from "The Young and the Restless."

"It's amazing to have these kinds of records in this day and age where everyone is jockeying for viewers," said Bradley Bell, executive producer of "The Bold and the Beautiful" and co-owner of "The Young and the Restless."

But the Olympics, which start in Athens on Aug. 13, could throw a wrench into the 15-year pattern. For one thing, NBC will temporarily take its soaps off the air starting Aug. 16 -- inspiring ABC and CBS to program soap-related specials while their rival is buried in Olympic coverage. However, history is on NBC's side: Networks typically lose 10% of their daytime audience when a rival airs the Olympics.

More importantly, the networks are fighting over a smaller daytime pie these days. All nine network daytime dramas have seen their ratings dwindle by as much as two-thirds in recent years. Since 1990, the median age for viewers of daytime dramas has gone up by an average of seven years, making them less attractive to advertisers targeting 18-to-34-year-olds. In the past, soaps were a reliable for advertisers to reach young women. But with more women working and more programming choices as a result of cable, fewer viewers are tuning into soaps.

"We are No. 1 in a smaller pond," says Barbara Bloom, senior vice president of daytime programming for CBS.

Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, executive in charge of productions at Procter & Gamble Productions, which produces "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," understands the pressures.

"It's not like it was 52 years ago, when women sat in front of the television and watched an entire lineup," she said. "Now if a woman is free during the day, there are so many different things she can do with her time."

Unable to meet advertisers' expectations, soaps have received less money from the networks and have trimmed casts and asked actors to take pay cuts while still producing 260 episodes a year. This year, "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" pared their casts but labored to keep fans' favorites.

Some characters on "Days of Our Lives" and "One Life to Live" weren't so lucky: The producers used serial-killer plots to kill off main characters, including "Days" perennial Maggie Horton, played by Suzanne Rogers for 30 years. (Some of the "Days" actors will now have recurring roles, since in a typical plot twist their murdered characters have turned out to be alive after all.)

Intent on not losing ground during the Olympics, ABC and CBS are counter-programming NBC's coverage with stunts and specials. NBC doesn't seem too worried. While lagging behind its rivals in total viewership, its "Days of Our Lives" remains the top soap among women ages 18 to 34 and women 18-49, the two groups most targeted by advertisers on soaps.

The network says it will temporarily end both "Days" and "Passion" with cliffhanger episodes that executives say will guarantee viewers' return on Aug. 30, after the Olympics end. In fact, Sheraton Kalouria, NBC's senior vice president of daytime programs, is banking on stealing viewers from ABC and CBS soaps with the Olympics.

"What the Olympics present is real-life drama and suspense that provides an attractive alternative across the TV landscape," Kalouria says. "I know that my audience isn't going to miss one day of our storytelling if they watch the games. ABC and CBS can't say that."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|