To keep the genre robust, soap-opera producers are focusing on teenagers.
Summertime and soaps.
It's the perfect time to hook high school and college kids with spare time on their hands.
And that's exactly what the networks are counting on. In an effort to attract younger viewers, ABC has launched a campaign called "Plunge in this Summer," which will focus on younger characters from the four ABC soaps, "Port Charles," "All My Children," "One Life to Live," and "General Hospital." The plots will be geared toward young females between the ages of 16 and 24.
On CBS's "The Young and the Restless," the writers are focusing on teenagers, emphasizing young love and peer pressure. The writers have even whipped up a story line involving reality TV and teens. And last year NBC canceled the 34-year-old "Another World" to make room for "Passions."
"The networks really are going all out to get the viewership at that younger age," says Gabrielle Winkel, news editor of Soap Opera Weekly. "Yet it's a fine line because they also want to keep the longtime viewers who are very invested in the characters they've been watching for the past 25 years."
The soap-opera format - heavy doses of intrigue, drama, tension, and romance - has staying power unlike any other genre. From venerable daytime dramas on network TV to soaps on cable channels and the Internet, the sudsy serial continues to thrive five days a week, free of repeats.
"The nature of soap operas has a time-tested appeal in the experience of the world," says Kay Alden, head writer of "The Young and the Restless."
The origins, she says, date back to the earliest form of entertainment - storytelling.
"[Later] writers like Dickens developed the serial format in which they would tell part of their story, but not finish it, leaving for the next episode the next facet of the story, and leaving the audience [anticipating] what's going to happen next."
Rooted in early 1930s radio and named after soap company sponsors, soap operas originally appealed to housewives during the depression. By the late 1930s, more than 30 radio serials attracted 40 million people daily. In the 1970s and '80s, when, similarly, over 30 soaps were on TV, ratings were at an all-time high. Today, there are 27 percent fewer of the industry's targeted audience - women ages 18 to 49 - watching than in 1994.
With competition from cable networks and the Internet and with more women working away from home, gone are the days when teens started watching soaps with their mothers and grandmothers. "That dynamic really doesn't exist anymore," says Ms. Winkel. "With the VCR, it's everybody. My father watches 'All My Children' and he's 82."
But the 10 network soaps still attract an average daily audience of 20 million Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide.
Weekly soap-opera magazines like "Soap Opera Digest" and "Soap Opera Weekly" have a total circulation of 1.6 million readers.
"Viewers like to catch up, read about the actors. They also like to get sneak peeks, story-line teasers," says Winkel, who occasionally has walk-on parts on the daytime dramas.
Soap operas have an ever-growing presence on the Internet. Soap fans can catch up on their favorite TV soaps at soapnet.com and soapcity.com. There are also soaps written for the Internet and soap fans connect daily through chat rooms.
Soap operas have a strong presence on newsstands and the Internet, but to keep the genre robust, "Y&R" writer Alden says soaps must reach the teen set. "And of course that is mandatory if the genre is going to survive," says Alden, "because you have to continually infuse your shows with the young audience that is going to age with the show."
Jennifer Hayward, author of the book "Consuming Pleasures" (University Press of Kentucky) and professor of English at the College of Wooster (Ohio), started watching "All My Children" in college. She says that discussing the plots with other students was more important than watching them. "It was that audience activity, the way we mocked what was going on, the way we tried to predict what would happen, or rewrite the story lines ... that was the crucial element," says Ms. Hayward.
Networks usually follow the guideline that if you don't get hooked on a soap by the age of 25, you will never be a fan.
"The younger viewer is always the ideal," says "Y&R" producer David Shaughnessy. "The older audience is also very vital, but it's always good to encourage young audiences. One of the things that [writer] Kay Alden is doing is ... a teenage story line over the summer to boost our 18-to-24 power base."
Although critics might argue that soaps desensitize viewers to adultery, teenage pregnancies, and sexual promiscuity, Ms. Winkel says that soaps have a rare opportunity to address social issues and "develop them over a good chunk of time. Especially health issues," she says.
"Our ideas come from real life," says Jean Dadario Burke, executive producer of "All My Children." "We tried to uncover some of the myths about AIDS, for example, and dispel them."
"We took a tasteful, non-alarming approach to subjects like ... teenage drug use, alcoholism, wife abuse," says Agnes Nixon, creator and executive head writer of "All My Children."
And just as viewers stay tuned for years, there are actors who keep them coming back. Lots of famous actors have done stints on soaps (think Samantha Egger, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Tommy Lee Jones). Other young actors have started out in soaps, later to find success on prime time and in the movies (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Kim Delaney).
"I was relieved to find out good acting is good acting - on stage or on the soaps," says classically trained Gloria Biegler, who recently played Maryann in Molire's "The Miser" at the Denver Center Theatre Company and has appeared on "All My Children" and "Guiding Light."
Sometimes the acting in soap opera is over the top, and almost always slightly heightened. But there are actually different styles. The longer one watches, the clearer it is who is accomplished and who is not.
One promising young actor is Josh Ryan Evans, who plays a doll on "Passions" - the special property of a wicked witch. But "Timmy" is good, and Mr. Evans, who is in his late teens, draws much attention from fans.
"Timmy can act like a small child one minute - afraid or worried. He's naive, and his naivete is part of his goodness. And the next minute he can be like Indiana Jones," he says, explaining his character's appeal.
"It's the best kind of training for an actor, because it's day in and day out," he says.
"It's the most challenging thing you can do as an actor, says James Reynolds, who plays Commander Abe Carver on "Days of Our Lives." "Your work day can be anywhere from four to 18 hours, and then you go home and memorize."
But is it a profitable way for a viewer to spend an hour? After all, there's an awful lot of navel gazing, mean-spirits, mayhem, and misbehavior on these shows. It helps to watch with tongue firmly lodged in cheek.
"It's an escape, it's entertainment," says editor Winkel. "People are very loyal to their soaps and their characters."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society