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'Sunset Beach' is a new spin on soaps

Will the steamy new Aaron Spelling show be a daytime hit?

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They’re losing viewers. They cost around $1 million per week to produce. They take up to two years to attract an audience. And there hasn’t been a successful new one in a decade. With such odds, spending big bucks to launch a new daytime soap might seem foolhardy. Yet NBC is pouring millions into the first original daytime drama in eight years, the sex-shellacked Aaron Spelling sudser Sunset Beach. The network promises the soap, starring Lesley-Ann Down and Ashley Hamilton, will dish up a heady stew of ”bitches, bastards, and biceps.” Six months later, ABC will follow the Peacock’s lead with a third attempt to successfully fill its 12:30 slot, this time with a younger-skewing General Hospital spin-off tentatively titled GH2. ”We’re going to be watching Sunset Beach very carefully,” says ABC’s Daytime president Pat Fili-Krushell of the hurdles NBC must clear.

Susan Lee, NBC’s president of Daytime, admits that ”the risks are enormous.” No overstatement. Since 1985, daytime drama ratings have averaged a 31 percent drop for the key demo of women 18 to 49, and NBC has watched two pricey sudsers (Santa Barbara and Generations) die. So why bother? Simple: While they may be struggling more than in their ’70s heyday, soaps still outperform all other daytime fare, delivering at least $40 million a year in profits. ”They’re still much more efficient in giving us the 18-49 female than talk shows,” says Lee. ”That’s what advertisers want.” And what NBC needs; the network may be prime-time champ, but its daytime schedule currently languishes in third place.

Lee estimates NBC will spend approximately $60 million in start-up costs, including a per-show budget of around $200,000, and extra money for location shoots to give the drama a prime-time look. In typically gung ho style, NBC has also flooded the airwaves with an unprecedented $2 million-plus paid advertising campaign. The Spelling brand name, says Lee, is worth the expense. ”In this market, without some sort of hook to bring people in, you’re in trouble.”

NBC has one security blanket: To protect itself from ”wasting millions,” says Lee, the network has secured a percentage of the multimillion-dollar international sales that Spelling’s company, Worldvision, has made on Sunset since October. Lee adds that NBC expects to lose money the first two years but eventually will ”make our investment back.”

ABC’s production investment is lilliputian in comparison — GH2 will use some of the same sets as General Hospital — but success is no less crucial, as the net can’t risk alienating viewers in the pre-All My Children slot. ”Our biggest fear was if we couldn’t get a soap to work in that time period, we’d be throwing about a million women 18-49 up for grabs,” says Fili-Krushell. ABC will therefore nearly match NBC’s $2 million promotion budget beginning next April.

Even with so many hits to his credit, Spelling (who is making his daytime debut) is nervous about audience reaction to Sunset. ”It frightens the hell out of me. With a prime-time show you know [if it’s successful] in six weeks,” says the producer, who got a 255-episode commitment (typical for soaps). ”With daytime I don’t know.” But Lee, who says NBC may launch another soap if Sunset takes off, refuses to think negatively: ”With so much behind it, if this doesn’t succeed, I think we should all pack up and go home.”