January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Next, on As the Bubble Bursts: A mother is forced to kill one of her two children. Will it be her older gravely ill child? Or the young underachiever who has potential for a long, healthy life? Tune in tomorrow….

A new sudsy serial in the works? Sorta. This is a real-life cliff-hanger now unfolding at NBC. On July 5, the network will debut the tentatively titled Passions, a soap centering on four families in a small New England town, from former Days of Our Lives head writer James Reilly. To make time for it (as well as Later Today, now in development for the post-Today slot), NBC will most likely have to cancel one of its two struggling daytime serials: either the 34-year-old Another World, a soap grande dame that’s showing its age, or two-year-old Sunset Beach, Aaron Spelling’s glossy serial with a feeble last-place standing but a burgeoning teen fan base.

Hardly an easy choice, and there will be serious fallout no matter which sudser goes down the drain. If NBC cancels the Procter &amp Gamble-owned World, it will rankle one of the industry’s largest advertisers, thus risking millions in revenue. Pulling the plug on Spelling’s show also means losing money: NBC gets a cut of Sunset‘s lucrative foreign sales.

Such a daytime dilemma would have been unkthinkable in the ’70s and ’80s, when the genre was more robust. In 1986, daytime (including non-soap programming) accounted for about 17.7 percent of the three networks’ profits. In 1997, the number was more like 12 percent, according to the Broadcast Cable Financial Management Association. Real-life sagas that regularly unfold on talk shows and cable’s 24-hour news channels — not to mention the ongoing presidential impeachment drama — have hurt the networks’ 11 soaps, which have lost a stunning 33 percent of their viewers since 1991. And the Internet continues to siphon off audiences — including young girls, who have traditionally gotten hooked on soaps as teens and stuck with them through adulthood.

”A lot of younger people are watching talk and court shows instead,” sighs Bradley Bell, executive producer of CBS’ Bold and the Beautiful, which is in second place. He’s right: There are 27 percent fewer women ages 18-49 — the industry’s lifeblood — watching than in 1994.

Which prompts the question: Is NBC (now in last place in the daytime race) insane for pouring about $10 million in start-up costs (plus shouldering the average per-episode price tag of $250,000) into an ailing format? Actually, no. ”When you’re looking for a female demographic, [serials] are still a cheap, attractive buy,” says Lori Isola, a senior partner at J. Walter Thompson. In fact, the majority of daytime dramas still attract a higher concentration of women 18-49 than top-rated talkers Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. ”But it’s incumbent upon us to improve,” adds Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, the executive in charge of production at Procter &amp Gamble, which also owns CBS’ Guiding Light and As the World Turns.

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