In ”Nurse Betty,” small town waitress Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger) never misses her favorite soap opera, ”A Reason to Love.” But the movie, which earned a healthy $13.5 million in its first 10 days, has a comic spin on the way reality blurs with fiction: A traumatizing event convinces Betty that the hospital based daytime drama is real — and she’s part of the medical staff. Obviously most soap fans aren’t so colorful, but followers of daytime drama are known for their devotion. ”People come up to you and tell you what decisions your character should be making on the show,” says ”Betty” costar Morgan Freeman, who played architect Roy Bingham on ”Another World” from 1982 to 1984. ”They say, ‘Watch out for Pamela, she’s no good at all! Now, Clarice? That’s who you should be marrying.”’
Zellweger, who nursed a crush on ”All My Children”’s Tad Martin (Michael E. Knight) after briefly getting hooked on the show in 7th grade, understands the addictive nature of soaps. ”I think people get more attached to actors who play the same character every week,” says the 30 year old actress. ”They come into your home on a daily basis. They’re in your living room.” But for how much longer? Despite fan allegiance, ratings for soaps have been gradually slipping over the last several years.
Soap viewing among women aged 18 to 49 is down by 5 to 24 percent this season, while CBS’ ”The Young and the Restless” — the top rated daytime program for 574 consecutive weeks — is down 14 percent. The likely reason? As daytime viewers are bombarded with more programming choices than ever before, soaps are losing their key demographic of adult female viewers to everything from ”Judge Judy” to jobs that pull them away from their TV sets.
Even so, Hollywood is still hoping to work audiences into a lather this fall. Aaron Spelling, the creator of nighttime suds fests ”Melrose Place” and ”Dynasty,” will be launching a new guilty pleasure: ”Titans” (NBC, Wed., 8 p.m.). The ”Dynasty”-like drama about a feuding family stars Yasmine Bleeth and Victoria Principal. Before you groan that you’re not the soap opera type, take a moment to remember that serial melodrama you got hooked on this summer about a sneaky corporate trainer, a tough cookie truck driver, and a loyal Navy SEAL. ”Survivor” had all the backstabbing, intrigue, and relationship turmoil of any soap, and showed more skin to boot. ”I think interest in soap operas is cyclical, and I believe people are getting interested again,” says Mary Coller, VP of the website SoapCity.com, which hosts official sites for ”The Young & the Restless,” ”Days of Our Lives,” and ”Guiding Light.”
But even if U.S. viewers continue to choose reality soaps over fictional ones, other countries love the fantasy. ”The Bold & the Beautiful,” currently the most watched TV series in the world, is seen in 100 nations by an estimated 450 million regular viewers. Recently stars of the show inspired Beatles-like pandemonium when episodes filmed on location in Italy. Ron Weaver, senior producer of ”Bold,” recalls one woman’s tale of working in an impoverished, isolated village in Kenya. ”There was no television in the village, but the townspeople heard that three episodes of the show were being aired on the national network one Friday,” he says. ”So the whole village walked 10 kilometers to the next village to watch the one television set there, which was placed in a window and surrounded by barbed wire.”
Though foreign fans (and advertising dollars) give a network greater incentive to keep a soap on the air, it may not be enough for some shows. ”Another World” was canceled in 1999 after 35 years on the air, while the two year old ”Sunset Beach” bit the dust last year, and critics are saying ”Port Charles” is poised for the ax. The looming Writers Guild strike (next June) may further damage ratings, since soaps don’t repeat episodes. But don’t discount those diehard fans. ”It’s a primal instinct to want to care about someone who’s having a lot of difficulties in their life, which describes most soap characters,” says Coller. ”They really become like good friends.” And, if there are any fans like Nurse Betty out there, audiences won’t be letting go of their fictitious buddies without a fight.