Given all this disturbing talk about pay cuts on The Young and the Restless and the rabid (though apparently, unsubstantiated) speculation about the future of One Life to Live, it’s always nice to hear some good news about the ailing genre: James Franco is finally in the house – or in the medical ward, rather. ABC has confirmed that Oct. 30 was Franco’s first day on General Hospital, a gig we’d like to think he agreed to because he wants to see daytime soaps survive just like the rest of us (though it might have simply occurred because he shares the same manager as GH’s Steve Burton). The Golden Globe-winning actor will play a mystery guy who comes to Port Charles and gets up in the grill of Jason Morgan (Burton). His role will play out over a two-month period that starts airing Nov. 20, but Franco’s only contracted to shoot three days on the sudser’s Los Angeles set. No matter: any kind of star-studded appearance from a celebrity like Franco should do wonders for the soap world. Or can it?
Make no mistake, something has to be done to keep daytime dramas relevant. Viewer averages for soaps on the three broadcast networks have dropped 23 percent versus 10 years ago, and it’s even more dire in the all-important women 18-49 demo, which is down 41 percent during that same period. Going entirely on location with hand-held cameras isn’t the answer – just asking Guiding Light – nor is cutting expensive though immensely popular stars like Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn from Days of Our Lives (though an NBC insider insists that by lowering salaries and by cutting the show’s rich license fee to something south of $1 million per week, it managed to save the sudser). So is it the right idea to lure film stars like Franco? “I suspect if you talk to the network people overseeing these shows, they would say they innovate until the cows come home,” says one veteran TV executive with deep roots in daytime. “Come on… One Live to Live did a Grey Gardens musical number! The trouble is, these shows no longer have the reach or cultural influence where a stunt or even the return of a character can be heard above the din of regular life. Frankly, the last frontier may be changing the form of five hours a week. That’s going to have to be addressed.”
What? Airing daytime dramas only two or three days a week versus five? That’s not necessarily a bad idea since research seems to show that, except for those stuck-in-bed types, most soap viewers only average about two episodes per week. At the same time, it would seem sacrilege to ask the soap industry to cut back on production when it already operates as the most well-oiled machine in Hollywood (you’ll never see primetime soaps like Desperate Housewives or Brothers and Sisters cranking out episodes for south of $1 million a week). Unfortunately, it may have to come to that since many industry observers are already predicting the demise of yet another soap in the next five years – though we can apparently rule out OLTL. Despite rampant internet rumors about the serial’s demise, a spokeswoman for ABC said the soap is simply moving into the old New York production quarters of All My Children, which is heading west to Los Angeles in December (the new digs will help ABC save money because it’ll allow AMC to accommodate more standing sets). Nevertheless, Madison Avenue recognizes that something’s got to change in daytime, especially when game shows and yakkers like The View do a better job of attracting new viewers. And sadly, analysts don’t seem convinced that appearances by film stars – even those as appealing as Franco – will make a difference.
“Committing to five hour a week is a lot,” says Chris Boothe, president and chief operating officer of Starcom, a media buying firm. “There just hasn’t been a lot of innovation in daytime. Bringing in new characters here and there, or various bands or musical acts to appear in the cliché bar or hospital party, is not going to get someone to say, ‘I’m gonna watch this for five hours.'”