Will the scheming ABC prove sexy enough to sweep lonely soap opera fans off their feet while NBC is out of town, making time with an Olympic temptress? Tune in to find out . . .
NBC's wall-to-wall coverage of the Summer Olympics -- beginning tonight and extending across the network and its many cable channels -- is forcing several adjustments to the network's regular programming, as it has during past NBC Olympics coverage.
But for the first time, NBC is suspending its popular and profitable soap operas, "Days of Our Lives" and "Passions," for the duration of the international contest. Today's episodes are the last until Aug. 30.
ABC hopes the absence will allow the Walt Disney Co. network to steal away NBC's soap opera fans, jonesing for a fix of daytime drama in the two weeks when their stories are interrupted.
It's a long shot -- soap opera watchers are intensely loyal to one or two shows, research shows. They rarely switch soaps and even more rarely expand to other networks. For NBC, it seems a relatively safe bet -- Olympics coverage on NBC, Telemundo, USA, CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo will haul in more than $1 billion in ad revenue, which the network projects will more than offset any ratings drop in its soaps. But if ABC can steal some viewers, the network hopes to lock them into its long-running soaps, "All My Children," "General Hospital" and "One Life to Live."
ABC's plan to raid NBC's soaps "goes back to 20 years ago, when I was a baby exec at NBC," said Brian S. Frons, president of ABC Daytime. "ABC took their soaps off the air for the Olympics. Ratings for the other two networks went up for their soaps.
"Why believe the [contemporary] research?" he said. "Why not believe that the old days are still possible?"
Network soap operas have chugged along fairly consistently since at least June 30, 1952, when "Guiding Light" debuted on CBS, making it the longest-running drama in television history. (The show began on radio in 1937.) The series are the most efficient and profitable of network shows. Though their ad rates are much lower than those commanded by prime-time shows -- 30-second spots on soaps typically sold for an average of $22,436 last season compared with $147,040 in prime time, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus -- the shows, shot on videotape instead of film, are much cheaper to produce and generally are owned by the networks. For instance, prime-time one-hour dramas such as CBS's "CSI" series cost more than $2 million per episode to make. One-hour soaps can usually be made for less than $200,000 per episode.
The audiences are smaller than prime time, but not insignificant. For instance, 14 million viewers tuned into CBS's "CSI" last week, while an average of about 5.8 million viewers per day watched CBS's "The Young and the Restless," the top-rated soap in the first half of this year, Nielsen said. But "YR," as it's known to fans, got more viewers than reruns of NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Will & Grace" last week.
For ABC, daytime has been an especially welcome bright spot, as the network's prime-time lineup languishes in fourth place in the ratings and has not hit No. 1 since the 1999-2000 season.
Fox is the sole major network to not air soaps. The network does not have programming rights to most daytime hours at its affiliate stations, and those stations generally choose to air talk shows and syndicated court-spankings, such as "Judge Judy."
ABC is spearheading its campaign to win over new viewers with an ad campaign called "Wide World of Soaps," parodying its "Wide World of Sports" franchise, in which Bob Guiney -- a goofy former contestant on ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" -- interviews ABC soap opera stars in a mock sports setting, such as in a locker room or at a television anchor desk.
In one spot, Guiney pokes fun at a recent plot line on NBC's "Days Of Our Lives" in which a number of characters were killed, only to reveal to viewers later that the characters were, in fact, not dead. "There's a murder mystery that's going to unfold [on ABC's 'General Hospital'] and people are going to die," he says. "And they're going to stay dead."
ABC spent the bulk of its money buying time for the ads on MTV and VH1, Frons said, with Country Music Television, E! and Oxygen splitting most of the rest of the ad dollars. A substantial number of soap viewers are younger than what may be the popular conception -- ranging from teens to early 40s -- and they form their show affinities between ages 10 and 17, Frons said.
Disney-owned SoapNet cable channel, an ABC corporate cousin, is not airing any of the promos because it finds itself in a kind of middle, no-man's land.
SoapNet, which reruns ABC soaps in prime time, making it a sort of TiVo channel for soap fans, also shows NBC's "Days of Our Lives" and eventually hopes to get the rights to repeat soaps belonging to all three networks.
In the next two weeks, when NBC has preempted "Days of Our Lives," SoapNet will run favorite past "Days" shows picked by cast members.
"We didn't feel comfortable running those promos," said SoapNet general manager Deborah Blackwell. "We're not going to tell people not to watch 'Days of Our Lives.' "
The networks estimate that about 20 to 25 percent of their soap audiences are male, but they are treated as though they don't exist -- advertising on soaps is targeted exclusively at women, chiefly between 18 and 49 years old.
Frons said his plundering plan was buoyed by old-timers at ABC who said that network's decision to drop the soaps during the 1984 Summer Olympics was ill-advised. "It took us a year to recover," Frons said the ABC soap veterans told him. (Time capsule: The year before, in 1983, Luke and Laura of "General Hospital" became a mini-phenomenon, hitting the covers of entertainment magazines and inspiring an unlistenable Christopher Cross radio hit.)
Executives at other networks say their research suggests ABC has only a modest chance to succeed.
"A disruption of a couple of weeks is not likely to cause any significant defection from those established shows," said David Poltrack, vice president for research for CBS and its sister network UPN. Unlike ABC, CBS is not gunning for NBC during its Olympic hiatus. "We don't think realistically there is a great opportunity to steal viewers from NBC."
Brief interruptions in the past, Poltrack said, have resulted in ratings gains at rival networks of "two-tenths of a ratings point or so."
Though ABC soaps are higher-rated among 18- to 49-year-old women, CBS soaps have the largest overall audience. A fact Frons discounts.
"That's only driven by 55 [years old] and older," he said. "They're No. 1 at the nursing home."
Typical television ageism aside, it's tough to fight the numbers.
Fewer than 10 percent of soap viewers watch both NBC's "Days of Our Lives" and ABC's "One Life to Live," a typical figure for cross-network soap audiences, said Sheraton Kalouria, executive vice president of NBC Daytime. Reason: The shows, with their ongoing plot lines, are hard to get into. In the industry, soaps are described as having a beginning, a middle and no end.
"How do they expect viewers to come in and understand the love stories and rivalries?" Kalouria said. "We confront that and get frustrated day in and day out. We would love to get people to come over and try new shows but the hurdles are tremendous."
NBC soaps are battling the two-week hiatus by changing the storylines of the shows, Kalouria said. Network writers have timed the plots of the soaps to include a cliffhanger in today's episodes, then pick up fresh when they resume. Writers were set back one day by the coverage of former president Ronald Reagan's funeral in June, but "tweaked the script" of one show to wrap up the stories today, he said.
"Our goal was to create the 'Who shot J.R.?' of cliffhangers," Kalouria said, "to keep the audiences engaged until the next chapter comes along."
If Frons is turning his back on one chunk of research, he's embracing another. NBC's soap operas, like the network's prime-time shows, have a younger audience than those on rival networks.
Chiefly, NBC enjoys an edge in 15- to 24-year-old viewers, who, Frons said, are those most likely to switch soaps or add a second or third soap to their viewing schedule.
"We looked at NBC's preemption of their soaps as an opportunity to reach out to folks who are dissatisfied with what they're watching and say, 'Here's a fun, hip place to watch soaps,' " Frons said.