Let's see what's going on in Santa Barbara:
"Santana thinks about kidnaping Brandon. Warren admits stealing the late Channing's coins. Dominic continues trying to drive Lionel crazy."
Uh-huh. Sounds like things are perking along pretty much as usual. But then, oh yes, there's this: "A major earthquake strikes the city and changes many lives."
Earthquakes can do that. This one, however, is a tad, just a trifle, just an itty bitty bit different. It was ordered up by the NBC programming department to put a little life into its critically ailing daytime soap opera, one "Santa Barbara" by name.
It was also devised as a way to take a little life out it. Because the quake was originally envisioned as a means of doing away with characters in the soap that, according to audience research, aren't particularly popular with viewers. Those who tested poorly would have pink stucco houses fall on their heads. NBC ordered the testing and the guinea-pig audiences made their choices. That's when the network got the really bad news. None of the characters tested very well. None of the characters was particularly popular with viewers.
So NBC considered, at least briefly, making this such a killer of a quake that it wiped out virtually the entire cast. Only Judith Anderson (who plays "Minx Lockridge") would presumably be left standing. For soap opera actors who always live on the edge of night -- that is, of termination -- this looked like the end of their search for tomorrow.
But NBC reconsidered. Repopulating an entire soap seemed slightly impractical. So even though an NBC publicist says the earthquake that hits "Santa Barbara" will be nearly a 10 on the Richter scale, very few characters will be swallowed up whole. In fact, the publicist insists, only one, whose identify he is foresworn not to divulge, will actually go on to soap heaven, though others will sustain contusions and lacerations. Their agents can live with contusions and lacerations. It's death that's something of a nuisance.
First tremors will wobble Santa Barbara, that is "Santa Barbara," on today's program, at 3 on Channel 4, and continue all week. The big bam boom itself hits next Monday and continues all next week. Then on Nov. 19, the aftershocks begin, and they'll continue for a week, too.
It's a terrible sword, but not a particularly swift one.
Jill Farren Phelps, line producer of the program, insists from Burbank that the earthquake is not a deus ex machina designed to solve ratings problems, although she doesn't deny the problems exist. In the most recent daytime Nielsens, only four programs ranked lower than "SB's" 3 rating and 10 share, and of those, only one is a soap: "The Edge of Night," which ABC is wiping out soon with an earthquake of its own. That big bad earthquake called cancellation. That will give "Santa Barbara" the dismal distinction of being the worst-rated soap on the air.
"Actually, we are not cleaning house," says Phelps. "We are only going to have one fatality. We hope this will be very positive. It will bring out the good and the bad in all our characters. The idea was to bring everybody to a certain point in the story and hit them with a catastrophe. We're really only killing one character, one who would have met a demise anyway."
The earthquake was not engineered by the research people at NBC, Phelps says, though sources contradict her on this. "The research really has nothing to do with the quake. The earthquake did not come out of the research. It was not brought about to kill all the characters." And of that single fatality, Phelps says, "The one who buys it dies does it off camera, and then gets wheeled on later." That's how an actor says goodbye on a soap. One last wheel-on and you're history.
A bop on the head during an earthquake, Phelps notes, really is a more humane way of killing off a character and bidding adieu to an actor than the usual way, which is, according to her, to have them "go upstairs, and take a nap, and never come back." It's existential as heck, but it's not very good drama.
Obviously, whether designed to purge the cast of undesirables or not, the earthquake was conceived as a noisy way of hyping "Santa Barbara" and perhaps keeping it from becoming history itself. Forestalling the inevitable, as it were. The one-hour soap debuted earlier this year and has caused barely a ripple among daytime TV viewers. Production has not gone smoothly, either; three different actors have played the pivotal part of C.C. Capwell, resident rich patriarch and schemer. Charles Bateman is in the role now and no, NBC insists, C.C. is not the one who buys it.
There was even a touch of bad luck, albeit authenticating bad luck, when on-location earthquake footage for the quake episodes was being shot in Santa Barbara -- the real one. There was an earthquake -- a real one. It registered a 4.7 on the scale, according to an NBC publicist. "That was a little spooky," Phelps recalls. But the shaking and stirring that viewers see on "Santa Barbara" will all be the safely faked kind and have already been taped on Burbank sound stages.
With a trace of sentimental mistiness in her voice, Phelps says, "We destroyed the most beautiful set we have."
As for whether "Santa Barbara" really is worse than the soaps that are doing well in the ratings, that's a tough call. On the surface it doesn't appear to be inferior to all those other daytime offerings designed for people with too much time to kill. At the moment the trend in the soaps is "Romancing the Stone" as opposed to romancing the heroine; suddenly many of the soaps look like bad imitations of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." So nu? They usually have been bad imitations of something. At least on "Santa Barbara" people live in homes that have pretty sherbet walls. How many of those walls will still be standing when three weeks' worth of smoke clears remains to be seen -- though not by very many people.
How have the residents of Santa Barbara, where as all good Americans know, Rancho Reagan is located, reacted to NBC's daily TV impersonation? In true Santa-B fashion, they have not reacted at all. They have pottery to make and dinner parties to give and photographs to mount. Says Annette Burden, editor of Santa Barbara Magazine, on the subject of the soap with her town's name on it, "I haven't heard anybody talk about it." They may think that if they ignore it, it will just go away. If the rest of the country continues to join them in that, it will.
At least it will have gone out with more of a quake than a whimper.