Sexy soak -- or soap on a rope? Right now the future of daytime drama seems murky as muddy bath water.

Or maybe viewers are seeking better suds in other tubs.

Industry-watchers are crying that daytime soaps are dying, as "Another World" recently did. The genre, they say, is gutted by sinking ratings, shrinking revenues and viewer flight to cable and the Internet.

But NBC has replaced "World" with the frothy "Passions," which debuted July 5. It could have opted for a talk show or game show or dipped into the even-hotter how-to genre, a la Martha Stewart. It didn't. It didn't make bottom-line sense.

"Soaps are something people believe the networks do exclusively well," said Susan Lee, senior vice president, NBC entertainment, daytime programs. "They are easy to sell to advertisers because they deliver the purest (easy to define and target) audience: women 18-49."

And check the World Wide Web. The soap genre is gaining ground in cyberspace -- in a weirdly wired, unruly, Web-worthy kinda way. If the soaps are allegedly losing their luster on broadcast, they're glowing -- albeit erratically -- on the Net.

Granted, quality is an elusive quotient among the fictional programs called Web soaps, Web serials or episodic dramas. Dialogue is often kitschy-dumb, audio is noisy and video-streaming abominably slow. Nevertheless, the Web is co-opting the spy-on-their-lives format we've known on daytime dramas such as NBC's "Sunset Beach," MTV's reality soap "Real World" and Fox's canceled "Melrose Place."

Early Web soap "The Spot" -- no longer alive, although you can still check out www.thespot.com -- chronicled the lives of young buds in a Santa Monica beach house. Other titles include "As the Web Turns," "Chiphead Harry," "Knots Landing Reborn," "Austin" -- and dozens more.

Many are parodies of TV soaps; some rehash "Real World," "Melrose" or "Beverly Hills, 90210." They sport chat rooms and ancillary text and other interactive gizmos. All seem bent on playing edgier and more out-there than traditional TV.

So if soaps are sudsing hotter on the Net, can broadcast TV compete? Certainly savvy executives are thinking the better mousetrap might be a cyberversion of "Passions" or "Sunset Beach" using "repurposed" video footage from the shows.

Still, right now "most computers are not good enough," Lee said of the Web's legendarily crude and slow video.

Do Web-heads and TV soaps fans converge? "Actually the viewers of daytime dramas are ardent online users but they're using them simultaneously or immediately following the show to talk about what they did or didn't like," Lee said, citing presentations by media futurists at NBC last year.

"So for our `Passions' Web page (www.nbc.com/passions) we want to cover different areas with information about the cast and, for example, the character Theresa's (Lindsay Korman) diary -- things you wouldn't see on camera. The hope is to encourage simultaneous use.

"Six or seven years ago when NBC went online, it was not even going to include soaps Web sites," Lee added. "It thought women wouldn't use it. What was our most active Web site? `Days of Our Lives.' I think NBC was stunned."

Vive la cyber-soaps difference. At first surf, it can be tough to tell which Web soaps were spawned by kooks, weirdos, delusional Hollywood wanna-be's -- or more conventional production companies aiming to replace CBS or NBC.

But all offer young users possibilities they won't find on TV's daytime dramas. Stories and characters are tailored to young lifestyles. Past episodes of a serial are available at a Web site so fans can catch up.

And there's an immediate sense of community. Episodes are linked to program chat rooms. No need to wait for next morning's water-cooler chatter.

"Part of the attraction of the Internet is that it allows you to have the experience of television -- the ability to watch linear video -- and it allows you to have control over when you watch and to customize the experience," said Jim Ritts, chief operating officer of Digital Entertainment Network, a buzzy Internet content provider that has about six episodic dramas on its site -- www.den.net -- and a number in post-production and development.

"Our critical audience is 14-to-24, and they've lived their lives with the world reordering itself for their needs," Ritts said. "They're more comfortable with `I customize it' rather than `I must fit into their schedule.' "

DEN's soapiest creation is "Tales From the Eastside," about young gang members in East Los Angeles.

Ritts: "It's sort of a `90210' for the Hispanic community, and the viewer has the option of hearing it in either English or Spanish."

"Tales From the Eastside" features storylines in multiple episodes with video served in six-minute chunks, dolled up with about 15 minutes of interactive content. If you're hot for female lead character Katie Vasquez you can click on her, stop action, and she'll pop up in another window to tell you about herself.

"You can take it as deep or as brief as you want," Ritts said.

WB, beware. So promising are the prospects for "Buffy" and "Dawson's Creek"-styled programs delivered over the Internet that Microsoft and Dell have invested in DEN, whose official launch is this fall. Last December, DEN had about 25 employees. Today, it boasts about 160 -- many refugees from beleaguered broadcast TV.

Another cybersoap difference is how DEN will handle advertising. The line between programming -- Ritts calls the shows "interactive entertainment experiences" -- and commercials will blur more than you've seen on daytime dramas. Watch for interstitial messages and serious product placement of Dell products and Ford vehicles -- but no 30-second diaper or floor-wax spots.

Of course, Web soaps have cyberleagues to go before they rival the long-lived soaps of broadcast. Imagine watching "The Young and the Restless" in jerky, pixilated motion on a 3-by-3-inch or so window on your screen.

That is, if you succeed in finding the Web site you want to begin with. The big four broadcast networks would not be in business if surfing them were as brain-gratingly slow as surfing the Net.

All the same, the broadcast biz is down and daytime soaps are losing lather. Viewership for broadcast television is shrinking across the board -- daytime and prime time.

Working women have become one of the genre's biggest threats. The soaps ain't called soap operas for nothing. Early on, moms and wives -- the elbow grease behind dishwashing liquids and cleansers -- were soaps' carefully delineated niche audience.

"Soaps used to be a highly desirable daypart in that it was almost a de facto buy to garner women," said Bob Flood, senior vice president-director of national TV for ad-buying agency DeWitt Media in New York.

"Obviously now you can reach working women in prime time, although daytime offers female demographics at a much more efficient price."

Still, when networks eye the bottom line of daytime they think soaps, not talk.

"Network-owned talk shows have not performed as well as syndicated ones because there are sleaze levels we just won't go to," Lee said. " `Jerry Springer' would never be a network show -- our advertisers would bail."

So broadcast networks continue to dote on soaps in daytime despite sagging viewership. To boost revenue, they think foreign markets and ancillary sales.

"Yes, you will see `Passions' merchandise," Lee said.

But lower ratings do mean tighter profit margins. Ratings set ad rates. Right now "Oprah" and "Rosie O'Donnell" earn more than twice the bucks from advertisers for a 30-second commercial as CBS' "The Young and the Restless" (the top-ranked soap of the '98-'99 season among Nielsen TV households) and ABC's "General Hospital" (No. 4). "Oprah" garners about $70,000, "Rosie" about $55,000, "The Young and the Restless" about $25,000 and "General Hospital" about $23,000.

These rates are much lower than the $300,000-$500,000 many prime time series have commanded. And soaps producers must carve five shows out of weekly budgets ranging $750,000-$1.4 million, less than some prime time series cost per single weekly episode.

Plus, "There's stuff that's more relevant to viewers (than daytime dramas) out there," Flood said, referring to how-to food and home-improvement shows on Home & Garden, Discovery and The Learning Channel. "But the soaps still generate high ratings, and the ratings drive prices."

The total average household rating of "Y&R" for the '98-'99 season was 6.6. That's not far off the ratings for "Judge Judy" (6.7), "Jerry Springer" (6.6) or "Oprah" (6.4). (One ratings point equals 994,000 TV viewing households.)

Unlike Nielsen, advertisers and networks like to tabulate soaps viewing by age and sex, focusing on women 18-49. Right now, ABC's daytime drama lineup is No.1 among women 18-49.

For June 21-25, ABC's "General Hospital" delivered almost three times as many female viewers as ABC's chatfest "The View." Yet the perception remains that talk is hot, soaps are not.

One factor is how Nielsen measures viewership. It tallies only in-home viewing.

And that riles Lee more than a little.

"If I'm feeling nervous about the genre, it doesn't come from the life of the genre itself -- because I believe good storytelling has been around from the beginning of time. But in the environment we live in there's no question that women are not sitting at home as they used to.

"And we have a system of evaluation called Nielsen that makes no bones about the fact that out-of-home viewing is not what they gauge or evaluate."

Out-of-home viewing venues include college dorms -- where there's plenty of serious soaps-watching -- office waiting rooms, workplaces, gas stations, etc.

Lee: "My feeling is I have no idea how many people are watching daytime drama. We're dealing with a system that isn't measuring what is going on."

Daytime is also in a youth bind. You can "Buffy"-up like high-flying, teen-oriented WB network and draw major bucks and Madison Avenue buzz. But teens do not drive daytime drama -- at least not on broadcast TV, not even on the new breed of steamy-sexy soaps "Port Charles," "Sunset Beach" or "Passions."

"Younger viewers are very important to daytime because they represent our future," said Angela Shapiro, president of ABC daytime.

"But when we start to isolate viewers only to that age group, that's when we lose all our loyal fans," Shapiro said of older viewers who grew up with "General Hospital" and "All My Children."

"When you come to the soaps you come to a community -- you don't come to a portion of the community. You have to be universal. If I tell a story in a way that only a teen will remember, I will lose a major portion of my audience."

Even sudsy "Passions" must play to the mature crowd. "With `Passions,' everyone expected us to go for the younger audience because that's what entertainment is doing these days," said "Passions" creator and head writer James E. Reilly. "But in the first eight weeks, the one character played almost the most is a woman in her 40s. The title of our show could be `Something for Everyone' like Forrest Gump and the box of chocolates. Each of the four core families on `Passions' has kids, so there are by numbers more younger people -- but it doesn't mean we're primarily skewed toward younger viewers. I have three marriages in the show that have lasted for 20-years plus and a single working mother in her 50s with children.

"I'd rather have strong 18-49 than any other demographic," Reilly said. "But at the same time, you want part of your portfolio in teenagers because 17-year-olds this year are 18 years old next year."

A tough ticket. Young viewers are peer-influenced and buzz-hungry. Comedy Central's crude-mouthed "South Park" had buzz last season. Youthful soap "Sunset Beach" didn't.

"Passions" may. It has what NBC's Lee calls "the woo-woo" -- an outrageous, "you can't possibly be doing that" storyline that is paranormally skewed, part Stephen King, part "The X-Files."

A 20-year soaps veteran, "Passions" guru Reilly knows the synergy between buzz and shock. He was working on "Days of Our Lives" in 1994 when the networks pre-empted their daytime dramas for coverage of the O.J. Simpson double murder trial. Enraged and disoriented by interrupted storylines and unnatural scheduling, many soaps fans never returned to the genre. They also got a taste for the type of true-life trauma that Springer later lionized.

To fight O.J. fever, Reilly skewed "Days" toward the supernatural with a story about demonic possession. It helped bring back viewers.

Last season, "Days" ranked third in total household viewing with a 4.5 rating. That's down from its No. 2 finish for '97-'98, but still enough to bulk the show's billfold by "another $400,000-$500,000 a week on their last license negotiation," Reilly said.

Reilly insists that "what viewers want hasn't changed," although "30-40 years ago if you had a character coming in and saying, I'm going to get a divorce or an abortion, that would have shocked, and these days it doesn't. And now we see events instead of having two people talking over coffee, saying `John slapped Mary.' Now we see John slap Mary and we hear it from their own lips."

If the action is hotter on MTV's "Real World" or "Road Rules," it is also more limited, Reilly said.

" `Real World' is really a mini-telenovela," he said referring to the hugely popular genre of limited-run, Spanish-language soap opera. "But on `Real World,' we're only with them for a short amount of time. The wonderful thing about daytime drama is you can have a richer tapestry than `Real World.' You can air not for three months but for 30 years. If you go away to school you can come back and see the Quartermaine mansion on `General Hospital.'

"But with `Real World' they vanish. Who wants to make friends and get so involved with people's lives -- and then you lose them?"