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Published: Sunday, 3/4/2012

Soaps strive to be relevant, vital

BY TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As cancellations were announced, the obituaries declared not just the end of each show but of the entire daytime soap opera industry as well. News articles used the word death in headlines. NPR declared a "Soapocalypse."

It's understandable. After all, there have been so many obituaries to write: Besides eight cancellations in the past 15 years, a deal to keep All My Children and One Life to Live alive on the Internet fell through. And SoapNet, Disney's round-the-clock soap channel, is scheduled to go dark March 22, waking up the next morning with programming for preschoolers.

The highest-rated of the remaining soaps, The Young and the Restless, is seen by a mere 4.7 million people. Not only are talk and game shows cheaper to produce, but programs like Judge Judy have also been creaming the soaps with nearly 9.4 million viewers daily.

We can all agree that things are not looking good for the soap opera.

But dead? There are still four traditional soaps on each weekday -- Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless, and General Hospital -- and three were eager to share the measures they were taking to remain vital and relevant in television's changing landscape. (Only ABC's General Hospital declined to comment.)

These shows employ hundreds of people, all laboring to ensure their shows survive this most recent cultural shift. Producers are quick to point out that they've survived similarly dramatic shifts: radio to TV, network to cable, women leaving the home en masse for the workplace, even the O.J. Simpson trial, which pre-empted soaps for months in 1995.

It's worth remembering one of the soaps' favorite plot twists: triumphant, often inexplicable, returns from the dead.

The modern soap opera does not appear that much different than it did 15 or 30 years ago. There are still infidelities, murder mysteries, lies. Tortured couples still stare at each other across the room, practically drooling with lust that has built over months. But there are subtle changes. For one, stories aren't being dragged out endlessly anymore.

"The goal is to respect the tradition of the show," said Greg Meng, executive producer of NBC's Days of Our Lives, "but tell the stories as they can be told today," using modern dialogue in two-week or even three-day story arcs.

The faster pace is just one feature of the recent reboot of Days, as it is known, which had lost its way in recent years as, in Meng's words, ratings tanked.

Determined to revive the show, he took cast members on a multicity tour, during which he met fans and heard their complaints, mainly that their favorite characters were not on the air anymore.

"We realized we needed to take the show back to where it was," he said. "The show is about traditional midwestern family values and how they're constantly tested. That doesn't change."

Meng hired new head writers, Marlene McPherson and Darrell Ray Thomas, Jr., who immediately brought back fan favorites like John and Marlena, along with the performers who created them. They were featured in prominent story lines that reignited romances and tensions, as when John's step grandson went missing and -- through a series of only-in-a-soap twists -- the boy's mother, Sami, was caught being comforted by a man who was not her husband, just as Sami had once caught her mother, Marlena, with John. Then the creators sat back and hoped word would get out.

"We had record-breaking feedback," Meng said. "It got people talking on Twitter, Facebook, in the grocery store. That's how you create a drama."

The goal, then, isn't to become a twist-per-minute show like Revenge, or a nonepisodic one like CSI. Rather, it is to become the best possible version of a soap opera.

And a more efficient one. Maria Arena Bell, executive producer and head writer for The Young and the Restless on CBS, said: "Once upon a time soaps wrote to Fridays, where things would slowly build throughout the week, and Friday you'd have a stunning cliffhanger to keep your attention. I still build to Fridays, but my motto is that every day has to be a Friday."

The Bold and the Beautiful, also on CBS but a half-hour show (the others are a full hour), has also quickened its pace to keep up with changing attention spans and modernized in other ways.

"We're no longer the schmaltzy, fluffy romance of the '80s," said Bradley Bell, the show's executive producer and head writer. (He and Maria Bell are in-laws.) "Women are more independent and edgier," he said. "The dialogue is clever and witty."

Also gone from today's soaps: loads of exposition -- characters talking to themselves, flashbacks -- to accommodate viewers who have missed a day.

"The old theory says: Keep things moving slowly, because if people are only watching two or three times a week, they need to know what's happening," Bradley Bell said. "Our new theory is: Something has to happen every day, and it's more important to feel as though you've missed something by not watching."

Beyond storytelling changes, what keeps these shows alive is their willingness to reduce costs. As part of Meng's Days reboot, exterior and location shoots were limited, directors were told to make scenes work in one take, and he said there were "significant decreases in salary and expenses across the board."

"Some soaps were able to adapt financially and streamline production, and some were not," said James Scott, an actor who is on Days now and appeared on All My Children for a time. "It was disappointing when All My Children got canceled. It wasn't necessary. They failed to come in on time and under budget."

Scott said he and his Days co-stars had become used to the quicker pace of shooting. His shooting day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. to avoid overtime, while his friends on All My Children would routinely tape until 8 p.m.

"I've had a second take on less than 15 scenes out of the last thousand I've shot," he said.

The returning veterans have had to get used to the changes.

"When I came back, I was surprised at the pace which we now shoot," said Deidre Hall, who played Marlena on Days from 1976 until she was fired in 2009 (except for a brief hiatus during which she appeared on the prime-time show Our House); she was rehired in September. "We all have to be camera-ready now. That's how we do seven shows in a week," a schedule that allows cast and crew to take vacations. "It's a revenue business," she added, "and we must be profitable."

Both Bradley and Maria Bell said that they were running profitable ships, and NBC's senior vice president for current programming, Bruce Evans, confirmed that Days was financially healthy.

"Keeping the show on the air makes good business sense for us," he said, declining to give figures. "The numbers are important, and the numbers are good."

Days and The Bold and the Beautiful have been renewed until 2013, The Young and the Restless through 2014. Most prime-time series are only renewed a season at a time.

The actors understand this and are grateful.

"Maybe we'll be canceled in 18 months, but do you know anyone who gets this much notice that they're going to be fired?" Scott said. "If you want stability, go and become a doctor. People always get sick."

But maybe people will always need their soaps too.

"The desire for this sort of wholly American art form that you can have a relationship with day after day is still going to be there," Maria Bell said. "If we can weather this storm, then we can ultimately see that the daytime has room for various kinds of programming, just the way prime time does."

Hall, an actress so soap-ready that she even has an identical twin sister who played her, yes, evil twin in 1977, sees a larger benefit to soaps' survival.

"We still come to you every day with our honesty and our tenderness, and we comfort people in their homes," she said. "That's a thing Americans can't afford to lose, especially now."



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