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2006: The Year In Soaps

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Digest Gives Daytime A 12-Month Checkup

By Mara Levinsky

With his typical candor, talent manager/ I WANNA BE A SOAP STAR judge Michael Bruno sums up the state of soaps in 2006 thusly: "It was a very tumultuous year."

Unsurprisingly, considering his profession, he is referring primarily to "the recent firings of huge soap icons. From a financial standpoint, it's really sobering. When you're hearing names like Heather Tom [ex-Kelly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE], Vincent Irizarry [ex-David, ALL MY CHILDREN; soon-to-be David, YOUNG AND REST-LESS] and Eileen Davidson [soon-to-be ex-Ashley, Y&R], it says that no one is safe."

Considerable cast shakeups - most of which were prompted by an ever-dwindling bottom line - aside, it was a relatively calm year behind the scenes, with only two sudsers undergoing top-level shifts in creative regime. DAYS OF OUR LIVES snagged ATWT's former head writer, multiple Emmy-winner Hogan Sheffer, as its new chief scribe, replacing James E. Reilly, who remains head writer of PASSIONS. Says DAYS Executive Producer Ken Corday of the switch, "It's best for us that we have a writer solely dedicated to this show, telling story that is more traditional DAYS kind of story than we've been dealing with the past three or four years."

Corday credits Sheffer with"getting back to stories that deal with family, passion, romance, that aren't bleak," and Bruno applauds the change. "There's a new energy at DAYS. It's unfortunate that people are going," he adds, "but the [up side] of that is that they're using your favorite people more. "

CBS Senior Vice President, Daytime, Barbara Bloom admits to some institutional nervousness when Lynn Marie Latham was hired in February to replace Kay Alden, Y&R's longtime head writer; by Septem-ber, she had taken over Executive Producer Jack Smith's job, as well. Under Latham, loom opines, "The show is more cohesive; characters aren't as islanded as they were before. With each story there was a lot of conversation between Lynn and me and Bell Television and Sony - deliberate choices made to refocus on the core characters and what the audience was looking for."

So, to add new head-writing blood in 2006, both shows sought talent that would concentrate creatively on established audience favorites, while several others lured back industry superstars in the hopes of recapturing lapsed viewers. GENERAL HOSPITAL led this pack, welcoming heavy-hitting returnees like Tfistan Rogers (Robert), Finola Hughes (Anna) and Genie Francis (ex-Laura). "This refocused on the core and brought the numbers up," praises Bruno.

But big stars cost big money - so soaps looked to increase their profile in other ways, too. AMC made a bid for viewers attention by altering its look, removing the video crispness standard to daytime and making increased use of handheld cameras. Fans blanched, but the show's EP, Julie Hanan Carruthers, stands behind the experiment. "I was proud of our bravery," she says. "Of course, it was trial and error. We don't have time to perfect off-camera, turning out the number of episodes we do. At a certain point, you have to risk to move forward. That's what we all need right now because ratings are down and we need to hold on to the audience we have and figure out a way to grab a new audience, as well."

"For the form to continue, it has to evolve," agrees CBS's Bloom, "'and AS THE WORLD TURNS really set the bar this year for CBS in terms of that." The show's tie-in novel, Oakdale Conficlential, "was a huge success for us, and who can't applaud them for the way in which Chris [Goutman, ATWT's EP] took up the challenge of coming up with a digital show?" The result was INTURN, an online series in which actors competed for an ATWT gig and the audience voted for the winner. "We had wireless, we were digital," Bloom enthuses. "It really shows that daytime is a relevant medium across all platforms."'

Even as these execs champion their experimentation, they concur, "None of it works if you don't have great story," as Carruthers puts it. Expands Bloom, "I don't think that you can put any story on the air and the audience will accept it, but if you keep in mind the core of your universe and look at the opportunities before you on a number of platforms and the challenges of a limited audience, there become ways to say, 'How do we spin this into a positiveT We can't be afraid to say, 'Let's do a digital companion piece! "Let's show this scene ahead of time!"'

But talent manager Bruno is even more emphatic about the primacy of good plot in securing the health of the industry. "It is always about story," he asserts. "And in 2006, the stories were really hit or really miss." He points to ATWTs tale of Luke's coming out and the vilification of GH's Maxie as prime examples of hits and G12s ignoring of super-couple Gus and Harley ("They were it, they were cool and funny and hip, and then, what happened?") and an overly robust influx of new faces on PASSIONS ("I'm a fan and I can't follow if') as major misses. "I think the shows seemed very knee-jerk in the storytelling this year," he sighs.

All parties agree that "The last thing, any of us needs is complacency," in the words of Bloom. "Our audience doesn't have the same amount of time and we can't let them get complacent thinking, 'It's going to be here forever.' If we don't all watch, it's not going to be here forever." "It's a tough marketplace, there's no doubt about it," concludes Corday. "But people still love their stories. If the stories are good, they'll tune in."
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