Tears in Soap City Starting to Look Real

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Screaming breakups, familial betrayal, remorseless murder, deadly revenge. Over the years, the inhabitants of Pine Valley, the setting of ABC's hit daytime drama "All My Children," have pretty much seen it all.

Take Erica Kane, the most famous Pine Valley resident, who is too beset even to find time to deal with the loss of her son, the victim of a brutal murder at the hands of her son-in-law for his healthy heart, which was needed for a life-saving transplant for her daughter.

Erica Kane has been through a lot. But the peril she now faces may be without precedent, even in the turbulent world of daytime television drama.

It's the Great Recession.

"It is hitting Pine Valley, we are not unique," said Julie Hanan Carruthers, the show's executive producer.

So far, the tough economic times haven't actually worked their way into the soaps' ever-evolving plot lines. But behind the scenes, daytime shows face tighter budgets, shrunken ad revenues and competition for viewer attention from new media.

Other Soap Cities have felt the hit even more deeply than Pine Valley. CBS recently announced that it would pull "Guiding Light" off the air this September -- after 72 years of daily episodes. And NBC laid off Deirdre Hall, a mainstay of "Days of Our Lives" for 32 years.

"The recession has affected everything and obviously, you know, my big challenge is, how do you tighten a budget and not see it on the air?" said Hanan Carruthers.

The Miracle of Daytime Television

What is on the air on shows like "All My Children" is nothing short of an entertainment miracle. The cast and crew shoot 50 weeks a year, putting a new show on every weekday, juggling crew, sets, costumes and actors. And now they have to do it in the toughest economic environment any of them have seen.

Frank Valentini, who runs "One Life to Live," said changes in media technology have made it more difficult to hold viewers' attention.

"I think the biggest challenge for the media is it is so fragmented right now that people are either multi-tasking, surfing the Net, texting, talking on the phone all at once," said Valentini. "So, I think to truly capture their attention for the 45 minutes a day, and not just those 45 minutes that day, but for the five days and the following weeks ... once a story starts, it has to start with a bang and then go from there."

Viewers have many more entertainment options now than they did in 1981, when Luke and Laura's wedding on "General Hospital" pulled in 30 million viewers. These days, soaps are lucky to pull in 3 million.

"I don't know that we will see that in daytime anymore, those kinds of numbers," said Hanan Carruthers. "There is certainly that kind of commitment. There is certainly the interest. But people are recording, or they are reading about it, or they are looking at it streaming online."

The need to attract and keep a wider audience has inspired creative solutions. "One Life to Live" regularly brings in big-name musical guests, like Mary J. Blige and the Pussycat Dolls. On "All My Children," story lines have been built around paid placements for products, such as Campbell's Soup.

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