Tears in Soap City Starting to Look Real

As "Guiding Light" drops from airwaves, other daytime dramas feel the crunch.

ByJohn Berman and Steven Baker
April 29, 2009, 12:08 PM

April 30, 2009 -- 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.

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.

Soaps Improvise Solutions to Economic Pinch

"One of the things that I love is actually using real products, because it validates and authenticates our fictitious Pine Valley," said Hanan Carruthers. "Our challenge, and my goal, is that when we do it, it happens in a very natural and organic way, so that we aren't going back to the days of holding up the soap box, actually doing a commercial in the middle of the show."

But the down economy hasn't been all bad news for Pine Valley.

"It's actually, in an odd way, getting easier," said Hanan Carruthers. "The economic state of the world kind of made everyone here pull together."

The banner example may be Susan Lucci, who has played the immortal Erica Kane for 39 years, through thick and thin, and worse.

Even Lucci had to take a pay cut.

"Everyone has pitched in, and everyone has stepped up to the plate, and we've tightened where we can," said Lucci. "I've felt it in a couple of ways, there's some missing faces on the studio floor, and that's sad because we really are an ensemble here, from top to bottom, not just the company of actors but the crew, very much so."

That sense of company spirit was on full display on a recent walk-through of the "All My Children" set.

"This is like a typical day here at "AMC," said Cameron Mathison, who plays heartthrob Ryan Lavery. "There are 47 scenes today. That's insane. Anxiety!"

He gestures to an especially eye-catching wardrobe.

"Look at this over here, folks, this is all Erica Kane's! I hope Susan doesn't mind me doing this. Let's see what we got here."

He held up a pair of striking leopard-print pants.

"I mean, come on. Do these say Erica Kane or what?!"

The roving Mathison is drawn to an important piece on any daytime television set: the bed.

How many women has Ryan Lavery lured there?

"Uh, easily four."

Four ... at different ... times?

"Easy, now!"

Crafting story lines that may stretch the imagination are part of keeping an audience.

"It helps remind the audience that something's going on," said Valentini. "We never have reruns, so you are never going to hear that there is the season premiere of 'One Life to Live,' we just continue going on. So it's good to have something fresh going on."

Character Erica Kane on "All My Children" has been married 10 times. And this past year, the legendary soap employed the use of CGI technology to create a giant tornado with Hollywood-type technology.

Soaps' Secret Weapon: Committed Fans

In the end, though, the soaps that brought us Kelly Ripa, Demi Moore, John Stamos and Rick Springfield have a secret weapon, something that transcends dollars and downturns.

They have fans -- deeply devoted, committed fans.

"We are in their living room every single day, they see us every day, it's an ongoing story," Mathison said. "It's not something you have to tune in every week to find out, it's right there for an hour every day in your living room, and if you're home that's a lot of your life, that's a lot of consistency."

And the stories will go on. Which means Erica Kane will almost definitely get married, again ... and divorced, again.

"In a bad economy, that's when the audience really wants to watch something that really helps," Lucci said. "The escape is in some ways instructive, and is also really hopeful, exciting and fun."

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