As The World Wide Web Turns

Can producing soap operas for online viewers breathe new life into daytime programming?

In late February, CBS launched a Web-only soap opera called L.A. Diaries it hopes will attract young women. The nine episodes are streamed for about six minutes a pop on the network's site. The action centers on Amber, an existing character on The Young & the Restless, and on Alison, a new character who emerged from the cyberspace soap on Mar. 21 to play an actual role on TV in As the World Turns.

It's a fresh approach to creating buzz for a TV staple, and other network executives will be watching closely. Rival networks are trying to get kids to watch old daytime melodramas such as General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, shows their mothers or grandmothers might have watched.

Few genres have demonstrated more staying power than the soap opera. More than half a century after first airing alongside the detergent commercials that gave them their name, soaps still captivate millions of mostly women fans. No matter how preposterous the dialogue or cheesy the plot lines, soaps have, in modern parlance, a "stickiness" that many prime-time dramas can only hope to achieve.

Characters like newspaper publisher Victoria Lord Davidson of One Life to Live (who made her debut on the show in 1968) have been on the tube for so long that they can seem like old friends. "I feel I really know them," says Antonella Cahill, a 40-year-old Philadelphia secretary and soap fan who named one daughter after the scheming Nikki Newman of The Young & the Restless and the other after General Hospital's Tiffany Hill (who married and left beloved Port Charles years ago). Even better, as far as soap fans are concerned, the networks don't stint on new episodes; last year, ABC rolled out 251 new General Hospital episodes vs. 23 new Desperate Housewives shows.

But even as the shows' stars age gracefully (cue makeup, soft focus, and cosmetic surgery), there is no hiding the graying of their fans. There are new plot devices and characters--a teen girl's right to choose, for one--calculated to appeal to young women. Even so, most soap devotees are well over 50. Meanwhile, over the past decade, viewership has fallen 35%, to 30 million viewers a day. Hence the networks' eagerness to reimagine the soaps for a new generation.

It goes without saying that the Web is where the action is, but so far the networks haven't been able to win the digital rights to put them on their own sites. Until ABC (DIS ), NBC, and CBS (CBS ) hammer out a deal with the production companies that make the soaps, few will be available to download or stream. There's plenty of upside in getting the deals done. Media consultant Tom Wolzien figures there are more than 20 million women in the workplace with broadband access. So streaming shows live to computers could double the potential audience for soaps. If you got just 5% of those working women to watch, Wolzien calculates, the networks could reap an extra $230 million a year in advertising.

In the meantime, the networks are taking baby steps online. SoapNet, the Walt Disney Co. (DIS )-owned channel that shows soaps at night for working women, sponsors online soap fantasy leagues. Participants rack up points when characters they have picked for their team take off their shirts, say, or switch the paternity-test results. Still, the players number less than 30,000. The channel is also asking college kids to create their own soaps and put them to the vote at Even CBS's Guiding Light is getting in on the act, podcasting the show, which began life on radio in 1937.

If the soap opera is to be around for another half-century, the networks will have to make converts of a generation with a thousand more entertainment choices than their grandmothers. "The constant," says Barbara Bloom, senior vice-president for daytime programming at CBS, "is making viewers always feel emotionally involved in the story."

By Tom Lowry

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