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Marlena Evans has suffered her share of improbable bad luck over her long soap- opera career. These days, though, her troubles have become increasingly unmanageable.
With eyes that turn a yield-sign yellow and a voice that sinks deep and demonic, Dr. Evans has misbehaved all over the fictional town of Salem. So far, she has burned down a church, unleashed a swarm of vicious bees and morphed -- with the help of movie-like special effects -- into a menacing black panther. Stay tuned for a scheduled exorcism. Currently 10 daytime soap operas are on network TV, just more than half the number that were airing in One reason for the falloff is the profusion of OPRAH-style talk shows, which are able to serve up story lines about real-life family traumas, drug-abuse problems and evil boyfriends on a daily basis.
We Love Soaps: FLASHBACK: The Old And The Desperate 1995
During the past months, moreover, the soaps have been hit by their toughest competition yet: The soaps remain extremely profitable for the networks too, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. But lower ratings mean fewer potential advertising dollars and a general sense of corporate unease.
Some soaps are working hard to boost ratings with stranger than usual story lines. But now Viki is plagued by four additional inner selves, including kidnapper Jean Randolph, corporate saboteur and future arsonist Tori, a thug named Tommy and a vulnerable little girl viewers know as Princess. Last week ABC held a press conference to announce the launch of a new G.
His illness will progress in what network press material describes as "real time" and will "not be rushed for the sake of accommodation. Hoping to woo back former fans and keep the ones they have, the soaps are also aggressively promoting themselves with such memorabilia as trading cards, coffee mugs, T shirts and books, as well as prime-time specials. Some are cleverly marketing videos that feature best-loved scenes and character histories.
Available in video stores and supermarkets and through mail order, the tapes recycle old footage and thus cost little to produce. The show spent a week reviewing in flashback its quarter-century on the air. The Complete Family Scrapbook," now in its fourth printing, and a nighttime retrospective to which its most famous fan, Carol Burnett, played host. ABC will air another prime-time soap special on June 21, which will plug summer story lines for all its daytime dramas.
The summer season is an important one for soaps because it offers the prospect of an expanded audience of teenagers home from school. CBS Daytime is launching a high-visibility summer campaign that includes radio, print and prime-time advertising in cities where viewer decline has been particularly precipitous, such as Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and Washington.
The soaps have also discovered the promotional opportunities available in cyberspace. All three networks have launched online daytime-series chat rooms.
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The network has placed computers in the New York City studios where its soaps are taped, and it encourages actors to go online during their breaks. Whether outre plots or gimmicky marketing will succeed in reviving the soaps remains to be seen. Traditionalists think that the tactics are unlikely to help.