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Cheaper Clothes And Shorter Stories: On Soaps, Strange 'Days' Indeed

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Cheaper Clothes And Shorter Stories: On Soaps, Strange 'Days' Indeed

Television

Cheaper Clothes And Shorter Stories: On Soaps, Strange 'Days' Indeed

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's go from political dramas to the dramas of daytime TV. When the soap opera "One Life to Live" went off the air this year, it didn't die off for some soap opera reason - killed by an evil twin brother; and its demise was not fake, either - explained away later as a dream. It was part of a real decline of shows that once dominated daytime TV. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on one of the last few survivors, "Days of Our Lives."

(SOUNDBITE OF "DAYS OF OUR LIVES" THEME SONG)

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It cannot hurt to have such an iconic theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DAYS OF OUR LIVES" THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

ULABY: Soap operas are fighting for their lives. "Days Of Our Lives" has been through almost as much as Molly Burnett. She plays a reformed vixen on the show, named Melanie.

MOLLY BURNETT: I've been shot, stabbed, poisoned by a wedding hairpiece. I was shot by my mom on my wedding day. I found out my husband cheated on me with my father-I-didn't-know-I-had's wife, and then they had a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAYS OF OUR LIVES")

BURNETT: (as Melanie) You thought it was OK that my husband slept with my father's wife?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (as character) I didn't know who it was, I swear.

BURNETT: Then I got pregnant.

ULABY: Burnett is 23 years old. She admits that soap operas' tortuous plot twists are not exactly cool among her peers. None of her friends watch them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAYS OF OUR LIVES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (as character) I went on the computer, and I changed the paternity test results.

BURNETT: (as Melanie) What? No, that's not true.

ULABY: There was a time soap operas wielded wide cultural influence. Even people who could care less about them knew about Luke and Laura's wedding on "General Hospital," in 1981; or when Bo kidnapped Hope from her wedding, on "Days of our Lives."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAYS OF OUR LIVES")

KRISTIAN ALFONSO: (as Hope) No! Bo, let me go.

PETER RECKELL: (as Bo) Hope...

ALFONSO: (as Hope) Bo...

ULABY: Since 1983, with a few breaks, Kristian Alfonso has played Hope - all cheekbones and raven hair. Over the years, she's watched production budgets get halved, salaries chopped, and the end of filming on location.

How nostalgic are you for the days when you would wear $35,000 wedding dresses and...

ALFONSO: Oh my gosh. It was a big adjustment at first because seriously, that is your first stop in the morning - is wardrobe.

ULABY: That used to mean designer dresses. Now, Alfonso says, Tarjay(ph). Part of how soap operas are trying to adapt to a new era has to do with how they're written. When "Days of our Lives" head writer Marlene McPherson started her career 20 years ago, storylines - or arcs - could work themselves out over a year. Now...

MARLENE MCPHERSON: We'd like to be able to start telling stories that maybe, you know, we'd do a week arc; that it only goes on for a week.

ULABY: McPherson says these days, people have shorter attention spans. She's banned the kind of scenes where actresses like Sarah Joy Brown talk to themselves, to explain what's going on.

SARAH JOY BROWN: You used to have to do exposition for half of your episode.

ULABY: Brown acted on "As the World Turns," "General Hospital" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" before joining "Days of our Lives" last year.

BROWN: These were the rules - that we had to repeat the same things we said the day before. They were certain that the audiences were not going to get it, if you didn't.

ULABY: NBC's strategy these days has changed.

BROWN: Like, if they miss something, too bad, you missed it. You better crawl around the Internet and try to find it. And they will, and they'll find it.

ULABY: Creating stronger online fan communities and deeper engagement with the show is another way "Days" is trying to survive. "Days of Our Lives" executive producer Ken Corday is the son of the couple who created "Days of our Lives" back in 1965. He says soaps used to be leaders in addressing social issues. They featured the first interracial couple on TV, and the first abortion. Now, they play it safe.

KEN CORDAY: You don't deal with politics, conservative or liberal. You don't deal with abortion, being pro or con. These are just no-no's. They're not going to get us any audience.

ULABY: Also out - those over-the-top storylines about demon possession that goosed ratings in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAYS OF OUR LIVES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Oh dear. I'm all tied up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: "Days" is safe until the fall of 2013. That's when its contract expires. Its Nielsen ratings have stunk even more than usual recently, but people at the show are convinced that Nielsen does not accurately reflect its reach. And maybe they have a point.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN: I love your swagger, darling. I love your swagger on the show.

ULABY: At a huge fan event for "Days of our Lives" in Los Angeles, nobody talked about watching it at 1 p.m. Eastern time on NBC. They watch it after work, on weekends, online, and on a cable channel that mainly airs soap opera reruns.

DEBRAH FALANGA: I'm thankful for SoapNet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. Me, too.

FALANGA: I work during the day and I don't have time to watch it, so I stay up until 12 midnight to watch it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Bad news for "Days of our Lives" fan Debrah Falanga: SoapNet is going off the air this week. It's becoming, instead, a Disney-themed cable channel for children.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Like sounds through your clock radio - so is NPR News.

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