Fans of All My Children may not realize it, but Erica Kane is about to go Hollywood. This month, the New York-based soap opera will permanently relocate production to L.A. a move that ABC promises will greatly improve the look of the show, which averages 2.7 million viewers. Mostly, though, shooting in a roomy California studio will save ABC loads of cash, since AMC will no longer have to store and transport sets like the fancy Chandler mansion.
When it comes to rescuing the sinking ships that are daytime soaps, every little bit of hole plugging helps. With more and more fans abandoning the once-popular genre (total viewer averages for soaps on the three broadcast networks have dropped 20 percent since 1999), the networks are in cost-cutting crisis mode: Beloved star Eric Braeden, who's played Victor Newman on CBS' The Young and the Restless since 1980, was one of many cast members on the show forced to take a hefty pay cut this year. And NBC's Days of Our Lives now operates under a lean $1 million-per-week budget after dropping expensive stars like Deidre Hall. ''It's been a stagnant business for a long time,'' admits ABC head of daytime Brian Frons. ''Just like in any business, the strong will survive and the weak will fall away.'' Lately, the genre has seen more of the latter: Three months after canceling the 72-year-old Guiding Light (which was replaced by the cheaper-to-produce Let's Make a Deal), CBS announced that it's yanking As the World Turns, which averages 2.5 million viewers, in 2010. (The show's studio, TeleNext Media, vows to find a new home for the sudser. Best of luck there, guys!) Many believe there are more cancellations to come; rumors persist that ABC's One Life to Live, the second-least-watched soap with 2.6 million viewers, is next, though ABC denies the claims. (Determining the fate of the remaining six soaps can often come down to just a few hundred thousand viewers.)
''Daytime soaps may be nearing their end,'' predicts Dr. Paul Levinson, a TV expert and professor at Fordham University. ''The lifestyles of the 21st century do not cater to sitting down every day at the same time to watch a soap.'' Adds Shari Anne Brill, director of strategic audience analysis at media-buying firm Carat: ''Because the audiences for soaps are getting older and less desirable to advertisers, it is no longer cost-effective for networks to produce them...when there are cheaper alternatives, like turning the time back to the affiliates.'' That won't stop the networks from trying. In November, ABC's General Hospital bagged a movie star, James Franco, for a guest arc that runs through Jan. 15. Unfortunately, his debut week boosted ratings by only 5 percent among young women, the prime demo he was expected to deliver.
Veterans like The Bold and the Beautiful exec producer Bradley Bell prefer rich stories and smaller budgets to stunt casting. ''We have to go back and produce these shows on a shoestring, which is how they began,'' says Bell, whose soap has the safety net of selling well overseas. NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff agrees. ''When you force budget cuts, you force creative decisions that are good for the show.'' But even he's tongue-tied when it comes to predicting the long-term health of the genre especially since soap ratings have been in decline since the early '90s. ''It's hard to say how long it will stay,'' he admits. ''Just when you write a genre off, it can come back.'' True if soaps have shown us anything, it's that anyone can return from the dead.