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Soap finds new life on satellite TV

NBC daytime drama "Passions" will move to DirecTV in September.


Diane Wertsnewsday

"Passions" is heading for outer space.

OK, not quite outer space, just that Earth orbit where satellites live.

NBC's "Passions" becomes DirecTV's "Passions" this September when the satellite service rescues the daytime drama the peacock network is cutting loose.

Can "Days of Our Lives" be far behind?

Daytime -- which the networks used to fill with soaps and game shows so their affiliate stations would have a preprogrammed slate -- has become valuable real estate recently as syndicated talk shows have mushroomed. Local stations would rather contract to run the likes of Oprah/Maury/Dr. Phil, where they keep the ad money, than something like soaps, where the networks suck up the bucks.

Meanwhile, daytime dramas haven't been doing themselves any favors, failing to find ways to modernize plots for new young viewers, while disappointing older devotees by dumping all over established stars and storylines. Ratings for the stick-in-the-mud soaps keep falling, which makes sense, because, really, how entertaining can the same old scripted who's-the-daddy antics be compared with "Maury's" real-world DNA?

So after NBC said in January it wouldn't be renewing "Passions" (DirecTV recently announced its acquisition), that put "Days" in danger as the network's sole remaining sudser. Plus, "Days" is produced by an outside studio, and today's deregulated networks would rather run shows they own. (ABC, for instance, makes all its own soaps.)

DirecTV's pickup of "Passions" -- to air on its original programming channel, the 101 -- is designed to lure some of the show's 2 million viewers, a piddly number for networks but a big 'un for satellite originals. The soap's run on NBC (which, ironically, produces "Passions" through its own NBC Universal studio) ends Sept. 7. The show then repremieres from orbit Sept. 17. It'll air weekdays in the same time slot, and DirecTV throws in weekend encores, a la cable's SOAPnet.

Which is where one might expect "Days" to land if NBC and/or the producer files for divorce. SOAPnet -- created by ABC in 2000 for nighttime encores of its daytime dramas -- has struggled to create signature programming to take it to the next level.

The channel ended up canceling such originals as "SoapTalk," leaving it dependent on nightly repeats of that day's "Days" and other soaps. An original soap of SOAPnet's own -- well, not exactly "original," but well-established already and airing fresh episodes rather than repeats -- might just do the trick.

NBC shows all the signs of giving up on soaps completely. Daytime broadcast ratings for "Days" have been falling like a rock. Yet they're still a level up from "Passions," which might now entice SOAPnet. Besides, "Days" has a much more invested audience, after 40 years on the air and some serious seasons of glory.

But none of this seems to address the central crisis afflicting soaps today: how to create 21st-century excitement in shows behaving in 20th-century ways. Plotting is recycled from decades back. Gender roles and cultural values are too often dated. The shows are low-tech relics in a high-tech universe, in terms of both their Luddite conduct (it took forever for characters to get cell phones, learn to IM, et al.) and their cheesy low-definition videotape look. Daytime dramas simply feel like your mother's genre -- if not your grandmother's -- which isn't exactly the prescription for attracting a new generation of fans.

"Passions" making the satellite move doesn't by itself change that. But it does shake up the status quo. And that's a start.
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