Soaps Shine as Lab for Ventures

Jul 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

At ABC, CBS and NBC, soap operas have become a testing ground for ways to use the Internet, cellphones and iPods to boost television audiences.

Soap operas attract a predominantly female audience and get a fraction of the attention, ratings and advertising dollars that go to the networks’ prime-time schedules. The loyalty they inspire in their viewers, however, makes them a useful laboratory.

“Daytime fans are really passionate people,” said Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group. Mr. Frons said he receives several hundred e-mails a day from viewers.

“If you go to one of our Super Soap weekends at the Disney parks, one of the things you always heard is, `We love talking to other fans,”‘ he said. “They can’t get enough history, they can’t get enough sharing. It’s a natural thing for us to look at the digital world.”

According to Mr. Frons, ABC’s daytime dramas were the first network series to launch character and actor blogs. “General Hospital” character Robin Scorpio’s blog is the second-most-popular on the ABC Web sites, behind only the “Grey’s Anatomy” blog. Next month ABC will launch interactive pages showing the history of various soap opera characters.

Sponsors on ABC’s digital offerings include Sears, Maxwell House, Oreo, Special K and John Freida Luminous Color Glaze. ABC would not release the financial terms for digital sponsorship.

Daytime Leads Prime Time

At its pre-upfront presentation in March, NBC announced it was going forward with short episodes of its prime-time comedy “The Office” made specifically for the Web. While the move was touted as a breakthrough for television, NBC already had created “webisodes” to promote its soaps months before.

Last October, NBC launched a series of two-minute sponsored online spots running twice a week called “Passions Red,” which the network used to introduce a new character. The female character’s face was hidden in the series of online spots. When the woman was shown in the “Passions” on-air telecast, a graphic would flash on the screen encouraging viewers to visit the show’s Web site, where fans could discuss the new character.

“We had 10 million page views,” said Annamarie Kostura, VP of daytime programs for NBC.

In March, NBC went a step further with “Passions Vendetta,” which gave viewers clues about a hooded monk who appeared on the show. The online “Vendetta” incorporated an omega symbol into the story line and into “Vendetta’s” online sponsor pages for Garnier Fructis and Maybelline. An interactive element allowed viewers to “collect” five omega symbols a week that were placed not only in the video episodes but also inside the sponsor’s pages on the “Passions” site. Viewers could get items such as instant-messenger icons, computer wallpaper and exclusive pictures by collecting symbols.

NBC declined to state the amount of revenue it raised from “Vendetta” or what the sponsors paid.

“It had amazing stickiness,” Ms. Kostura said, noting that viewers were clicking on the sponsors’ pages to find the symbol and staying on the pages for up to 12 minutes. Thanks to “Vendetta” and a concurrent TV ad campaign, Maybelline saw its brand awareness go up by 17 points, Ms. Kostura said.

NBC is confident the success Maybelline and Garnier Fructis found with the “Passions” online ventures will transfer to other kinds of programming and other advertisers, said Steven Andrade, VP of new media and interactive for NBC.

“It’s not just daytime,” he said. “There is a lot of advertiser interest for this in general.”

Daytime dramas are a logical place to experiment with digital content, since networks produce about 260 episodes a year per soap opera, said Barbara Bloom, CBS’s senior VP of daytime programs. Soap opera producers have to think on the fly, keep it cheap and get it done fast.

“The great thing about being a producer year-round, it does give us an opportunity to get to some places first,” Ms. Bloom said.

While NBC has developed original scripted series off its daytime dramas, CBS planned a July 17 launch for an online reality series called “InTurn,” developed by “As the World Turns” executive producer Christopher Goutman.

Appearing on CBS.com’s new broadband entertainment site, innertube, “InTurn” follows eight aspiring soap opera actors who are competing for a 13-week contract on “World.” The 24 ad-supported episodes, three to five minutes long, will profile the eight, who move into a Brooklyn, N.Y., loft near the “World” studios. Viewers will choose from three finalists, ultimately selecting the show’s new character.

“We’ve done stuff that’s considered brand extension, but we’ve never done a program like this that is so integrated between innertube and a network show,” said Brinley Turner, VP of CBS Digital Media Entertainment and general manager of CBS.com.

Ms. Bloom stressed that the point of any interactive element is to drive viewers back to the on-air program that started it all.

“All of this is designed to keep the audience invested in the primary source, which is the daily show,” Ms. Bloom said. “We’re content providers. If you don’t have great content, then none of these other platforms count.”