As advertising dries up for soap operas -- particularly from the genre's traditional mainstay, local automotive dealers -- Ms. Lucci, a megastar of the daytime world who has played Erica Kane on "All My Children" since its inception in 1970, is being handed a pay cut, Ad Age has learned. And she's not the only iconic player on the stalwart soap being forced to do with less. "All the actors on 'All My Children' have been reduced [in salary]," said creator Agnes Nixon, who also created the ABC soap "One Life to Live" and is now a paid consultant to the network's daytime division. "Susan Lucci, Michael Knight and Ray McDonald have all been reduced -- substantially. And so have I, as a consultant. The ratings are not the same."
A spokeswoman at ABC declined to comment; Ms. Lucci's agent referred repeated queries to her publicist, who did not respond by press time.
Of course, the phenomenon is not tied solely to "All My Children." News broke last week that NBC's "Days of Our Lives" had released longtime stars Deirdre Hall and Drake Hogestyn from their contracts due to severe budget constraints. That made headlines because Ms. Hall's character was practically an institution: She had been with the show for 32 of its 43 years on air. Mr. Hogestyn had been around for 22 years.
Things are so bad that the bloodbath was actually viewed as good news among talent representatives: At least NBC's only remaining soap had been renewed, albeit for just an 18-month commitment and at a substantially reduced license fee. Insiders said the network is seeking to reduce pay for all contract actors on "Days" as much as 40%. Another "Days" actor of nine years, Jay Kenneth Johnson, reportedly quit rather than accept a pay cut in exchange for a contract renewal.
The most popular soap, "The Young and the Restless," drew almost 7 million viewers daily in 1998. Today it's still No. 1, but just a little more than 4.5 million tune in. A decade ago, there were 12 soaps; today there are just eight, and they are all struggling. In 1998, 3.9 million viewers tuned in daily to Ms. Nixon's beloved "All My Children." That's dwindled to 2.6 million viewers per day.
Affiliates hurting too
But she said it's not just the shrinking audience that is to blame for the cuts. "The affiliate stations are really hurting because the automobile dealers don't advertise [like they used to]," Ms. Nixon said. "It's a ripple-down effect."
Local dealers and dealer associations accounted for nearly half of the $18.5 billion in 2007 measured media spending for automotive, according to TNS Media Intelligence data. According to Automotive News sales figures, the volume of new car and truck sales nationwide is not likely to exceed 13 million this year -- down 20% in just two years. Worse, Grant Thornton LLP said last month it was revising its estimate of the number of auto dealerships expected close in the next year drastically upward, to 3,800 from 2,700.
TV stations -- whether affiliates or owned and operated by a network -- are worried an automotive-industry crash, combined with most soaps' eroding daytime ratings, might wreck their bottom lines.
"We're scared to death," said Kevin Lovell, general manager of KVIA-TV in El Paso, Texas, and a member of the ABC affiliate board's executive panel. Mr. Lovell added that at least 25% of his station's ad revenue came from local auto dealers, and that such ad revenue is down 25% for the year. "We just don't know how much of it is coming back. We're probably just going to have to live with less."
So, too, is Ms. Nixon, who wrote nearly every episode of "All My Children" from 1970 to 1992 and has remained a consultant to the show since 2000. "Two years ago, what I got was cut in half," she said. "And a year later, that was cut in half again."
Brian Frons, president of daytime for Disney-ABC Television Group, said, "Constantly keeping tabs on your costs, by culling the cast and taking an almost 'MTV' approach," is a fact of life for daytime nowadays. But while Mr. Frons confirmed he has had to slash his soap stars' salaries, he said, "We like to negotiate salaries down but not out. Instead, whenever possible, when we cut costs, we aim to do it off-air, in what the audience doesn't see."
Seeking new relevance
The loss of viewers in daytime has provoked decidedly different experiments in how to hang on to the dwindling numbers of women who were once soap operas' primary audience. Earlier this year, the last-place soap, Procter & Gamble's CBS show "Guiding Light," switched to hand-held cameras to freshen its look.
Insiders said the soap also halved its writing budget, and in March began using dozens of permanent sets to contain costs. None of that has proven popular with fans: Ratings have dropped 21% among women 18 to 49 since the changes took effect.
"I think soaps lose viewers because the stories aren't good or because they don't have good actors," Ms. Nixon said. "I don't think anyone leaves the theater humming the sets; it's the story and the actors."
But Mr. Frons, unlike his rivals at CBS and NBC, is throwing money at the ratings problem even as he cuts star salaries. In August, he hired away Chuck Pratt, who had been a consulting producer on the expensive ABC prime-time hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Ugly Betty," to oversee the writing on "All My Children" and lend a little prime-time glitz to the show. Mr. Pratt ordered up a CGI tornado to sweep through Pine Valley in October. Said Mr. Frons, "It's not 'Twister,' but it looks pretty good."
What looked even better was the 20% bump in ratings from the week before, as viewers tuned in to see who would perish (Babe didn't make it). The normally reserved-for-prime-time-style stunt resulted in an overall gain from the same time last year: Compared with last November's sweeps, "All My Children" is up 6% among women 18 to 49.
Defender of the mature
Ms. Nixon is reserving judgment on the long-term effect of the costly tornado. But she said she is sure the industry's increasing obsession with keeping its soap casts artificially young will ultimately serve the genre ill.
"I think they are viable [businesses], but I am afraid the suits are making some big mistakes," she said of NBC's decision to kill off older characters on "Days."
"In my experience over the years, young people are interested in 'older' stories," she said. "I have always tried to keep various age groups involved instead of concentrating on just one. ... I think that to represent life, in all its varieties, one needs various age groups."