IN GERMANY, SHOPPING'S JUST A SOAP OPERA

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As debate rages in Germany over extending Europe's most restrictive shopping hours, the country's largest private TV channel is cashing in with a new weekly soap opera that indulges viewers' dreams.

Pointedly called "Open on Sunday" in a country where all stores are tightly shuttered from 2 p.m. Saturday until Monday morning, the RTL soap takes place at a fictitious mall in Hamburg called Neumarkt Center.

For an hour every Sunday evening starting at 7:10, mall manager Anna Schering tries to keep life running smoothly as everyone brings their personal problems along while they shop.

Four million viewers saw the first episode, and 3.78 million tuned in the next week, according to consumer research company Gfk in Nuremburg.

"We are satisfied with the viewership [and] with ad sales," said Andreas Kuhnen, manager of IP, RTL's ad sales unit. Marketers paying $44,700 each for the 30-second spots in the two 5-minute ad breaks are Unilever's Langnese Iglo frozen food subsidiary and Persil detergent, Renault, Ritter Sportschocolate and Nestle's Maggi bouillon cubes.

The debate over shopping hours is one of the nation's hottest issues. Sixty percent of Germans favor longer shopping hours, according to Forsa Research, a market research company.

Factions of the coalition government have been squabbling for months over plans to let stores be open an extra 90 minutes on weekdays until 8 p.m. and on Saturdays until 6 p.m.

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