Daytime Soaps on a Slippery Slope

Grandmothers listened to them on the radio; housewives watched them as they dusted and cleaned; stay-at-home moms watched them as they made lunch for their kids.

It seems the soap opera has been around for about as long as there's been ... soap. But is the next generation carrying on the tradition of watching daytime dramas?

Stay tuned to find out on the next episode of "As the Ratings Fall."

Daytime soaps are in the midst of their own dramatic storyline, as viewership has reached an all-time low and is down nearly 18 percent with its key audience: women ages 18 to 35, according to Nielsen Media Research (search). (Among viewers age 18-49, ratings are down 18.63 percent.)

Some attribute the drop to women -- who make up most of the soap-viewing audience -- just not being home to watch TV.

"The demographics of the audiences are different. You don't have stay-at-home moms like you used to," UCLA television professor Myrl Schreibman told FOX News.

But data show a slight increase in the number of stay-at-home moms in recent years. So why are the ratings worse than ever?

Schreibman says broadcast soaps, like their primetime counterparts, are falling victim to stiff competition from cable. While the daytime "stories" are fading, similarly timed shows like the Food Network's "Home Cooking With Paula" (search) have gained momentum recently.

He also says cable channels like SOAPnet (search) are also enabling people to tune in to their soaps at more convenient times -- at the expense of network ratings.

For this reason, Soap Opera Digest (search) editor Stephanie Sloane feels the standard Nielsen rating has become a poor indicator of viewership.

"People have come to me saying, 'SOAPnet has saved my life,'" said Sloane, adding that all network TV shows -- not just soaps -- are contending with new forms of competition.

Soap star Tuc Watkins (search), who originated the role of con man David Vickers on ABC's "One Life to Live," agrees that new television viewing options might be clouding the fan-loyalty barometer.

"I don't think people are watching less television. I just think they are watching it differently. I know the way I watch television is different. I TiVo everything and watch it a few days later," he said.

But others say the problem is the soaps themselves are dull and outdated: as every fan knows, you can stop watching a show for years and not much will have changed when you attempt to catch up with it again.

"I think they need to get new writers and change it up a bit. They can't keep using the same ridiculous plots over and over again. It's always the same love triangle," said 28-year-old Maryland native Tami Sapperstein, who grew up watching NBC's soap "Days of Our Lives." "I think people are finding the storylines to be cheesy."

But even Sapperstein still occasionally tunes in to check on the characters she grew up with.

"My mom was a soap fanatic," she said. "I will always be curious as to what's going on. I mean, 'Days of Our Lives' turned me into a hopeless romantic. I used to fantasize about getting married in a church, even though I'm Jewish, just because that's how they all do it on soap operas."

Indeed, there is good news to be found in the soaps industry. In May, CBS staples "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns" were renewed through 2007, while ABC's "All My Children" shocked a weak industry this past spring by reporting over a 2 percent gain in viewership.

Moreover, CBS's "The Bold and the Beautiful" remains the most translated television show around the world.

Other life vests are coming in the form of network advertisements.

"I've seen a lot more network promotion of shows lately. During commercial breaks on CBS, they show high-end photo shoots of the soap actors. For a while, NBC was promoting 'Passions' and 'Days of Our Lives' during their primetime slots," Sloane said.

And Sloane sees the success of ABC's primetime soap "Desperate Housewives" as a good thing for the soaps genre.

"I think people are acknowledging soaps as a pervasive medium. I think the resurgence of the nighttime drama shows that there is an audience for this type of storytelling. It's a format that will never go away," she said.

Watkins agrees that the hourglass won't run out on soaps.

"I think in the future there will be even more shows, just not on the traditional three networks," he said. "Soaps are escapism and people love that."

FOX News' Lindsay Stewart contributed to this report.