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WEB EXTRA: ABC Daytime Czar's 'View'

Between red hot ratings for The View and General Hospital, ABC Daytime just finished a tremendous February sweeps, with both shows posting record ratings. On the heels of that and the Daytime Emmy nominations, Anne Becker talked to Brian Frons, President of Daytime for the Disney-ABC TV Group, about drama on and off the air.

Why did you have such a good sweeps?

The ratings speak for themselves. We had four of top five shows in the sweep. TheView grew because of Rosie’s arrival to the program. General Hospital took a very unique creative approach and the audience recognized that. They showed a standoff between police and a band of criminals who had taken over the Metro Court Hotel. They showed the front of the hotel blowing out and then flashed back 16 hours over 16 episodes to show how that happened and how the characters had gotten to that point and followed the aftermath and the audience went, ‘wow, we have never seen that before.’ GH led in every major female demographic from teens, 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 women. Since the start of people meters, that’s the first time General Hospital has ever done that and the second time I think it’s ever been done that at all. So, it’s nice to see that when somebody takes a chance, the audience rewards them for it.

Are the rumors true that Rosie signed on to The View for one more year?

The only thing I’ll say is that I love Rosie. I love what she’s done for TheView and I hope she can be with us in the future.

So you can’t confirm that?

I have nothing.

Last week, the Rosie/Trump feud reared its ugly head again – how long can this go on and does it damage the show’s credibility?

I think what happened was that Donald had some satiric response to Rosie’s depression and her talking about her depression on [a recent] episode and I think they just felt the need to respond to that because it was rather cruel and inappropriate on his part. When someone talks about their illness in the hopes of helping others that should be recognized and appreciated. Otherwise, I don’t think we would’ve have talked about Donald about again, nor do we have any plans to talk about Donald again. I don’t think people watch for the feuds. They watch for the day in day out intelligent repartee between the women on the panel about the events of the day. That’s what our research says and that’s what we’re focused on and that’s certainly what the sweeps show. February was the best sweeps ever for The View and there was no feud.

Primetime Emmys have saved low-rated series in the past – do Daytime Emmys have the same power?

In the past, there was probably a time when that happened. Back when I was at NBC with Santa Barbara and that show won a number of best show awards in a row and caught some momentum from it, but ultimately when the creativity of that show didn’t sustain, it went away. I think it’s sort of a bragging rite for a brief period of time, but soap opera is sort of like playing big 10 football – you sort of have to keep grinding it out every day and a momentary blip of an award or a nomination isn’t enough to carry the day.

Did anything surprise you about the nominations?

If I had a disappointment it would be that General Hospital did not get a nod for best show and it’s interesting because the writing was nominated, Tony Geary, Genie Francis and Julie Berman were featured in the November episode the show submitted for best show and were all recognized and so was the director somehow the show wasn’t. It’s just one of those things were it’s a headscratcher, but you can’t get too upset about these things.

I’m very pleased particularly for One Life to Live and The View. It’s One Lifeto Live’sfirst Best Show nomination since Frank Valentini took over in early 2003. And I’m glad the Academy recognized that. Rosie has added an enormous bolt of energy and creativity to The View and I’m glad to see that was appreciated. I’m hoping the tenth time is the charm.

And do you have a good feeling?

I always go into these things optimistically.

Soap ratings continue to drop. NBC just cancelled Passions and rumor has it they could cancel Days of Our Lives – what’s the relevance of daytime dramas?

The emotional relevance of the programs is in tact. When we look at the ratings for the ABC soaps on ABC, in DVR households and on [cable network] SoapNet, we’re seeing a still vibrant business for our product. Clearly women are willing to record and find these shows. In addition, of course, we still have foreign revenue and digital and merchandising revenue. We know women will still go out of their way for soaps.

However, in the case of Passions, which was a show that had a strong heartbeat a few years ago, they went from being a very young-targeted show to trying to spread their demographic to going back to who they were and I think they lost some people in the zigging and zagging and it cost them. NBC, of the three networks, has also had the weakest commitment to daytime historically. Going from six hours probably ten years ago to two and a half today to the only one they’ll have in September. Women notice these things. When Jeff Zucker announced that Days may go away in 2009, you can track the ratings from that point and see they probably lost 25% of their audience on NBC Daytime. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Do you think you can turn to a woman and say, “I’m going to divorce you in two years” and expect them to still sleep with you? I say no. So, they sort of broke the contract and I think it’s the opposite for us. At ABC and SoapNet, we’ve affirmed the commitment we have to the women who watch our shows by making them available on SoapNet, by reaching out, by sending our stars to the cities they live in, by having a weekly newsletter to know what’s going on, by making merchandise available in WalMart and other retailers, we make it easy for women to be connected to our shows.

If NBC cancelled it, would you buy Days of Our Lives?

Right now, I’m really focused on - for SoapNet – the GHNightshift spin-off. Our first loyalty is going to be to the shows our viewers are really connected to. Certainly the success of ABC soaps on ABC would really prevent us from picking up Days for ABC and I don’t know that when the time comes for Days and NBC to part ways that we’ll have an economic model that will make it practical to put on SoapNet. Otherwise, I would certainly consider it. But remember, if this kind of decline continues for Days on NBC, it would be very hard for anyone to continue with that show in 2009. The erosion of the audience would be so great, it would be very difficult to rebuild it. At the same time, you’re going to be facing a very high cost structure because the show’s probably been on for like 40 years. Carrying a heavy cost structure and a declining audience – that’s a rough business to be in.

You oversee Buena Vista – any plans for them to produce shows for SoapNet?

Absolutely. We have two shows in development now in the reality soap genre - a la LagunaBeach and The Real Housewives of Orange County. Some women are getting their soap fix from daytime [but] I think it’s important for those primetime and reality soap viewers to also find those kinds of programs on SoapNet, which is why we bought One Tree Hill and The OC. SoapNet really needs to be a channel that stays contemporary in terms of delivering all soap experiences to the consumer.

Why didn’t MyNetwork TV’s soaps do well?

I didn’t see that many episodes so I’m not sure it’s a totally fair analysis. First, they went into time periods and stations that were not in the soap opera business in daytime or primetime so I think the soap opera audience was not looking to those channels for soaps. That may have been the biggest problem. It’s sort of like really looking for an audience and not having any communication with them. There’s nothing on the channel that really gave them a great base of promotion and that probably was the biggest issue they faced. To get a soap opera audience, you really have to spend some time with them, give them a chance to sample the product, and have the patience for them to get caught up in it. Unlike traditional novelas, which can last six months to a year, these were only 13 weeks. Almost by time you figured out who everybody was, it was over and that may have been a stumbling block to them.

All My Children’s head writer was recently fired reportedly because of crazy stunts she wrote – did the show go too far?

Children took a lot of risks in the last couple of years. At a time when the country was debating whether gays should be married, we were telling story of a lesbian whose child had been kidnapped and the whole country was rooting for her to get her child back and be a mom. She was relatable and warm and the character has become a beloved character. There’s a case of risk-taking that really was embraced by the audience. Conversely, there were a couple of stories where if had chance to go back and redo them, I’m not sure we’d do them. Somewhere in middle is Zoey/Zarf transgender story we’re telling right now. Part of the audience is passionately approving what we’re doing and there’s a portion that aren’t embracing it with the same excitement. That story was conceived with a finite ending. We wanted to introduce the character and explore the issue and create a relationship with Zoey and Bianca and we’ve had a chance to do that. The storyline will be over by end of April. Megan was somebody who took great risks and was innovative yet at the same time very true to the heart and soul of All My Children. Turning out 250 hours of television a year was a grind and she had been doing it for a while. I’ve actually told her that after she takes a little time off, I would be more than happy to hire her as a story consultant.