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You'd think the folks running ABC's daytime lineup would have been thrilled by the response to last month's Super Soap Weekend at Walt Disney World. In spite of the competing NBC Fanfest that same weekend at Universal's Islands of Adventure, Disney still had to close Disney/MGM's parking lot for an hour or so because of crowds that turned out to see their favorite ABC soap stars.

Inside the park, problems were minimal -- although David Fumero of "One Life to Live" told a masturbation joke while being interviewed on Hollywood Boulevard, and Walt Willey of "All My Children" stood on stage during the event's finale with a pointy Sorcerer Mickey's hat protruding from his crotch.

The crude humor obviously didn't thrill WDW officials, who -- given the cash and publicity the weekend generated -- were perfectly willing to overlook Fumero's and Willey's behavior. But ABC Daytime executives don't have time to get very excited about how well this year's weekend went. They're all too busy trying to figure out how to hang onto their jobs.

What accounts for the wave of fear currently rolling through ABC Television's Daytime division? Ratings are down. Over the past two years, nearly 500,000 viewers have tuned out old favorites like "All My Children," "One Life to Live" and "General Hospital." Worse, the network's newest soap, "Port Charles," is doing so poorly that it's the lowest-rated drama in all of daytime.

With lower ratings come lower ad revenues. That's why Disney executives are calling for changes to all of these ABC soaps in a desperate effort to turn this slump around. Disney CEO Michael Eisner -- who served as head of ABC Daytime in the early 1970s -- has taken a typically hands-on approach to this problem. Which truly terrifies ABC execs.

Initially, ABC thought it could halt the ratings slide by swiping stars away from other, more popular soaps. For example, they snatched up Emmy winner Linda Dano right after NBC canceled her long-running showcase, "Another World." In an unprecedented move, Dano was hired to appear on all four ABC soaps. Her character -- radio relationship expert Rae Cummings -- wanders from Pine Valley to Llanview to Port Charles and back again, all in an effort to sort out the screwed up love lives of the many folks she meets.

But when adding star power didn't help, Disney began leaning heavily on the writers of ABC's soaps, asking them to come up with juicier storylines to draw in younger viewers. This endless micromanagement by the Mouse finally got the best of daytime vets Robert Guza, head writer for "General Hospital," and Agnes Nixon, head writer as well as creator of "All My Children." Both resigned earlier this year rather than continue to deal with the never-ending interference of Mouse House executives.

And still the changes keep coming. In the most bizarre move yet, Disney has decided to borrow a page from its "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" playbook, in which a popular overseas TV show is brought stateside and adapted for U.S. audiences in the hope that it turns out to be a ratings smash. This time they are experimenting with the very way American soap operas are made. ABC is abandoning the traditional slow-moving, gradually unfolding, never-ending story style of U.S. soaps on Port Charles in favor of the Mexican telenovela.

The telenovela format -- wildly popular in Spanish-speaking TV markets -- calls for a storyline that runs just 13 weeks. Modeled after the old movie serials of the 1930s and '40s and freed of the meandering construction of American soaps, the typical telenovela moves energetically through plot lines loaded with shocking twists and exciting climaxes.

The telenovela-ization of "Port Charles" begins next week, when Eve (Julie Pinson) and Ian Thornhart (Thurston Kaye) find themselves kidnapped by a dying billionaire. In the weeks that follow, the show will feature numerous dramatic cliffhangers such as car explosions, and several major characters will be killed off.

Should this trial version prove to be a hit with the public, look for a second 13-week story arc -- starring Kin Shriner -- to start up in February. Also look for telenovela elements -- i.e., melodramatic climaxes and wildly romantic scenes -- to be folded into all the other ABC dramas.

Is the telenovela-ization of "Port Charles" too bold a move? Will this radical change turn off older, loyal ABC viewers? (It's tempting to say tune in next week ... .) Whatever the cost, the Walt Disney Co. is determined to do everything possible to re-energize the network's soaps. Given the millions of dollars that the Mouse sunk into last year's launch of SoapNet, the company's all-soap-opera channel, it can't afford to have any of these shows slump.

That further explains why Disney has become so aggressive with its synergistic promotion of soaps on its ABC network. Indeed, folks visiting the company's California Adventure theme park when it opens in Anaheim next February will be able to dine at the ABC Soap Opera Cafe. This themed restaurant will feature recreations of famous sets from "All My Children," "General Hospital" and "One Life to Live."

Should the concept prove to be a hit with Disneyland Resort guests, look for an Orlando version of the eatery to open at Disney/MGM Studios in 2002.

Just in time for the seventh annual ABC Super Soap Weekend.


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