FEATURE: As the interactive world turns

Many people would have a hard time reconciling soap operas with cutting-edge interactivity, but those within the daytime drama world know the networks have tested many innovative concepts on the genre's loyal followers.

Most recently, CBS is using its venerated As the World Turns to try an initiative that blends broadcast and broadband. InTurn is a competition for actors vying for a role on the show, which culminates this week with each of three finalists starring in an entire episode being shown only on the network's Innertube broadband channel where fans can vote and share opinions.

InTurn has promotional value, but it also completes a mutually beneficial circle between the show's online and on-air presence while getting viewers to go deeper into the soap.

Another project that defies categorization is NBC's Passions, where a series of exclusive webisodes gradually introduced a new and mysterious character who initially was recognizable only by her racy red Maybelline nail polish. That campaign integrated product placement with a classic teaser campaign that also promoted newly launched podcasts.

ABC also erased definitions when in 2003 it partnered with Telenor Mobile Interactive for a competition where fans got to pick the winner of All My Children's sexiest man in America contest. What made this more than just a text poll was that the voting was woven into the soap's storyline of two characters seeking a spokesman for their new cosmetics company.

Podcasts, insider audio magazines, mobile phone promotions, exclusive downloads, original complementary content, branded retail, and other innovations now entering the mainstream have been part of the daytime drama industry for several years.

"Soap fans have got the qualities that you look for in a loyal online audience," said Deborah Blackwell, executive VP and general manager of Disney-ABC Cable Networks Group's SoapNet, who describes the audience as passionate, faithful, and having an inherent sense of community. These qualities are rewarded and facilitated by the interactivity of the Web, she added, which then drives the viewers back to the broadcast.

Blackwell, who oversees the network, which resides in 53 million homes, cited the message board portion of SoapNet's site as one of its most active parts and said it always has been the tradition that daytime drama fans share their thoughts about characters and plot lines.

She noted the April launch of SoapNet's broadband channel SoapNetic, where full episodes of TV's daytime dramas are available to stream as another move to satisfy fans' appetites.

"We've been at this Web stuff for a while now," said Blackwell, noting the network's original partnership with AOL on the reality show I Want to Be a Soap Star. "Soap content on a second platform has only been additive, helping us and lapsed viewers who had not been able to watch."

As with all things new-media, sometimes these pioneering concepts are quietly allowed to lapse. Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment executive VP Ira Rubinstein said that the initiatives are still very useful in other ways.

He said that Sony in 1995 launched the now-defunct SoapCity, a daytime drama portal content site offering episodes of the major soap brands for download and subscription as part of aggregating the community into one destination.

"From SoapCity we learned that if you were a The Young and the Restless fan you weren't going to go watch Guiding Light, and vice versa," Rubinstein said. "It wasn't like other TV viewing habits--you had your show and you wouldn't switch just because other shows were right there."

Rubinstein said Sony also incorporates its technological developments, much of which was ahead of its time as SoapCity, in online initiatives like Watch & Win and many other applications that have widened the demographics of game show favorites like Wheel of Fortune.

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