Teen problems bubble to the surface on soaps particularly in the summer


LOS ANGELES -- She's divorced, rich and hates sex. And now she wants her husband back.

As soap operas go, Victoria Newman's plight on "Young and the Restless" is standard daytime fare. But Victoria has one characteristic many of her counterparts don't -- she is only 17.

Teen story lines have become as commonplace on daytime dramas as the she-devil who steals every woman's husband, luring youths to daytime TV once followed largely by homemakers.

The trials and tribulations of teens thrive year-round on the soaps now. Victoria's character on the CBS drama toiled with a stressful marriage -- albeit a celibate one -- for seven months. But many story lines get especially steamy during the summer, when teens are out of school and definitely feeling restless.

Teen crowd swells in summer

"I knew we had a younger audience during the summer for 15 or more years now," says William Bell, lead writer for "Young and the Restless," who helped create the daytime drama in 1973.

"I've always done a very powerful story line aimed at young people from which they could learn, where they are exposed to things they might very well be exposed to in their personal lives," Mr. Bell says.

This summer is not so serious on "Young and the Restless," but it is provocative nevertheless. Victoria (played by 16-year-old Heather Tom) falls for a stable boy at the family ranch, the same young man her mother has been eyeing for weeks.

Like her producers, Ms. Tom believes her life as Victoria mirrors American teen life. Ms. Tom says she received many letters from young women who had sex long before they were ready.

"Granted, I don't know many 17-year-olds who run off and get married," says Ms. Tom, cuddled up on a couch in her small dressing room. "But I do think the sex aspect is very possible.

'Not all peaches and cream'

"I'm glad we have a story line about not hopping in bed. . . . In fact, maybe it's just not right. Maybe she doesn't like it and can't trust the guy. It's not all peaches and cream."

Other soaps are cultivating summer teen story lines with equal fervor.

On ABC's "General Hospital," Karen breaks up with the dreamboat Jagger after realizing childhood abuse by her mother's boyfriend has prevented her from relating well to men. Her storybook life as the high school valedictorian begins to unravel when the perpetrator shows up again, taunting her about the sexual abuse and how he believes she actually enjoyed it.

On ABC's "All My Children," an African-American teen named Terrence was beat up and his home destroyed by a white hate group that thrives on his college campus. Terrence, who has an African-American mother and a white stepfather, wants students to boycott classes until the white hate group, Deconstruction, is banned from campus.

And on NBC's "Days of Our Lives," 15-year-old Sami became bulimic after dealing with the stress of discovering that her mother was having an affair. Other than confiding in her best friend, Sami has kept the secret of her mother's infidelity, knowing the information has the power to shatter many lives.

"I think that even though this particular story line addresses teens, I think the problem also is for mothers of teens, fathers of teens and anyone going to have a teen," says Alison Sweeney, the 16-year-old actress who plays Sami. "I think we do try to appeal to certain groups, but it ends up being for everybody."

A Massachusetts children's television consultant disagrees. Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, says daytime dramas paint a crude picture of life that adults may laugh at but no child should emulate.

Soaps don't help teens

"Soap operas are not about taking care of emotional and developmental needs of teen-agers, and nobody in their right mind would believe that is what they are doing," says Ms. Charren, who helped enact a 1990 law that requires each TV station to provide educational shows for children.

"There's the sort of message on how to screw up a marriage that is not terrific for most teen-agers," she says. "Incest in the afternoon is not really terrific."

Daytime dramas, instead, should do what "Beverly Hills, 90210" is doing, Ms. Charren says -- make soap operas for youths.

That's just what an Australian production company had in mind.

New World International, in conjunction with Village Road Show Pictures, created "Paradise Beach," a half-hour soap opera that is not only the first to be syndicated but the first to cater primarily to teen-agers, says Jock Blair, the show's producer.

Videotaped in northern Australia -- where it's "good one day and beautiful the next," producers say -- the show centers on a blond brother and sister who left home to find new lives at the ocean's edge. Tori longs to be a model; Shawn would settle for the Ironman title.

Launched in early June, "Paradise Beach" is already attracting a small but dedicated audience in the 5:30 p.m. slot in its native country while appearing in similar time slots throughout 90 percent of the United States, Mr. Blair says.

Comparing lifestyles

"For Americans, I think it's an opportunity of judging their lifestyles against other lifestyles and realizing how many similarities there are," says Mr. Blair. "Teen-agers around the world realize we're pretty well experiencing the same emotions and have the same problems in dealing with rites of passage."

But while the Australian and American soap operas target the same audience, their preferences in story lines differ greatly. Rife with hard-bodied males and bikini-clad girls, "Paradise Beach" wants to attract American viewers with simple stories about growing up and relating to others.

Telling the smaller stories

"I think the stories on AIDS have been very well-handled, but there's not much new territory to cover in those areas," Mr. Blair says. "There are a lot of the smaller stories, like how do you stand up and face life in the ordinary world, rather than providing a platform to enter into the darker side of life and the more sensational issues. I think there's room for both."

Some teens don't think so. Not all are sold on the "eye candy" that "Paradise Beach" so proudly displays.

"They're not really realistic," says Cynthia Echevarria, 16, of Canoga Park, Calif. "Those things don't happen, the things they show. Like the main characters, they live with this millionaire who owns all of Australia, practically. He totally puts his business ahead of family. And people don't go around doing Ironman contests."

Cynthia is more sold on "General Hospital," which she and her mother have been taping for years. Known to fast-forward through stories of adult power plays and who's cheating on whom, Cynthia likes the way daytime dramas are incorporating teen troubles.

"They are starting to focus on the prom and how it makes teens nervous, and the pressures of sex on teen-agers, or the way kids get abused sexually as children," Cynthia says. "I prefer they have teen-agers to make them more interesting."

American daytime producers agree. Jumping on story lines often generated right from the day's headlines, producers are tackling heavier issues that do more than entertain viewers. They teach lessons.

Last summer's story du jour on "Young and the Restless" was a teen mom who smoked crack; the year before, a young innocent fell prey to a smooth talker who raped her during a romantic dinner date. The victim was played by Mr. Bell's daughter, Lauralee, whose character of Christine "Cricket" Romalotti has grown up on the show.

Dig for deeper subjects

"I think this falls into the category of not only trying to tell an effective story, but you have a responsibility as well to the younger people," Mr. Bell says. "We're on 260 days a year, not 22 or 25 episodes, so we have an opportunity to dig deeper, involve an audience much, much more. They relate to them and with them on a day-by-day basis."

But "Days of Our Lives' " Ms. Sweeney says the fan letters are not always so reassuring. Though many fans were encouraged that the soap was tackling delicate issues like bulimia, others claimed it perpetuated their insecurities, she says.

"They say if Sami isn't comfortable with the way she looks, then why should they be comfortable with the way they look?" Ms. Sweeney says.

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