WHEN PAM Powers began listening to radio soap operas with her grandmother in the late 1940s, she considered them to be "an island of emotional refuge." And over the ensuing decades, the Benicia, Calif., resident dedicated much of her life to the genre, logging time as a writer for

Soap Opera Digest

and penning columns about the TV shows for local newspapers. At the height of the love affair, she had personal contact with many of the actors and was tracking up to 15 daytime serials.

But earlier this year, for various reasons, Powers began to kick the habit. And one day, in the rush to get somewhere, she decided she really didn't need to set the VCR, after all. And that's how she became an ex-soap opera addict.

"There's a tug every now and then," Powers admitted. "Like when I see Cameron Mathison [of 'All My Children'] on 'Dancing With the Stars,' or if I'm channel-surfing and come across SoapNet, I'll stop for a minute. But, really, I don't need it anymore."

She's not the only one who feels that way. Ratings for soap operas have declined for years as some longtime shows have met their demise while others barely cling to life.

That's why many who follow the genre are concerned about the possible ramifications of a drawn-out writers' strike in Hollywood. They fear that an extensive stretch of repeats or pre-emptions - such as the one that happened during the O.J. Simpson trial more than 10 years ago - could cause the soap bubble to burst.

"It will possibly be the death knell if the shows go off the air," said Michael Logan, who covers the soap world for TV Guide. "But everyone seems intent on not letting that happen."

Unlike fans of prime-time shows, soap devotees are accustomed to getting their fix on a daily, repeat-free basis all year long. Even if the strike does go long, some believe the soap episodes will keep flowing some way or another.

During a five-month writers' walkout in 1988, nonunion scribes were enlisted to keep the soaps going. There also were reports of Writer's Guild of America members penning scripts on their own and getting their work into the producers' hands without physically crossing the picket line, according to Daily Variety.

But strike or no strike, it's clear that these are dicey times for the soaps. The genre kingpin, CBS' "The Young and the Restless," averages only 4.6 million viewers - a figure that likely would have gotten it canceled a dozen or so years ago. Meanwhile, the days could be numbered for "Days of Our Lives" (2.4 million), which is struggling for survival on NBC. Network officials have already gone on record as saying that it might not make it past 2009, when its license agreement expires. It's the lone daytime soap still on the network's schedule.

"Maybe it will be like the Western," Powers said. "Maybe they eventually dry up and just disappear."

That scenario, however, is difficult for others to imagine.

"There's no question there has been audience erosion, but, to some extent, the problem has been over-hyped," said Logan, who points out that network television has experienced an across-the-board decline in ratings. "It's too easy to say the genre is over and dead. But it's way too soon to call the coroner."

Kathy Carano agrees. She has operated www.pinevalleybulletin .com, a fan site dedicated to ABC's "All My Children," since 1988, and though she admitted she has seen a slight decline in traffic in recent years, fan fervor has not waned.

"We've been hearing these doomsday scenarios for years, and there is probably some reason for concern," she said. "But soaps have been around before TV even began, and they'll continue to be around. There are only so many talk shows and game shows you can watch."

For evidence of the undying passion, Carano looks to Super Soap Weekend, an annual event in Orlando, Fla., where fans flock to meet their favorite stars of ABC daytime shows.

"It's more popular than ever," she said. "I stopped going because the crowds were getting too big. It's crazy."

But while the genre may still have life to it, there's no denying that these are trying times for soaps. Budgets have been hacked and many actors have been relegated to "recurring" status, a designation that allows networks to pay significantly lower salaries. It also appears to be a time of lowered expectations. For example, when NBC decided to drop "Passions" this fall, the show wound up on DirecTV, a satellite service that doesn't have nearly the reach of a broadcast network.

Still, Logan sees signs of hope. In the case of "Passions," he's encouraged that the show was saved rather than killed. He also sees the emergence of the cable channel SoapNet as a positive development.

How did soaps get into this predicament? Logan points to the obvious: The genre's primary audience - women - isn't at home during the day as much as it used to be. Moreover, there was a mass exodus of fans during the O.J. trial who never came back.

But Logan also credits - or blames - the soapy nature of many prime-time serials.

"Viewers can get their fix in other places," he said. "Just look at shows like 'Ugly Betty' and 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Desperate Housewives.'

"Those are as close to soaps as you can be without calling them soaps." *