The love affair between two young men on the venerable CBS soap opera "As the World Turns" has triggered a protest campaign by angry viewers.
It's just not the sort of protest you'd expect.
Fans of the fictional romance between Luke Snyder and Noah Mayer are baffled about why the two characters haven't kissed on-screen since September, wondering whether it's a sign of squeamishness by CBS or show sponsors Procter & Gamble Co.
The fans have started a letter-writing campaign, posted an online petition and even have a Web site that counts the days, hours, minutes and seconds since Luke and Noah last locked lips.
"We totally support this show and applaud the show for doing this story line," said Roger Newcomb, a computer worker from New York's northern suburbs and the man behind the campaign. "We just don't understand why they have to be censored or treated differently."
"As the World Turns," which premiered in 1956, had the first gay male character in daytime drama in 1988. Last August was another milestone — believed to be the first time two gay men kissed on a soap — when Luke surprised Noah with the sign of affection.
They kissed again in September, at a time Noah was still coming to grips with being gay. But since officially becoming a couple, their lips have been sealed.
Fans first sensed the new attitude around Christmas, during a tender scene where the two men proclaimed their love for one another. It was clear they were about to kiss, but the camera instead panned up and focused on some mistletoe.
"I've been watching soaps for decades," Newcomb said, "and that doesn't happen."
Valentine's Day featured fantasy sequences involving several of the show's couples. All the stories ended in a kiss, except for Luke and Noah's. They hugged.
That's when the campaign started.
"There are some people who want to see sex between Luke and Noah," said 34-year-old Theresa Webber, who lives north of Boston. "I've been watching soaps long enough to know that they're a teenage couple, so it's not going to happen anyway. But for them to not kiss at all, it's a little extreme."
The soap is owned, produced and written by Procter & Gamble Productions Inc., a subsidiary of the consumer giant that makes Bounty, Crest, Pampers, Mr. Clean and Ivory soap. CBS executives consult on the series, but the creative direction is set by P&G.
There's no kissing ban, said Jeannie Tharrington, spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Productions, although she wouldn't say what will happen in future shows. She explained the mistletoe shot as a "creative decision."
"It's always hard to please a diverse audience," Tharrington said, "and we have a diverse audience."
Webber recalls reading a handful of letters in soap opera publications after last summer's first kiss along the lines of "I don't care if Luke is gay, but I don't want to see it."
Barbara Bloom, CBS senior vice president for daytime, said there was a "minimal" negative reaction from viewers about the story line, although she couldn't define what that meant. There was apparently no organized campaign by conservative or parent advocacy groups that monitor television content.
"It's entirely new to me," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. "I hadn't heard anything about it."
The American Family Association Web site has a "take-action alert" against Procter & Gamble, calling the company the "top pro-homosexual sponsor on television." The group bases its determination on the number of P&G products advertised on prime-time TV shows with gay or lesbian characters.
"As the World Turns" isn't even mentioned.
Webber and Newcomb said they've been more bothered by other things they have seen on the soap, like when a 14-year-old boy shot a man who was attacking his mother. One character is so desperate for a baby that she slept with her ex-brother-in-law, and was nearly caught having sex in an elevator. Another woman led her children and ex-husband into believing she had a brain tumor, just to get him back.
All are more offensive to her than two men kissing, Webber said.
"It's 2008," she said. "It's something that's real. If they were not going to follow through with it, they shouldn't have started it."
The story's popularity complicates matters. Some 140 scenes featuring the two actors, Van Hansis and Jake Silbermann, are posted online. The message board on Vanhansis.net gets posts from around the world. While competitors "One Life to Live" and "Days of Our Lives" have seen double-digit drops in viewership over the past year, "As the World Turns" is down only 2 percent.
The soap's producers seem to want it both ways, to get credit for having a gay couple but no backlash from long-term viewers for showing intimacy, said Carolyn Hinsey, editor of Soap Opera Weekly.
CBS' Bloom said she would like to see Luke and Noah's romance continue. "If that means there is a natural progression to the physical relationship, I would be in support of it," she said.
Tharrington laughed when asked about any behind-the-scenes debates over showing intimacy between the two men. "You wouldn't even believe," she said.
Producers are committed to telling the story of the romance, she said, adding she hoped the audience would recognize what "As the World Turns" is showing, instead of just what it isn't.
"We feel like we're doing so much right here," she said. "We're telling a story that no one else is doing. We're telling a story that has really engaged our audience."