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A Cliffhanger for Soaps

Like sands through the hourglass. Some fear time is slipping away for
the genre, and the work stoppage could make this bad situation worse.

By Lynn Smith
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 12, 2007

When veteran soap opera writers heard ABC's official statement about
the post-strike future of its daytime dramas -- "We will continue to
produce original programming with no repeats and without interruption"
-- they knew it was bad news. If history repeats itself, it meant they
would be replaced, as soon as necessary, by strike breakers, non-union
writers -- or maybe even the producers themselves.

"They'll write it however they can get it written," said Marlene Clark
Poulter, a 17-year soap opera writer currently on strike from
DirecTV's "Passions."

While the writers strike has already forced late-night talk shows into
reruns and halted production of some prime-time shows, the soaps face
extra hurdles that some fear may jeopardize the struggling genre

"Daytime can't run reruns. It's a different business," said Lynn
Leahey, editorial director for Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera
Weekly. Prime-time audiences are used to seeing reruns when the shows
are on hiatus, she said, but long absences from the airwaves have hurt
all soap operas in the past: Once viewers lose the habit, they often
disappear for good.

"Our audience watches because they've been watching for a long time,"
said Michele ValJean, a 15-year writer on ABC's "General Hospital" on
the picket line. "We lost 8 million viewers over the O.J. Simpson
trial who never came back."

Networks can't afford to lose those viewers -- mainly because there
aren't that many left. Even the most popular daytime drama, CBS' "The
Young and the Restless," would have been canceled 15 years ago with
its current ratings of 4.6 million households. Older fans have not
been replaced by younger ones despite efforts to reach them with
supernatural plot lines or Web-related material. Canceled soaps, such
as NBC's "Sunset Beach," haven't been replaced.

Others may be hanging by a thread. Of nine remaining daytime soaps,
NBC's "Days of Our Lives" and "Passions" rank lowest with 2.4 million
and 1.6 million households, respectively, according to Nielsen Media

Soap writers fear that the studios will replace them, even before
prepared scripts run out, to keep the flow of daily stories

During the five-month writers' strike in 1988, the soaps aired
uninterrupted because so many people were willing and eager to try
their hand at writing. "I know some actors who can't wait to get hold
of a pen," Leahey said.

She and others worry about a domino effect. If the quality of the
writing suffers, viewers may be alienated and tune out. And then the
networks might drop the soaps altogether.

"This time, unlike 1988, you've got a real possibility of people going
to the Internet or the PlayStation. There are so many other options
nowadays for people to get their entertainment, it's almost a
calculated risk. They could win the battle but lose the war," said
television historian Wesley Hughes, author of "The Soap Opera

For the moment, the fears are only speculation. Network officials say
their pipelines are well stocked. ABC said scripts for its soaps "One
Life to Live," "General Hospital" and "All My Children" were written
"well into the new year," according to a network statement. NBC has
scripts to take its sole soap, "Days of Our Lives," through January.
Likewise, CBS' "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the
Beautiful," "As the World Turns" and "The Guiding Light" are set
through January, representatives said.

After that? Network executives declined to discuss how they would keep
the plot pumps primed. To make it work, producers would need to find a
team of writers, not just one or two, who know the show intimately
enough to turn out satisfactory scripts. Soap writers, who live in
various regions across the country, tend to write together over
conference calls.

The soap scribes in the Writers Guild of America have the same
concerns in the fight for a new contract as their prime-time
counterparts, including residuals for new media and resentment that
the networks hadn't helped solve that problem when it came up before
the 1988 writers' strike. Back then, "new media" was "this baffling
new thing," said Melissa Salmons, a former writer for "As the World
Turns" and "Guiding Light." "We made concessions because they said as
the business grew they would take care of us. It never happened."

Already, a soap writer such as Poulter can see her work for "Passions"
replayed on NBC.com without any additional payment coming her way.

"It's about learning from the past," Salmons said.

The veteran daytime writers see another difference in the timing of
this strike. The 1988 walkout began in March, when production of the
prime-time season was essentially over. "Last time, daytime writers
felt they were walking alone" at the outset, Salmons recalled. "This
time, everyone in TV is impacted because the timing is in the middle"
of the prime-time season.

The irony for the daytime writers is that even as they strike over
issues related to new media, they see hope for their struggling genre
in the very same new media, particularly the Internet. "It could be a
very good thing for us," said Poulter, referring to the opportunity it
presents to get their product before new viewers. But only if "the
producers come to bat for us," she added.
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