Soap writers fear a clean break

The Baltimore Sun

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, nonunion 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 on strike from DirecTV's Passions.

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

"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 Older fans have not been replaced by younger ones despite efforts to reach them with supernatural plot lines or Web-related material.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 might 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 Research.

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

Leahey and others worry about a domino effect. If the quality of the writing suffers, viewers could 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 Encyclopedia.

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 Guiding Light are set through January, representatives said.

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."

Lynn Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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