Strike Puts Soaps in Tight Spot

A week into the Writers Guild of America strike, some primetime shows are already cutting back and most late night television shows are in reruns. But soap operas face an even more difficult situation: They can't run re-runs and the shows can't afford to go dark.

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The strike by the Writers Guild of America against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is almost a week old. Some primetime shows are already cutting back their season. Most late night TV shows are in reruns. But soap operas face an even more difficult situation. They simply can't afford to go dark.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Let's face it, says Lynn Leahey, the editorial director of Soap Opera Digest, which some call the bible of the industry, you don't have reruns in soap operas.

Ms. LYNN LEAHEY (Editorial Director, Soap Opera Digest): The soap operas cannot afford to go off the air. They cannot afford to take a hiatus. The nature of soap operas is different than film or primetime television. You can't lose that audience. You lose them for a few weeks or a few months; they're not going to come back.

ADLER: Most of the shows have scripts up until January. They are always at least three weeks ahead, more around the holiday season, like now. So far, shows like "As the World Turns" are going forward. In this scene, the character, Gwen, expresses her guilt about adopting a baby.

(Soundbite of TV show, "As the World Turns")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) Well, you know, not every pregnant girl wants to be a mother. Adopting that child could be the best thing for all concerned.

Ms. JENNIFER LANDON (Actress): (As Gwen Norbeck Munson) Well, I could tell myself that but the truth is, is that giving up my baby was the biggest mistake that I ever made.

ADLER: Peter Brash is a writer on "As the World Turns." Even with the strike, he says, there's a good chance everyone will know what will happen to Gwen and the baby.

Mr. PETER BRASH (Writer, "As the World Turns"): Because they have our head writers' documents and the projections that we've left them.

ADLER: And the head writer gives the show a six-month outline. But Brash remembers during the last strike in 1988, on the soap opera "One Life to Live," they had a character time-travel back to the Old West.

Mr. BRASH: They didn't know how to bring him back or they didn't know what his story should be. So he just was out at the rodeo, you know, for six months.

ADLER: Compounding the problems, soap opera are facing a continuing decline in viewers by as much as 35 percent over the last 10 years, according to an article in Business Week. Maybe it's our fast-paced life. Who has time to watch five shows a week?

Writers on the picket line said the serialization of much of primetime television has made those shows more like the soaps. And of course, with cable and the Internet, people have more choices.

Penelope Koechl, who used to write for the "Guiding Light," told me that the decline of soap operas could be linked to O.J. Thirteen years ago, many networks cut back their programs to cover that real life soap opera.

Ms. PENELOPE KOECHL (Former Writer, "Guiding Light"): I mean, that Bronco chase, you know, you can't get more dramatic than that. Unfortunately, a lot of those viewers just never came back.

ADLER: And if you're worried about losing viewers and so you don't have reruns or go dark, soap operas may turn to non-union writers. And although the Writers Guild has said that anyone who writes during the strike will not be admitted to the guild, Lynn Leahey puts it rather bluntly.

Ms. LEAHEY: These shows will get written.

ADLER: Leahey says there's a lot of support for the writers. Almost everyone she knows believes writers deserve a piece of the new media pie, but she remembers what happened during the last writers' strike which lasted five months.

Mr. LEAHEY: There are people who, behind closed doors, who were not in the guild, who were not in the union. There are people who suddenly became writers. There are people on the other side. Maybe they were in production. Those scripts got written.

ADLER: Kirsten Mary Hue(ph) is a freelance writer herself and an apartment manager who's also a longtime soap opera fan. She's written a soap opera column called Fan Base(ph). She loves the characters, but she says the shows are changing and she is not watching as many.

Ms. KIRSTEN MARY HUE (Freelance Writer): I have found that I'm not too pleased with the writing at this point. And I think that's a common complaint from many viewers.

ADLER: She even says if the writers aren't pleasing us…

Ms. HUE: Perhaps gabs would. And so, for us, this is actually a possibility for improvement.

ADLER: But Courtney Simon, the script editor for "As the World Turns," says you don't do this kind of writing on the fly. She's been writing and editing for soap operas for more than 25 years. And she says it's a well-oiled machine requiring incredible teamwork and no letup on deadlines. Most people in the business have at least 15 years experience.

Out on the picket line, she says the issues of the 1988 strike, like payments for reruns and foreign rights, didn't really apply to their shows.

Ms. COURTNEY SIMON (Script Editor, "As the World Turns"): A lot of people in daytime did not feel that we had a dog in this race.

ADLER: But now, with soap operas already on the Internet and soon to be on your cell phones, says Simon…

Ms. SIMON: It would be very foolish of us to think that we did not have a stake in this. We certainly do.

ADLER: Which is probably why so many soap opera writers have been joining -writers for "Law & Order," "The Daily Show" and "CSI" - on that picket line.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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