INTERVIEW: NIGHT SHIFT Head Writer Sri Rao
Posted by Roger Newcomb (We Love Soaps)
I spoke with GENERAL HOSPITAL: NIGHT SHIFT Season 2 head writer Sri Rao this week and found the conversation very enlightening. Much praise has been heaped upon the man for NIGHT SHIFT's turnaround in its second, and possibly last, season. The characters made sense, the history of the daytime GH was honored and a much needed fresh perspective was welcomed to the soap world.
In addition to our discussion about NIGHT SHIFT, our conversation focused a lot on gay characters on soaps, and television in general, and the lack of diversity we see on our screens.
We Love Soaps: I have to ask the same question I ask any soap writer I speak with, who do you think your audience was for NIGHT SHIFT?
Sri Rao: I thought our audience was me, basically. For the first time on a project I have written, I actually wrote for myself, without really worrying too much about demographics or target audience, or what it is I think they are going to like, or I think they want to see. And I think in the end it actually ended up working out the best of any experience I've had. It was a big lesson for me too - write what you want to see, and what you like, and other people will probably feel the same way.
It worked out in this case because I am such a longtime fan of GENERAL HOSPITAL and I wanted to write the show that I wanted to see if given the opportunity. I was writing for me and my mom, and neither one of us watch GH regulary anymore. NIGHT SHIFT is on at night and I remember when the first season premiered I saw ads for it. I was interested as a former GH viewer because I wanted to see what they were going to do with it. And I figured there are probably other people out there with a history like me. GH is one of those shows that probably has one of the strongest and longest histories in terms of relationships with viewers. Even if people have never watched a soap in their life, they know about GENERAL HOSPITAL or Luke and Laura. So I thought not only about the current viewer of GENERAL HOPSITAL, but the lapsed viewer, and what would get them interested in coming back to Port Charles and watching the show in a different way. In some ways, it's a lot more conducive to viewers like myself. I don't have time to watch at 3 o'clock anymore, but if it were once a week at night, I probably would check it out and so would my mom. So those were the questions I had in my mind when I started crafting the stories.
We Love Soaps: I tend to think the soap audience is a lot smarter than the networks give them credit for.
Sri Rao: The viewing audience is a lot more savvy today than they were 10 or 15 years ago, 20 years for sure. Prime time dramas have evolved tremenously in that amount of time. If you compare to what was popular back in the early 80s, such as a show like ST. ELSEWHERE, which was great and groundbreaking and amazing. If you compared it to ER, GREY'S ANATOMY or HOUSE, the medical drama in prime time has evolved, and the viewers have evolved with that. I think that is something soap writers need to take in account so we're not still writing in the same way or same voice or same format that we did in the 80s.
We Love Soaps: What do you feel the differences are between a show that airs in the daytime versus prime time or late night? And on broadcast TV versus a cable network?
Sri Rao: I don't know if there's that much of a difference. Technically, yes, there is a difference, in broadcasting standards and what you can say and do at night versus day or cable versus broadcast. I'm just not one of those writers who is looking to be provocative for the sake of being provocative. I think that it's just about realistic storytelling. And I don't think we need language or sex or violence in any way, other than what's needed for the story. That could be and should be the same for daytime and prime time.
We Love Soaps: In terms of the Kyle storyline on NIGHT SHIFT, did you go in with a plan for the entire season, including the romance with Eric, or did the romance come about later as the season progressed?
Sri Rao: The whole season was planned before I even started. That was the first thing I did planning out all 13 episodes. Then we added a fourteenth episode later at the network's request.
We Love Soaps: If you were writing on the daytime GH, would you have handled the Kyle and Eric story differently?
Sri Rao: I wouldn't have written any of the content in a different way. It just would have been great to have it play out over a longer period of time. That would have been really nice.
One of your writers wrote the Kyle/Claire webisodes, but I’d love to know your feelings on using the web to explore side stories/side characters and how you felt the NIGHT SHIFT webisodes worked out? And do you have any suggestions for what other shows could do to supplement their stories online?
Sri Rao: Adam [Grimes] and Carrie [Southworth] had such a blast shooting them and I think that translated on screen. They were light and fun and nothing serious and great snippets of their relationship. I think that's a great way as a viewer to see more about the characters that we love in a way that's very current with technology, and extend the audience's connection with the show. The question always come back to budget. Those things do cost money, and when we're scraping every penny to put them on screen every day, it can be challenging to find a way to make those other things happen. SOAPnet was great in allowing us the opportunity to make those episodes because they saw the importance of drawing in the online experience and the impact that could have on viewership.
We Love Soaps: I have to throw a comment about NIGHT SHIFT never receiving a Soap Opera Digest cover, despite being the best soap going last summer.
Sri Rao: It would have been great to have a cover of the Scorpio-Drake family. That would have been a great cover to have for NIGHT SHIFT.
Online is definitely the place to be especially for commentary about TV and film. It's so much more immediate online and so much more indepth online.
We Love Soaps: Now there seems to be a question about whether NIGHT SHIFT will return.
Sri Rao: I don't know know what the future of NIGHT SHIFT is actually. That's out of my hands, it's in the network's hands.
We Love Soaps: If it did, would you be interested in writing for the show again?
Sri Rao: This job came around to me in an unexpected way. ABC came to me and asked if I wanted to do this. It was very unexpected, and kind of a thrill to me as a GH fan to be able to play in this world. I'm starting to believe very strongly in terms of career decisions that things come at the right times in your life artistically, and you have to make the decision at that time. If you had asked me last year at this time about writing a soap opera spin-off of GENERAL HOSPITAL, I probably would have said 'no'. So I can't really say. It depends on where I am, if and when the time comes, and if the network wants to make another season of it.
We Love Soaps: I read the interview you did with TV Guide Canada and you mentioned you were a DEGRASSI fan. Why does a show like that, which airs on teen cable network The N in the US, get away with so much? Every other character has had an STD, they have gay storylines, are full of diversity and social issues, and you never hear about anyone complaining. Whereas teen characters and stories on daytime soaps tend to seem outdated and unrelatable.
Sri Rao: DEGRASSI does it in a very responsible way and never to be exploitive. The creators of the show are educators in their background. Every one of the topics they tackle, whether it be STDs, date rape, teen pregnancy, or school shootings, is done from a standpoint of being really proactive about teaching a lesson, and making sure the takeaway from the story is a positive and constructive one in some form. And yet they do it in a way that doesn't seem heavy-handed or After School Special-y in any way. It works.
We Love Soaps: DEGRASSI has a very diverse cast, but on daytime the majority of characters are upper-middle class and white. Adding more diversity can make a story that's been told before seem brand new.
Sri Rao: The daytime stories have been going on for 30, 40 years every single day. It's hard to find stuff that hasn't been told already. The thing is, any of these ideas have to come from the writer, and that it something key to know, and many people may not realize. Unless it comes intrinsically from the writer and their experience, whether it be daytime or prime time or whatever, if the story is not coming from inside the writer himself or herself, then it's going to fall flat and not work. Rule number one of writing is 'write what you know.' That might explain why some of the things that people have tried in daytime haven't worked so well. If it doesn't come from the writer it's not going to work. It's going to be a 40 year old guy trying to write what he thinks a 16 year old girl is going to want to watch.
The other thing about bringing in new storylines, whether it be gay storylines, or stories about people of color, different ethnicities, unless it comes intrinsically from the writer, the writer living this, what that is, it's not going to work. The only way for gay storylines to really resonate is if gay writers are writing them. I know that is controversial and all the straight writers out there will be like 'you think I can't write a love story because I'm not gay'. I'm not saying that at all, but for the storyline to have heart, someone on the writing team who is gay, or has a very strong personal connection with that, needs to take the lead on writing the heart of that story. Or for there to be a successful African American couple or Indian family, one of the key writers of that storyline has to live that life and has to be tied into that.
So if you look at who is writing in daytime and prime time you might see why we have some of the stories we have. And why we don't have some of the other stories we don't have.
We Love Soaps: Do you think there is a double standard in portraying gay relationships on television? In terms of what they might show or the stories they tell.
Sri Rao: I just think the people who create TV, and I include myself in that group, are a lot more nervous than the American audiences are. I think we, the people who create TV, are often times second-guessing ourselves, and trying to do things in the 'appropriate way' and making sure we're taking our steps of progress in a careful and systematic way. And ultimately I think that we are just over thinking this more than the average viewer is at this point. 10 years ago, the time of ELLEN or QUEER AS FOLK, that sort of strategic thinking on the part of television creators was necessary, to get America to embrace those shows and characters. But now, I think the audience is further along than we are.
The thing about DEGRASSI and MTV [shows like THE REAL WORLD] is that they are both unapologetic in what they do. And I think it's because they fully believe in what they are doing and stand behind it. If you're comfortable with the way you're living your life and what you are doing, then other people are going to be comfortable around you. I think that's what we should all be aspiring for, just to be unapologetic and comfortable with the stories we are telling.
We Love Soaps: How far do you think television has come in portraying gay characters and gay relationships?
Sri Rao: I think we have made tremendous progress in terms of the portrayal of gay characters on TV. Ellen just came out 10 years ago, on her show and in life, and at that point there was nothing gay on TV. There were characters here and there in the course of history that we could probably count on two hands. But now we're at the point where it's such a part of the pop culture vernacular. There are gay stories all over the place. It has been greatly normalized on TV much more so than it is in our country unfortunately. I think that it cannot be understated how far we have come in television. Even more so than film, where we might have like one big gay movie year, aside from the niche art films.
TV is really the champion of gay portrayals in our media and TV across the board deserves a lot of credit for that. And in daytime, too. I think the Luke and Noah storyline [on AS THE WORLD TURNS] is groundbreaking. Yes, there have been gay characters in soaps before, but for the first gay male super couple in soap opera history, Luke and Noah are phenomenal. Of course there are criticisms in the way the storyline has been handled, but let's take a beat and acknowledge what an amazing job AS THE WORLD TURNS has done in bringing that storyline to America.
We Love Soaps: Whenever I have a criticism of that story on AS THE WORLD TURNS, I always start by saying how much I appreciate the fact that they are telling a story between two men no other daytime story will tell. THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is set in Los Angeles in the fashion industry, yet they have no gay characters and very little diversity. Why aren't people beating them up versus the shows that are actually attempting to tell gay storylines?
Sri Rao: Someone has to be the trailblazer. Someone has to break down the door. Ellen did it in prime time. I feel like AS THE WORLD TURNS is doing it in daytime. Those unfortunately are the same people or shows that get criticized and torn apart.
Ellen sort of went down in a blaze of glory after the initial fanfare of her coming out subsided. And I think a lot of the criticism hurled at AS THE WORLD TURNS is similar in that they are the first ones so they have to take the slings and arrows. But now that they've done what they've done, the door is open for other people to walk through. It's just a question of who will walk through. Daytime has demonstrated they are ready for a relatable gay couple and storyline to be told, and now it's just a matter of someone being interested enough to tell that story.
We Love Soaps: Why do you think more soaps aren’t telling stories with gay characters or lack diversity in general? Do you think it is the networks being afraid of fan reaction or advertisers threatening to pull out if they do?
Sri Rao: I don't think there's any grand conspiracy on the part of the networks or advertisers about having to have certain storylines. Writers write what they know. And I am a part of that. There are certain storylines that I would not naturally gravitate towards because it's not part of my experience in my life. I wouldn't do them well, and I'm not particularly interested in them. Maybe we can say it's the writer's responsibility to write stories representative of the country and audience, but if you told me to introduce a Hispanic core family into my soap opera, I would not be able to do that well, and I would be the first to admit that. I think a lot of time writers are afraid to admit that. There are straight writers who are afraid to say they could not write a gay love story on TV. I think they are nervous to say something like that. But for me, as a gay person and person of color, I don't have to be as politically correct. If people want to see these storylines, we have to get writers in the room who have lived those lives and know those stories.
You'll say anything if its your own life you are talking about. When I was writing the Billy Dee Williams and Epiphany characters on my show, I was a lot more conscious of what I would have them say or do because they are black and I'm not. But when it came to Kyle and Eric, I didn't give a shit about what came out of their mouth and wasn't worried at all about being politically correct. I thought 'this is my life and I'm going to be honest'. If you're not that person, you are going to be nervous about what you have those characters say.
We Love Soaps: It seems next to impossible to produce a consistent, quality daytime soap these days.
Sri Rao: I think it's tough because everyone is trying to get these younger viewers which I think is a very difficult task. I just think it's really unrealistic to think that an 18-24 year old is going to tune into TV at 3 o'clock in the afternoon anymore. We did it when we were that age because our mothers did it or grandmothers did it. But now there are so many other choices and viewing habits aren't like that anymore for younger people. I think it's an uphill battle if that's the battle we continue to fight with soaps.
We Love Soaps: There have been regular doom and gloom articles lately about the demise of soap operas. What do you think daytime soaps need to do in order to survive?
Sri Rao: I feel like all we can do is make better shows. It doesn't matter if it's prime time or daytime, if a show is not well-written and well-acted, people are not going to watch. If you go online and read all the message boards for different soaps, things that viewers complain about are typically that "this story sucked", and it gets to the point they get so frustrated they just stop viewing. We can only prevent that from happening by creating better stories.
I would like to go on the record as saying that I think the production teams on daytime are the best in the industry. Putting on five hours of programming every week of the year is an insane task. And these shows look good, for the most part, and that's phenomenal. And in many cases we have some of the best actors out there. So we have great actors and great production teams, so what it comes down to is good writing. The writing has got to be there and in many cases it's not. And that's when people stop viewing. That's why I stopped viewing regularly 10-15 years ago, and my mom stopped viewing, and many of my friends in the past few years. We just got tired of bad writing. People don't care enough to stick with something that isn't good, and similarly don't care enough that they won't watch something that is good. If something is good they'll watch, and if it's not they'll stop.
We Love Soaps: Soap fans really appreciate good writing.
Sri Rao: Soap fans are so loyal and so educated as viewers. The fact that they figured out who I was and I was the writer is so much more sophisticated than prime time viewers. I was really flattered and honored by the response I got from the fans and that meant a lot to me. I used to read the message boards and blogs to hear what people were liking, and to hear what wasn't working.
We Love Soaps: What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects you can share?
Sri Rao: I'm still taking some time off. I had a really busy year last year and taking some time off to relax and have a life again. There's a couple of things I'm talking about but I'll let you know when something else is coming up because I would love NIGHT SHIFT viewers to check it out.