Tuesday, November 13, 2007

FLASHBACK: How The Soaps Go On During Writers' Strike 1988

Ray Richmond, Orange County Register
July 8, 1988

There's an internal soap opera lurking behind the scenes at the companies that produce daytime dramas.

It stems from the continued production of the soaps despite the writers' strike. While the overwhelming majority of prime-time network series have been unable to produce and the new fall season remains in limbo, the soap operas have trudged onward without interruption.

Producers have been logging double duty outlining scripts as well as hiring and schooling scab writers in the finer points of their various shows.

Just who are these so-called scabs? Usually production assistants from the show, or college TV/film students. Some scripts may be written by the striking writers themselves, on the sly.

But exactly why the soaps have been able to remain in production during the 18-week walkout while most nighttime shows have yet to begin shooting and taping for the new campaign isn't all that easy to explain. The primary answers are, one, they can get away with it, and two, they may not have any choice.

"Soaps can't just go into reruns," says Rocchi Chatfield, who has written scripts for "Guiding Light," "Days of Our Lives," "Search for Tomorrow" and "Santa Barbara."

"They'd lose 99 percent of their audience by falling back on old shows. The only other alternative is to go dark, and the networks and producers can't afford to lose that kind of money."

There is little the striking Writers Guild of America can do to prevent the soaps from being produced. All the guild can do is uncover and prosecute the guilty writers - either scabs or union members working under assumed names.

Guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden adds that the union has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the companies producing the soaps after the producers were asked, and refused, to supply a list of names of writers doing scripts.

"We do not condone any of our writers or others who write material in violation of the strike," Rhoden says. "We take this situation very seriously. Anyone accused of scabbing will find it affecting their career forever."

Yet the soaps do go on. One difference soap fans undoubtedly have noticed are the uncharacteristic number of flashbacks, which allow old material to be used. So characters have been doing an awful lot of reminiscing of late.

In addition, says Chatfield, "There's so much 'back story' being used that you know the scabs have been reading a lot of past scripts preparing for this. These writers are afraid to move the story forward.

"I also see them eating up too much story by eliminating confrontation scenes that would make for better drama. The dialogue is more stilted. Most of the shows I've seen the past few months simply aren't very good."

Other problems - some glaring, others subtle - have been evident since the inexperienced writers took control, says Meredith Brown, editor of Soap Opera Digest magazine.

"I think that what's been lacking is the rhythm and the timing," she says. "You need to know as a writer when the story line is doing well with the audience and merits being continued, or when it's not working and should be killed. I don't see as much of that sense lately."

Joyce Becker, who arranges three-day soap opera festivals in cities all over North America, also doesn't find the soaps holding up well during the strike.

Much of the problem stems from writer confusion and the increased pressure the shows are under to produce, she says.

"I spoke with one of the stars on 'Guiding Light,' " Becker says. "On the show, she plays a Southerner. But one of the borrowed writers didn't know that and he had her coming from Los Angeles and doing this entire Valley Girl routine. She ran in hysterical to the producer and was told just to hang in there, that they would learn."

Apparently, they are indeed learning, says Michael Laibson, executive producer of NBC's running "Another World." He refers to his non-union writing staff as "my helpful little elves."

"They're definitely getting better as this thing goes on," says Laibson, who ironically started his job the day the strike began.

Laibson was the only soap opera producer who would agree to comment - either on the record or anonymously. That says a lot for the uneasiness running through the soap production offices and the tense no-win situation the producers find themselves in.

While Laibson expressed support for his show's striking writing staff, saying that he missed them "desperately" and that the show wasn't managing as well as it would with them around, he stopped short of feeling the program would be better off shutting down for a while.

"Let's face it, the audience doesn't give a damn if a strike is on," he says. "All they want to know is if Jamie is going to end up with Vicky or with Lisa."

Besides, Laibson adds, the audience response has been surprisingly positive during the strike months. "I think that's happened because we've inadvertently gotten back to what the show was 10 years ago - strong on characterization," he said.

"The strike has forced us to move a little bit away from a hard-core story emphasis to center more on the core of the characters. That's one of the benefits of working on a soap. Soaps are so fully character-based that you can dig into the canvas and come up with things that are playable."

On the other hand, the strike has helped fuel an uncharacteristic inconsistency on many shows. And if there's one thing a soap fan won't tolerate, it's behavior that isn't true to their favorite characters, striking writer Margaret DePriest says.

But DePriest, who has been head writer on "General Hospital," "Days of Our Lives" and "Another World," doesn't imagine the strike fallout will affect viewer loyalty greatly.

"The viewing habits remain," she stresses. "It's the characters themselves who are intriguing to the audience, not necessarily or always the story. The story is just the underpinning for the character you love, and as long as he or she is there every day you're likely to stick around."

Becker points out that during the last writers strike, in 1981, some actors and even their spouses were chipping in to write scripts. She doesn't see much of that happening this time, though the actors will change lines that don't fit their character.

"I know for a fact that some producers are even sitting down at the typewriter to whip scripts together," says Brown of Soap Opera Digest. "Some network executives are pitching in, too."

Laibson of "Another World" says he isn't physically writing the segments but formulates all of the show's ideas, putting them into detailed outline form daily.

"It's all been tremendously exhausting and a fabulous learning experience," he says. "But let it be over, already."

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