Saturday, May 9, 2009

FLASHBACK: Soap Writing Can Be Draining 1984


By Diane Haithman
Lexington Herald-Leader
November 29, 1984

"Alice looks around, her heart and mind pulling in opposite directions, and then she notices a wrapped box and opens it. Inside is another note, which she reads: "Speaking of keys, this opens a wonderful cottage outside the capital . . . yours. And ours. Larry." She slumps to the sofa, doesn't know what to think, then tries not to think about it by putting the TV on . . . but she sees a campaign announcement for Larry, and she cringes, love and hate burning in her blood."
- From a story outline for an episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES

HOLLYWOOD - Such is the stuff of soap opera. And the question burning as hot as Alice's fevered blood is this: Will the people who wrote that laugh and cry with their characters, work agonizing deadlines, make about $75,000 a year, and live happily ever after in sunny Los Angeles?

Well, let's tune to Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios, where DAYS OF OUR LIVES is written, for an afternoon and find out.

DAYS head writer Sheri Anderson and her staff returned several days ago from one of their periodic cloistered retreats in Palm Springs, where they toyed with the life-and-death details of the coming months of their characters' lives.

They call the long-range story projection for a soap opera "the bible," and Anderson's co-headwriter, Thom Racina, explained why.

"It's almost like playing God - that's the greatest part. You decided who lives and dies, and who has an affair. It's quite wonderful," he said happily. "And then you go home to your own rotten life. You don't have that power in real life. But it's funny - you have power over (the story), but it also takes on its own life. You almost say, 'Oooh, what's going to happen next?' "

Lest you consider the job of wreaking havoc with fictional lives trivial, consider this fact: 60 to 80 percent of network TV revenues come from daytime programming - and most of that is soaps.

"In a sense, daytime television supports nighttime TV," said Jean Rouverol, whose new book, "Writing for the Soaps," (Writer's Digest Books, hardcover $14.95) will be on the bookshelves soon. "You can see why the networks love to produce soap opera."

In 1983, GENERAL HOSPITAL earned twice as much money as DALLAS did.

According to Rouverol, one reason soaps reap so much profit is that they are cheap to produce. The cost of producing one nighttime episode of DALLAS is $900,000. An entire week of soap episodes might cost between $300,000 and $400,000. Salaries for both performers and writers are lower, too, but, as Anderson said, the work is steadier. She estimates that a soap writer working year-round might earn $75,000 a year or more; a nighttime writer might make twice the salary per episode but won't work year-round.

Anderson began her soap writing career on DAYS OF OUR LIVES back when the show was the No. 1 soap, then got a job writing for GENERAL HOSPITAL when it became No. 1. Now, upon returning to DAYS, with its mediocre ratings, Anderson said: "The one thing you can say now is, OK, let's give anything crazy a try, it might help.

"And the best ideas always come when someone sits down and starts to say, 'I know this is really stupid, I shouldn't even say it, but . . ."

Rouverol began her career writing love stories for women's magazines, then moved on to radio and TV soaps. In the early days of soap opera, she said, each soap had one head writer, who wrote the long-range plot of three to five months for the series.

The head writer then broke that down into five daily outlines, each one of which went to a different associate writer to be turned into dialogue (the one with the greatest flair for suspense usually wrote Friday's cliffhanger script).

The associate writers worked at home on one coast or the other, communicating with the head writer by phone or mail.

Although head writers and associate writers still exist, they rarely interact by mail any more. Writers usually live in the city where their soap is produced, and work as a team rather than separately.

Plot decisions are often affected by mail from the viewers. "When you get hired on a new show, you don't just have a blood bath, and kill everybody off," Anderson explained. "Because most of the time, even if a show is faltering, there is a loyal audience, and you have to keep everybody happy."

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