Tuesday, September 29, 2009

JIM ROMANOVICH: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Jim Romanovich, ATI's President of Worldwide Media and Entertainment and this year's Daytime Emmy producer, shared with We Love Soaps his thoughts on the latest happenings from around the soap world.

By far, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is one of my favorite films. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about Clint Eastwood and the Man with No Name. We have plenty of names here. Good, bad, and ugly. This week certainly seems like the World Series of news in daytime television. There’s reassuring as well as disconcerting news. The bottom line is that this only validates how fragile our industry is.

The Good
The recasting of Jonathan Jackson as Lucas Lorenzo Spencer, Jr. is great news for GENERAL HOSPITAL fans, advertisers, and network executives. It re-establishes a dynamic that has been missing for ten years and that is the Luke and Lucky connection. It also validates ABC’s faith in GH. If you recall a few months ago, I did an analysis of the creation of Ethan as Luke Spencer’s illegitimate son with Holly Sutton. I think we all agreed that the story would have played out better if he was Robert Scorpio’s son. But if Tristan Rogers is not on the canvas, then what’s the point? But Tony Geary is, and he is an actor in search of a story. What Luke was not getting with Lucky he was able to recreate with Ethan.

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With the return of Jackson, it will be interesting to see what happens with Nathan Parsons. If the JJ and TG reunion is a mega hit, you could very well see Ethan be exposed as the con artist he is who was never Luke’s son and then be run out of town. But none of that is pre-determined until they see if the magic is still there. I think it is. If anything, Jackson’s talents have only matured since he was a kid and I’m betting that you’re going to see sheer dynamite on screen with him regardless of story because he is that captivating as an actor. There are some who are successful working actors that deliver the goods every time and then there are others who walk in the room and everything stops. Jackson has this “it” factor. If you like Tom Pelphrey, I think you’re going to like the adult Jonathan Jackson. I’m also guessing that there are going to be major changes in Lucky’s direction in life. I cannot imagine him as a cop. If I was writing the show, I would have a come-to-Jesus situation that forces Lucky and Luke to be together in which all truths, all demons, and all understandings come out. I’m talking a week of powerhouse dialogue between two titans in their own play that is as moving and essential as anything you’d see in an Arthur Miller production. Do you remember that last scene in Death of a Salesman between Willy Loman and his son Biff? The resolution is that Lucky has a better understanding and acceptance of his father as well as what he needs to do with his life. With Jackson on for six months, perhaps this is an end game for Lucky. If economic hardships continue, then perhaps Jackson can ride it out as long as the GH train runs. But that’s how I see Jackson’s version of Lucky evolving out of Greg Vaughan’s version.

And speaking of Mr. Vaughan. The only negative about Jackson’s return is Vaughan’s departure. In baseball, he is what we call a utility player. He shows up when you need him. He’s always on time and generally will be the last to go until the job is done… and done correctly. He’s the guy that will do whatever is asked of him in support of his team and what’s best for his team even if it’s not always in his best interest. He is the protector. And that’s what he did with Lucky. He protected that character for six years and did the role justice. As I mentioned in a previous piece, Greg inherited Jacob Young’s version of Lucky which was night and day from Jackson’s version. Young was more brooding and dark. He wasn’t “cowboy”. He played Lucky as a tortured soul which I’m sure came out of the brainwashing storyline engineered by Helena Cassadine. When Young left, Vaughan was a good choice to bring back a more human side of Lucky. You have to remember at the time that Laura was gone or nearly gone and Luke was spiraling out of control.

To Vaughan’s credit, he found a dynamic that made sense in integrating the “adult” Lucky into the world of the “child-like” Luke-and it made perfect sense. Notwithstanding the drug addiction storyline, Vaughan’s Lucky became Luke’s parent. To Vaughan’s detriment, it also set a path for the character in which there was no return. The Luke/Lucky dynamic had changed because the writers had now written Lucky as the show’s moral compass. He was the barometer of right and wrong. But as such, he was no longer the force of conflict. He measures conflict and that’s not a very fulfilling place for this character or for the actor. This is exactly the reason for Ethan and more directly the reason for Jonathan Jackson’s return.

One final word about Greg Vaughan. Don’t worry about him. He is a fine actor who still has his greatest work ahead of him. He’s one of the good guys in this business. I didn’t get a chance to meet him when I visited the set this past June. But it is evident that he commands a lot of respect from his cast mates. And he also commands a lot of respect from producers as well. He has a great future and I am sure you will see him in something very, very soon. I have great respect for Greg Vaughan because he alone kept the character of Lucky Spencer alive and relevant. Not an easy task.

The Bad
Greg Vaughan’s departure certainly is bad although it would be cool to see him come back to GH as someone new. The other bad news of the week is the imminent departure of Eric Braedon from the iconic role of Victor Newman he’s made famous for thirty years. Now, this may iron itself out and I hope it does as Braedon’s departure would be devastating for Y&R. Fortunately for Y&R, they have so many strong characters on the show. But the principal obstacle is that Y&R’s chief success now becomes their biggest liability. The show is second to none in the relevancy of history and legacy characters being more than wallpaper or plot devices. They have built their dynamic largely on the Newman/Abbott feud for twenty or more years that I can count. With Braedon out, Y&R has a tremendous hole to fill that in this fragile state of daytime may be too difficult to do. Victor and Nikki are the two that most Y&R fans want to see. I’m not saying it’s impossible to recover. But trends are showing that daytime soaps are declining. There is no ebb and flow. It’s a pinhole in the bean bag. But a hole nonetheless. Would Braedon’s departure turn that pinhole into a major slash? If I was Sony or the Bells, I would make the hard cuts elsewhere until it was time to renew Braedon’s contract in 2010. It’s just too great to risk and the fan backlash could be devastating. On the hand, it may give other families, such as the Winters, a chance to build their dynasties as well as the Newmans to find new dynamics within their own household. Perhaps an Adam/Nick conflict that could escalate. I don’t know. All I do know is that your number one show doesn’t need to stir its waters as such. I’m all for re-inventing a show for a new audience. But rebuilding from an atomic explosion could prove futile. I certainly hope I’m wrong if Braedon leaves and, more importantly, I hope this whole discussion is moot when Braedon and management come to terms.
Which leads me to…

The Ugly
The common theme here is the fragility of the daytime broadcast television soap opera. I worded that very carefully as you can see. “Broadcast television” as the operative words. The ugliness began with the 36th Annual Daytime Emmys being dismissed from both ABC and CBS. It may not have been the beginning of what was to come, but it certainly was the identifying factor in that which was about to follow…and follow quickly. GUIDING LIGHT's cancellation in April, DAYS OF OUR LIVES' elimination of veteran cast members, ALL MY CHILDREN moving to LA, Eric Braedon’s possible departure from THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, and now the possible elimination of yet another soap-ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

OLTL is one of the best soaps on television. I emailed Frank Valentini recently about how much I enjoyed the show and some ideas I had about taking the David Vickers character and making a real mock reality series for SoapNet. It would be funny and showcase OLTL characters in a new way that may bring forth new fans just as GENE SIMMONS FAMILY JEWELS on A&E brought in new Gene fans to KISS. Now KISS has a new CD and huge nationwide tour. Unfortunately, the deals made would not allow OLTL to do this. But OLTL is one show that has me vested in every story. When one ends, another picks up steam and no cast member is all that much greater than the other in importance. They use veterans in prominent stories yet don’t solely rely on them to carry the ball. Valentini has a well oiled machine that rarely fails its fans. So to hear of their possible cancellation next year was horrific to say the least. It’s also pre-mature. I feel if ABC wants the show, they will do what they can to save it. I believe that part of the AMC move to LA was meant to save both shows as I knew one wouldn’t survive. It seemed ABC showed great faith in all three of their soaps by doing what they did. I still believe that.

But I also know the business of television and it’s all going to come down to “money saved is money earned”. If the profit OLTL generates (assuming it does) does not balance out the effort that goes into it, then, yes, OLTL may end just as ANY show would. ABC is looking at their future and that also means taking the path of least resistance. I spoke about profit margins in previous interviews. The good news is that ABC owns its soaps. Its profit margins are probably higher than other network’s soaps. The bad news is that it may be too much effort. If OLTL makes a 20% profit on its cost, let’s say, and ABC can make that same 20% profit on a talk show in which they also have a vested interest, then which way do you think they might lean? The talk show. One talent, one set, and fewer days of production as many talk formats can whip out five days worth of shows in two or three days. I think JUDGE JUDY comes in for a week and does a month of shows. This is really what it all comes down to regardless of magnificent storytelling or stunt casting. In television, art does not create business. Business creates art. If Tide detergent wants to spend $20 million to create a new daytime soap, then a new daytime soap will be created. But all the Agnes Nixons, Glory Montys and Doug Marlands in the world can’t create the art in hopes of finding the business in today’s world.

You heard of the Golden Rule? The one that controls the gold rules.

If you think daytime is the only target, think again. Where can you find all your great dramas these days? Cable. Sure, you have CSI, HOUSE, 24 and a few others. But on cable, you mostly have the best shows. SOPRANOS, MAD MEN, THE TUDORS, TRUE BLOOD, RESCUE ME, DAMAGES, and so on.

Network television is in survival mode. Daytime television is on the top of that list. So my hope is that OLTL remains a vital part of their line-up. If it doesn’t, and keep in mind the Sword of Damocles hanging over ATWT too, and we lose both shows in 2010, then that sound you hear is the fat lady rehearsing.


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  2. Thanks to Jim for sharing his thoughts on daytime's "Black Monday." His being both a producer and a fan gives him good opportunity to see both sides of the coin.

    Not being a GH fan, either now or when Lucky was in his heyday, I can't really comment on the Jonathan Jackson news and how good or bad it will be for GH. But on the subject of Eric Braeden and Y&R, I'm torn. On the one hand, I agree with Jim that the void left by the absence of Victor will in the long term make Y&R into a show that, like the character recently, has had its heart literally torn to shreds. I also understand why EB would be upset at SONY/Bell taking the tactic of voiding his existing contract and starting over with a new one at less money when his existing deal has a year to run. But at the same time, Y&R is suffering from the economic reality of the declining state of daytime that Jim mentions later in the article. If their license fee is cut, Y&R has a smaller pool of money to spend. And cutting newer actors may not be an answer since many are either recurring or working in shorter terms with lower guarantees than Braeden. So how many hard cuts will Y&R have to make to be able to continue to pay Braeden his current salary? What happens if keeping Victor means doing away with the people he needs to interact with to continue to be the character we know? There are no easy answers. Hopefully, Braeden and Y&R can find some middle ground somewhere that gives and takes on both sides, since neither one is totally wrong in their stance.

  3. ScottN,

    Thanks for the great post. I agree with you about Y&R.

    I'm extremely saddened by the news of ABC's contemplation of canceling One Life to Live, their best soap. I can only say that by most objective measures, it is the show that delivers consistently.