Hot water for the soaps

Nets running out of fresh scripts


The daytime soap operas might be losing their bubbles in the weeks ahead as networks resort to episodes not penned by WGA writers.

The guild, which has been on strike since early November, has picketed for several days in front of ABC headquarters in New York, primarily to protest its airing of "All My Children" episodes written by non-WGA members. ABC is the only network to produce all of its soap operas, while "Days of Our Lives" on NBC is produced by Corday Prods. and all of the CBS soaps are produced outside the network, including two by Procter & Gamble and one by Sony.

The networks and soap production companies have gone radio silent about how many scripts they still have from WGA writing staffs, and the writers themselves say it varies from soap to soap.

"Our daytime shows have remained in production and have continued to produce original episodes" is all Chris Ender, senior vp communications at CBS, would say. An ABC statement simply read: "The shows are staffed, and we have people in place to continue producing original programming."

Regarding the number of remaining WGA-written soap scripts, Courtney Simon, who writes for "As the World Turns," which is produced by P&G for CBS, said: "There is a huge variation from show to show. Some do not want to get too far ahead with their story lines." But Simon said she's heard that scripts written by her team will run out this week.

It remains to be seen what impact this will have on viewership.

Simon does not believe that the writers behind the new scripts will be able to maintain the integrity and focus of the story lines. "It will be painful for us to see what happens to our story lines and know that when we return, we will have to clean up what these makeshift teams do," she said.

So far, the ratings and viewer levels for the soaps on all three networks have been pretty much flat since the strike began -- not a surprise since the scripts being used were from the regular writing teams. Going forward, however, ratings could take a melodramatic turn.

All the networks and production companies that own soaps said they have enough scripts and a system in place to remain on the air and produce fresh episodes indefinitely. That has been facilitated by a government rule that allows WGA members to cross picket lines by filing for "financial core" status. Technically, they resign from union membership but still pay dues, and the guild can't stop them from returning to work.

Two writers on "All My Children," James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten, have returned to work under the "fi-core" provision, and other soaps might each have a couple of writers who also exercised the provision. ABC, without naming names, did acknowledge that some soap writers have returned under fi-core and that producers are aiding in the writing process.

Over at CBS, for example, "The Bold and the Beautiful" executive producer Brad Bell also is the head writer.

But Simon said it is a struggle to stay ahead with scripts even with a full complement of writers, which could number from 10-15 depending on the soap.

Although SAG has supported the WGA by not crossing its picket lines for televised TV and movie awards shows, SAG members have not boycotted show production and continue to show up for work. That could change, however, if soap producers begin using scripts written by non-WGA writers.

Despite that, Shirley Jones recently joined the "Days of Our Lives" cast and will appear in episodes beginning Jan. 31. And Mario Van Peebles has joined the cast of "All My Children" and will first appear in a Jan. 29 episode.

The networks maintain that keeping the soaps on the air during the strike is vital to the future of the daypart. They argue that if the soaps were to go into repeats or be pulled during the strike, viewers might defect and never come back.

Clearly the ratings support the notion that daytime is a declining daypart. Compared with last season, soap ratings among women 18-49 and 25-54 are down anywhere from 5%-25%, with most soaps averaging about 300,000 fewer viewers per day.

However, while soap ratings are down from last year -- almost a regular annual occurrence during the past decade -- advertisers so far are not complaining. With the other dayparts so tight, and with daytime ad inventory cheaper than most, it is still a desirable place to run messages, particularly for advertisers targeting women. The soaps are still averaging between 2.4 million ("Days of Our Lives") and 5.5 million ("The Young and the Restless") viewers a day.

But if audiences begin to notice changes in story lines written by non-WGA writers and producers, they could start tuning out. "Good shows can't be written when the situation is panic-driven," Simon said. "Soap opera story lines have to be well thought out and take time to play out. Makeshift, temporary writing teams can't do that."

Although the soaps are part of the overall negotiation process, the WGA can negotiate separate deals with the individual production companies such as Corday, P&G or Sony. WGA sources said none of the companies has so far been willing to do an individual deal.

John Consoli is a reporter for MediaWeek.