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A cliffhanger for soaps

Times Staff Writer

When veteran soap opera writers heard ABC’s official statement about the post-strike future of its daytime dramas -- “We will continue to produce original programming with no repeats and without interruption” -- they knew it was bad news. If history repeats itself, it meant they would be replaced, as soon as necessary, by strike breakers, non-union writers -- or maybe even the producers themselves.

“They’ll write it however they can get it written,” said Marlene Clark Poulter, a 17-year soap opera writer currently on strike from DirecTV’s “Passions.”

While the writers strike has already forced late-night talk shows into reruns and halted production of some prime-time shows, the soaps face extra hurdles that some fear may jeopardize the struggling genre altogether.

“Daytime can’t run reruns. It’s a different business,” said Lynn Leahey, editorial director for Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly. Prime-time audiences are used to seeing reruns when the shows are on hiatus, she said, but long absences from the airwaves have hurt all soap operas in the past: Once viewers lose the habit, they often disappear for good.

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“Our audience watches because they’ve been watching for a long time,” said Michele ValJean, a 15-year writer on ABC’s “General Hospital” on the picket line. “We lost 8 million viewers over the O.J. Simpson trial who never came back.”

Networks can’t afford to lose those viewers -- mainly because there aren’t that many left. Even the most popular daytime drama, CBS’ “The Young and the Restless,” would have been canceled 15 years ago with its current ratings of 4.6 million households. Older fans have not been replaced by younger ones despite efforts to reach them with supernatural plot lines or Web-related material. Canceled soaps, such as NBC’s “Sunset Beach,” haven’t been replaced.

Others may be hanging by a thread. Of nine remaining daytime soaps, NBC’s “Days of Our Lives” and “Passions” rank lowest with 2.4 million and 1.6 million households, respectively, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Soap writers fear that the studios will replace them, even before prepared scripts run out, to keep the flow of daily stories continuing.

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During the five-month writers’ strike in 1988, the soaps aired uninterrupted because so many people were willing and eager to try their hand at writing. “I know some actors who can’t wait to get hold of a pen,” Leahey said.

She and others worry about a domino effect. If the quality of the writing suffers, viewers may be alienated and tune out. And then the networks might drop the soaps altogether.

“This time, unlike 1988, you’ve got a real possibility of people going to the Internet or the PlayStation. There are so many other options nowadays for people to get their entertainment, it’s almost a calculated risk. They could win the battle but lose the war,” said television historian Wesley Hughes, author of “The Soap Opera Encyclopedia.”

For the moment, the fears are only speculation. Network officials say their pipelines are well stocked. ABC said scripts for its soaps “One Life to Live,” “General Hospital” and “All My Children” were written “well into the new year,” according to a network statement. NBC has scripts to take its sole soap, “Days of Our Lives,” through January. Likewise, CBS’ “The Young and the Restless,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light” are set through January, representatives said.

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After that? Network executives declined to discuss how they would keep the plot pumps primed. To make it work, producers would need to find a team of writers, not just one or two, who know the show intimately enough to turn out satisfactory scripts. Soap writers, who live in various regions across the country, tend to write together over conference calls.

The soap scribes in the Writers Guild of America have the same concerns in the fight for a new contract as their prime-time counterparts, including residuals for new media and resentment that the networks hadn’t helped solve that problem when it came up before the 1988 writers’ strike. Back then, “new media” was “this baffling new thing,” said Melissa Salmons, a former writer for “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” “We made concessions because they said as the business grew they would take care of us. It never happened.”

Already, a soap writer such as Poulter can see her work for “Passions” replayed on NBC.com without any additional payment coming her way.

“It’s about learning from the past,” Salmons said.

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The veteran daytime writers see another difference in the timing of this strike. The 1988 walkout began in March, when production of the prime-time season was essentially over. “Last time, daytime writers felt they were walking alone” at the outset, Salmons recalled. “This time, everyone in TV is impacted because the timing is in the middle” of the prime-time season.

The irony for the daytime writers is that even as they strike over issues related to new media, they see hope for their struggling genre in the very same new media, particularly the Internet. “It could be a very good thing for us,” said Poulter, referring to the opportunity it presents to get their product before new viewers. But only if “the producers come to bat for us,” she added.

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lynn.smith@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Joseph Menn contributed to this report.


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