Can soap operas survive another writers' strike?

Posted Tuesday, February 28, 2017 6:21:37 AM
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Can soap operas survive another writers' strike?

With the WGA on the brink of another writers' strike, soapcentral.com explores whether or not soap operas could survive the chaos.

Many entertainment industry insiders maintain it's too early to worry about a possible Writers Guild of America strike because contract negotiations don't start until mid-March, and the current contract with movie and television writers runs until May 1. But with numerous guild members insisting a strike is likely on the way, Soap Central is delving into how such a situation might impact the current state of soap operas -- for better or for worse.

As many longtime TV viewers recall, the last WGA strike that happened in late 2007 set the film and television world into a tailspin. The four-month-long halt on the industry created rippling effects that included primetime shows being forced to air reruns and, consequently, numerous actors being unable to find work. The soap opera genre was basically the only one that continued on through the four-month-long writers' strike of 2007-2008, and material suffered as random staffers took the place of established writers.

Though a handful of so-called "financial core" writers from All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless crossed picket lines and were allowed to legally return to work, most of the soap opera shenanigans that hit the screen during the strike period were written by people who were not part of the shows' established writing teams.

"People from all different areas were suddenly writers -- the assistant director, people who ran errands for the show," one unnamed network soap opera office assistant told the New York Times during the strike in 2008. "If you were associated in any way with that show before the strike came, opportunity was knocking on your door, no matter what position you held."

The replacement writers relied on a document known as "the bible," which is a loosely mapped-out plan for the next several months that writers usually keep regardless of strike threats. But when "the bible" storylines ran out, the novice writers were left scrambling, and viewers were left cringing as many plots took a turn for the worse.

One of the reasons that soap opera producers refused to go to reruns and forced inexperienced staffers to jump into writing positions during the 2007-2008 strike is that several of the shows risked cancellation if they lost any more viewers. Producers remembered the damage done when the O.J. Simpson trial interrupted programming, leading to a massive decline in soap opera ratings. And many realized that a programming break due to a strike could have similar consequences.

So what about today's soap operas? How might they fare if a WGA strike indeed happens? Sadly, soap opera ratings have further declined in the last decade. Many network soaps have since been canceled, including Guiding Light, As the World Turns, All My Children, and One Life to Live. And cancellation is always a threat for the remaining four (The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, and Days of our Lives).

This means that now, more than ever, daytime dramas cannot risk airing reruns like their primetime counterparts might do during a strike or risk leaving weeks of storyline in the hands of inexperienced writers. Being forced into either of the above scenarios could lead daytime dramas' already vulnerable viewership numbers to decline and ultimately bring about cancelation.

On the other hand, a writers' strike might actually have the power to improve soap operas and give them a bump back into ratings slots they held years ago. As soap fans may recall, though some of the writing suffered during the 2007-2008 strike, the situation prompted many high-profile actor returns. With film and primetime grinding to a sudden halt, daytime was the only place actors could continue to work. This led to fan favorites like Sarah Brown, Rebecca Budig, Debbi Morgan, and Darnell Williams returning to the genre, as well as guest appearances by non-daytime actors like Shirley Jones and Mario van Peebles.

In an interview with the Knoxville News & Sentinel, Brian Frons, former president, Daytime, Disney-ABC Television Group, explained ABC's acquisitions this way: "The strike actually helped us in terms of luring these actors back to the show. If you aren't an actor with a steady primetime gig, you probably won't find [work] until fall of '09. So I think that gives soap operas a chance [for actors] to find steady work."

Meanwhile, both Y&R and B&B actually achieved ratings similar to some successful primetime shows during the strike due to soaps being the only form of entertainment still in active production.

The difference today, however, is the widespread ability of viewers to access all kinds of entertainment outside of network television. For example, though the strike would impact original programming on Netflix, industry insiders surmise the entertainment giant would purchase foreign programming to keep members satiated. And that's just one scenario that highlights the fact that today's entertainment landscape is vastly different than it was during the strike ten years ago -- meaning a strike now will definitely not be a replay of 2007.

For more on how the WGA strike of 2007-2008 impacted soap operas, check out this article from Soap Central's archives.

What do you think about the threat that the WGA might go on another strike? Do you think soap operas would suffer during a strike, or do you think they're more likely to thrive under such circumstances? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.

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