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What's Wrong With Soaps? SOW June 97


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What's Wrong With Soaps? By Robert L. Schork

Former daytime pros offer their sometimes controversial theories.

Paul Avila Mayer, John Conboy, Bridget Dobson, Pat Falken Smith, Peggy O'Shea, Al Rabin, AJ Russell, Henry Slesar.

They blamed OJ, before that it was cable, then talk shows took the rap. For the past decade, like a bad game of Clue, the networks have indicted an endless parade of suspects for the crime of killing their soaps ratings. Unfortunately, the real culprit wasn't Professor Plum or Colonel Mustard, but the disenchanted viewer. The crime wasn't committed in the conservatory, but in the dens and living rooms of America. And the weapon of choice wasn't a lead pipe or candlestick, but the remote control.

What went wrong? To be fair-there are no easy answers. Certainly, the advent of cable channels-with viewership now divided among upwards of 100 channels- and women moving into the workforce have contributed to viewer erosion. “that's just an absolute fact that the audience has more choices, that women work and their VCR's are blinking 12 o'clock,”comments Al Rabin. But external forces not withstanding, how are soaps themselves contributing to the problem? Since they posses the experience of insiders but the candor and perspective of outsiders, some of daytime's foremost innovators were asked to attempt this elusive soap diagnosis. What's wrong with daytime?

“There is too much homogeneity”, Henry Slesar says. “you can go from one soap to another and pick up the same kind of story. Soaps would benefit from being distinct from one another so that people know they're tuning in to a different drama. There's a great deal of story recycling from one soap to another, because of the recycling of writers and producers. If I see one more evil twin...!”

The soaps now on the air have such diverse premises and histories, yet they are now so homogenous. Why is there no 'product differentiation'? “I suspect the reason is because of team writing”, Bridget Dobson says. “The most intense, best soaps are the ones where there is one strong headwriter who takes full responsibility. “Without that, you tend have it homogenised”

Pat Falken Smith declares that “the breakdown in soap writing came when the the networks got angry at the tyranny of the head writers.” Long ago, the networks would hire only a head writer who would hire his or her own staff, “I was making $2.5 million a year and I had to pay writers out of that. When they got cheap and did away with the big head writers, they made a terrible mistake.” Today, all members of the soaps' writing team are employed directly by the show and/or the networks.

Creatvity by committee is a problem cited repeatedly. “Writing by committee makes it so pallid”, Dobson explains. “It's taking something that used to be chilli and making it oatmeal”.

John Conboy says that shows sometimes recycle stories intentionally. “When I was at CBS, I can remember a very well known executive demanding that I do a story that was being done on another show, that had been told on that show skillfully for six years. He demanded we do it. We had to bend the character in order to do it, and it was a disaster. I was young and I wanted the job. Had I noot needed that job, I would have said some interesting 4 letter words.”

Conboy's story illustrates another problem: character assassination. Time and time again, characters are manipulated to fit a particular story, instead of the story being written to fit the characters – and that spells trouble.”If you give a leading lady a gun and have her blow somebody's brains out, and the audience knows that woman would never even pick up a gun or load it or fire it,you've jusy lost half of your audience in one day.” Conbyt says. “You bring a new writer in. he gets all the back issues of soap magazines to read what happened to all these people the last 100 years, and the more they change them – their point of view or the direction of the show-the more likely the show will fizzle out”. Dobson agrees. “It's so terribly important to protect the integrity of the characters. It was a terrible experience to return to Santa Barbara after the lawsuits were resolved and find the characters had been decimated. It was impossible to bring them back.”

Falken Smith states simply: They're destroying characters. On DOOL. They've made the leading lady a monster who had glowing green eyes-isn't that crappy? I see this Marlena character as totally destroyed. She's been the one important woman always...she's a psychiatrist, and she gets possessed. It's phony and it wrecked the character, which is unforgivable. If you are going to do this type of story, pick a new character, but don't bastardize the good character you have by doing that.”

Rabin cautions that such bending of character can cause viewers to tune out by making them think.”Oh, I don't have to worry about these people because they got them into this predicament unbelievably...so they can get them out unbelievably.”

Arguably,several of the problems outlined are merely symptoms of a larger, underlying problem: interference and micromanagement by the networks and executives. “they bring it on themselves,”Peggy O'Shea says. “what's wrong with the industry is mostly people in power who don't know what they're doing, who don't know a thing about daytime. A very attractive young woman(executive) said a variation on. “I don't know why they hired me...What is this? I'm not even American. I've never watched as soap before.” And another said,'I don't know soaps, but I was a reader in something, and I just feel like a pig in sh____ here.' Well, she should; she's ( at the time this interview was conducted) running a very major soap. Oh, yes, and then there's one who's going to be teaching soap opera writing but hasn't seen soaps before, so she has to study them before she can teach how to write them.”

Many say network executives have stifled the creativity of those getting paid to be creative. O'Shea says,”it's fun to sit in on a story conference. You can bounce things back and forth, and if it's just the writers, you can go.'nah',but if P&G is sitting there ,and you're putting your kid through college you don't go 'nah'. So you sit there and try to male sense of it, for hours, and then you have to go write it up.. and the executives lose their objectivity because they can no longer look at it and say the story isn't working, because ut was their idea.

”They're going to be in on writers' meetings. They're going to help plot, they're going to throw their Cincinatti morality on you, O'Shea continue,”One of them actually said to me,'How is it that one man can love two women at the same time?' all I could tell him was, 'If one man can't love two women at the same time,we should hang up our hats,we're out of business. This is a soap!' You don't need somebody giving you his fantasy, or what he would do if he were the writer. You're looking for a very specific dramatic moment, you don't need someone from Procter & Gamble giving you his latest nightmare.”

Part 2 to follow

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Such talented writers and producers in that list, most of whom are gone now. :( You can tell this article was before SOW got scared and became a glorified fashion magazine.

Conboy's story illustrates another problem: character assassination. Time and time again, characters are manipulated to fit a particular story, instead of the story being written to fit the characters – and that spells trouble.”If you give a leading lady a gun and have her blow somebody's brains out, and the audience knows that woman would never even pick up a gun or load it or fire it,you've jusy lost half of your audience in one day.”

Hey, you can just tell them that the character was molested as a child and that's why he's a killer, right?? Ask Ben Reade.

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Part 2

Paul Avila Mayer agrees. “All of us write our early fantasies. Claire (Labine) and I happened to have very comfortable fantasy lives; her early childhood and mine were compatible. She can start a sentence and I can finish it. But when we get the network executives, and they would want us to write the ideas that seemed good to them – meaning the ideas that would answer their emotional needs from their early childhoods. You couldn't explain to them that their fantasy life ,which seems so right to them, wasn't helping our show. Because we didn't want to write about their mommies, we wanted to write about our mommies. That's what I found most deplorable,having other people insist I write their fantasy life.

Slesar explains, “You are trying to hold onto your job and please the people who control you, and that's not the way to make a creative effort”.

“If the network executives really aren't trained writers, they tend to want you to write according to the latest polls”, Dobson adds, “and like President Clinton. You tend to do flip-flops as the polls change. So you're scared for your job. We used to call it writing on eggs – you don't take the risks, you don't take the strong stances, you're afraid...and it's not a good way to write a soap.” Conboy offers an explanation for executives' motives: “It's job justification for most of these people. They have to justify the fact that they're collecting a salary.”

Those interviewed also blame network executives for two other strategic errors:the use of gimmicks for short-term ratings boosts, and the lack of development and training of new creative talent.

“ Look at Ryan's Hope,”O'Shea says. “It started with a very romantic, lovely idea. Here's Irish Catholic Mary Ryan, who's not going to sleep with this attractive newspaper man until they're married. That's what the audience wants to see, and the show won every award in the book. And then ABC come along and make Delia fall in love with King Kong. Can you believe it? It had to be the network...I can't believe it's Claire. She's not a drinker, so it isn't like she got plastered one night and said, “Wouldn't this be fun? Somebody at the network said, 'It's sweeps time, let's get the ratings up.' Another gimmick, and it started the downslide.

“Same thing happened when they brought on movie stars. Sammy davis adored OLTL. He wanted to be on OLTL. I said I'd love to have Sammy Davis Jr as Sammy Davis Jr; that's wonderful! But please don't take my ficticious town that people believe exists, and give me Sammy Davis Jr, whom everyone knows as Sammy Davis Jr, playing a gambler – all my stories are shot to hell. And it was painful for us. He was charming and he had fun. But he ruined the integrity of the town. The ratings went up for a week. It took away from credibility. You no longer believe Llanview exists because Sammy Davis Jr came in,” O'Shea insists.

Just as outlandish gimmicks and flights of fancy aren't the solution, these soap veterans believe going too far in the opposite direction- with gritty, slice-of-life,reality based drama- is also a recipe for disaster. AJ Russell recalls,”I had a remarkable experience. I turned on GH for the first time in a year, and I was amazed to find a young man lying in bed with AIDS. Now my estimation of this is we are going backward, to what, Irna Phillips? I'm sure you would not get hooked if all you had to watch was tears and sobs. Nothing will dissuade from the belief that daytime is fantasy.

“I don't care how relevant an AIDS story is,” Conboy says. “It took this boy eight months to die on GH. Guess what? We all knew the end of the story. It wasn't a shock that they weren't going to make him better in the last 24 minutes of the show. The audience is not being entertained by an AIDS storyline because the result of an AIDS storyline is that you are going to die. There's no upside. Everybody in the world is praying to God that they don't get it. It's very difficult to tell that story and entertain.

“Life is tough enough”, agrees Dobson. “I don't want to bring more tragedy into my life by suffering as I watch the screen. Certainly we've killed off people, but not by inch-by-inch suffering. It's the death knell for ratings. We've done it and we've learned from our mistakes. They're tuning in for entertainment,not to grieve. Rabin learned from such mistakes on Days as well. “We did a story where Mickey was in a mental institution, and John Clarke was phenomenal. He was just great, we thought we were doing this great story, the critics did, too, but the audience just turned away, because it was too realistic.

O'Shea adds,”I agree with Samuel Goldwyn. If you want to send a message. Go to Western Union. Writers frequently get pressured from organizations asking us to please write a story for public awareness, and they would offer a little award or something at the end. They should buy an ad in the New York Times. When you do slice-of-life you're going to put your audience to sleep. Nobody seems to know that.

So what does the future hold? There is a strong agreement that the industry's troubles will only deepen over time if it doesn't take a more active role to develop new creative talent. Conboy says,”there's no training ground for writers today in daytime. Writers should train writers. It shouldn't be some person who comes to the network to train writers. Training them for what? All headwriters have different styles.”

because soaps have existed for so many years, there is little in the way of story that has not been done in one way or another. Although the experts disagree on how precisely how to make something new of the same old,same old, there is one thing they all agree: Love is the thing. Romance is the engine that propels drama, and as long as people care about the thrill of romance, they will probably want to watch it unfold on soap operas.

Some interesting points raised.

Re RH and Delia and the gorilla. Hasn't Claire Labine taking responsibility for that story?

As for the use of 'social issues' or message stories, I think there is a place for them if they are well told and part of a range of stories being told.

How do other posters feel about some of the issues raised?

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Re RH and Delia and the gorilla. Hasn't Claire Labine taking responsibility for that story?

http://www.welovesoaps.net/2009/11/soaps-hope-claire-labine-interview-part_05.html

We Love Soaps: How about creatively on screen? Anything you would do differently?

Claire Labine: In terms of story? Yes. What we referred to as “Terry The Tumor,” which was Tom McGreevy’s character Tom’s departure from the show. I would have done that differently. It was far-fetched. Also, everyone always sites Prince Albert the Ape story as a mistake. But I’d do that again! I loved those scenes. It was a story about alienation. It was Delia relating to the one persona that she could relate to at that point. We were quite fascinated by all the ape research that was in the era when that was first being explored. We were really interested in that. So I’d probably try to do that again.

Ever since I first saw that storyline I have thought it was a fairly good little story which had a nice start, middle, and end, and encapsulated just how alone Delia was at that time.

I think that story is a scapegoat because it's easier for people to remember a gorilla than to remember the endless, depressing, demoralizing mob stories which ran over the show like a Mack truck (especially in 1981), or to remember how flat and boring once complex characters like Siobhan became, or the horrible Kimberly Harris, who was foisted on Rae and Seneca out of nowhere because ABC thought the show needed a teen character. That demon seed was on constantly.

Besides, the show had already done gimmicks like a Jaws ripoff with Siobhan and Joe months and months before the gorilla story. That was actually much more ridiculous than anything with Delia and the gorilla, because there was no buildup or any real point. It was just Siobhan going out to the beach and OMG, a metal-looking fin goes around and she starts screaming until Joe saves her.

I should also point out, since O'Shea did not, that the story happened 2 full years after the "Irish Catholic love story" had ended, with Kate Mulgrew already in primetime. If they had dumped Kate Mulgrew for a gorilla then I'd trash the story too, but they didn't. The choice was more like King King vs. The Godfather vs. Child's Play.

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Sammy Davis really like the soaps! He was also a mega Love of Life fan and was devastated when it was taken off the air.

Although the experts disagree on how precisely how to make something new of the same old,same old, there is one thing they all agree: Love is the thing. Romance is the engine that propels drama, and as long as people care about the thrill of romance, they will probably want to watch it unfold on soap operas.

A [[email protected]#$%^&*] MEN.

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