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Monday, October 13, 2008

Viewing Habits of a Soap Writer

"Do these writers even watch their own show?!"

I read that a lot on message boards. It comes up all the time, for all eight soaps. It's a good question to ask, as there are times when it certainly seems like we don't. Truth is, most of us do. I don't know if we always watch it with the same magnifying glass day-after-day-after-day as we should - but I know most of us TRY to. (If we don't, it's not out of laziness or regret -- it's more about life getting in the way, and hours upon hours of episodes pile up on the DVR, and... what can I say? Sacrifices have to be made.)

But this morning I found myself watching hours and hours of daytime television, and wondering why I still do this. Well, the honest first answer is: I enjoy it. I do. Mock all you want, but I find it interesting, even when it's being completely ridiculous. The second answer, though, is that it's such a barometer as to what daytime audience is left out there, who they're made up of, and what it is they want (or don't want) in their television shows during the day.

You ask if we even watch daytime television? I can't answer for everybody, but here's what I watch - and how and when I watch it...


Unless I just got back from vacation, and there are too many episodes for me to catch up on, I always watch every episode of the soap I'm working for - sometimes two or three times if there's something really interesting. This should go without saying, but watching dynamics between actors, the scene and act tags that work (and those that don't) and the way production has restructured your episode (if they have at all) is so necessary to grow and become a better writer.

I also try to watch the other shows on the same network that I work for. When I was at ATWT, I watched the whole CBS line-up, and when I was at OLTL, I watched the whole ABC line-up. Why? Well, to be honest, the other shows tend to come up in meetings. Sometimes in casual conversation, other times in relevance to what you've written in your breakdown. Also, the networks aren't too happy with coincidental similarities in two shows at the same time. And that does happen a lot. Once, on OLTL, Nash was going to "kidnap" Jessica and being her onto a boat to woo her... at the same time Zach was doing the same thing to Kendall on AMC. Total coincidence, but we had to change it because nobody wants to watch the same scene on two different soaps in the same week. You'd be surprised how often this happens. So I like to pay attention to the other soaps on the network I'm writing for so I don't end up writing something on OLTL that GH aired three weeks ago.

I also like to keep track of the soaps that air on other networks the same time the soap I'm working for airing. At this point, I'm already watching 3-4 soaps daily, so I can't really watch five hours a week of the competing shows too. So I keep up on daily recaps, and try to watch two-three days a week. Why? Because they're my competition, and I want to know what stories they're writing for their audience - and what story they're NOT writing for their audience, so I can try and fill that void in the show I'm working for. Sometimes this gets me into trouble (I'm very close to both ATWT and OLTL, and many of their employees to this day, yet they compete in most markets. Yikes!) but the truth is, most of the people I've worked with can separate business and personal (I said "most", not "all"), and they know if we're at a bar, and I ask how things are going, I'm genuinely asking and not digging for dirt. I'm not that kind of guy, believe me.

But what about when I'm not working?

I've been really blessed in that up until November, 2007, the longest I ever went without work was about six weeks. This is the first time I've been unemployed for an extended period of time, something many of my fellow soap writers have experienced once or twice before in their careers. So what am I watching now? And how often?

Truth be told, I try to keep up on all eight soaps when I'm not working for one reason and one reason alone -- at any point, my agent may call me and say "_______ is interested in you, and want you to start in two weeks. Are you up on the show?" And if the answer is "no", chances are you'll be in for a lot of sleepless nights in your first few weeks.

But watching 40 hours of daytime television a week is a tall order for anybody. So here's my rundown of what I'm watching right now.

ALL MY CHILDREN - I've always tried to watch two or three episodes of AMC a week, but with the addition of Chuck Pratt to the team, I'm trying to watch more. It's always interesting when a new head writer takes over, but especially so here. I've never met Pratt, but when I first heard he would be the new head writer of AMC, it seemed like an odd match to me after watching his GH for so long. So I'm fascinated and intrigued to see what he does with it.

AS THE WORLD TURNS - A cast and crew I've long considered my second family, I try and keep up on three to four episodes of ATWT a week. It just feels like home to me in so many ways, and I have an affection for those characters that I haven't had since I was a kid and watching AW and Days every day faithfully. Even when I'm not thrilled with what I'm seeing, I still feel an attachment to them, and it's hard for me to turn away, even when it's in a down swing.

BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL - I'll be honest - I've never really been interested in the fashion world. So B&B was never high on my list - and it has nothing to do with the acting or writing, it's just a world I never really understood or had any interest in pursuing. (Ask the Beau - he'll tell ya! :-)) When the Storm's Gift story started, I watched four days a week because it seemed like a real character piece, but lately, sad to say, I only catch one or two episodes a week.

DAYS OF OUR LIVES - Oh, my Days. I won't feed you some B.S. line... I'll be honest here. Days is the show I grew up on, but I still have a hard time watching it more than a day a week. I follow what's going on, but as immature and unprofessional as it may sound, I'm only human, and the Days firings still leave a horrible taste in my mouth. The show could be firing on all cylinders, but everything about my last dealings with Days feels way too personal, and it's hard for me to watch it and not relive the strike. I'm sure over time that will pass, but for now, it's still kind of an open wound. Sorry, DAYS and Days fans... I'm still holding out hope I can turn on Days one day and just enjoy it as I used to.

GENERAL HOSPITAL - I watch GH about three days a week, more so during Sweeps. I don't particularly enjoy a lot of the mob stuff, but GH still remains an important show on daytime, and a vital institution in the eyes of its fans. I also find myself studying their dialogue intently, as I feel they have one of the strongest script writing teams in daytime. I also find there's a lot less exposition in their words, and I really appreciate that.

GUIDING LIGHT - Actually, I end up watching GL usually two days a week. Whether you like what they're doing or not, I try to go into with an open mind. I find some of what they're doing structurally in each episode to be interesting, but I find a lot of their transitions a little too jarring. But it's this kind of "weighing the pros and cons" viewing that I think will help me wherever I end up next - studying what's working and what isn't, and why.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE - I still watch OLTL three to four days a week, mainly because I'm still incredibly undecided as to where I stand on the changes. Never have I seen a show that can be so polarizing within each episode. I also have tremendous respect for that writing team, and always have. So even when I don't like a story decision, I still find it interesting to see how those people are telling the stories, as opposed to the stories they're specifically telling - if that makes sense.

YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS - I try to watch Y&R four to five days a week, only because I think you're crazy if you're a soap writer who DOESN'T watch the Number One rated soap opera on television to understand what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong. And if we're really being honest, I have a soft spot in my heart for their new co-head writer. :-) But come on - this is the cream of the daytime crop. To not pay attention to what they're doing is foolish, especially in this age when all shows are trying to hold on to their viewers, and Y&R seems to be doing a better job of that over the years than most soaps. Even when they were at their "worst", they were still beating everyone ele in the households by a landslide. A writer can learn a lot from a show like that.

So how do I watch these shows I don't work on? First and foremost, as a fan. If you're not a fan of the genre, I'm sorry - you shouldn't be working in it. But secondly, and almost as importantly, I watch each scene and wonder if I would have done anything differently, and why. Then, once the show's over, the message-board-lurking begins. Now I know you shouldn't take every fan's post to heart because people have a lot of different opinions out there. But if a hundred people are saying the same thing... and I thought differently? Then maybe I don't have the right hand on the pulse of the viewing public and I need to understand where they're coming from. Because the last thing I want to be is the kind of writer who plows on with something that isn't working just because it's what I want. Looking at something from all angles is what makes soap writing so interesting - because the heroes think of themselves as flawed, and the villains usually think they have good reason to do the things they do.

Plus, there are so many lessons to learn from watching other shows. I remember I worked on a soap that was about to do a boxing storyline - and the second I heard it, I went back and thought about all the boxing storylines I'd ever seen done on other soap operas (There were three of them) And then I thought about how many of them are considered successes in hind sight by each show's fans. (Answer: None of them) So it wasn't really a big surprise to me when the boxing story I had to write wasn't exactly a smashing success.

I've been called a fanboy by some people I've worked with... and occasionally, if I reference a previous similar story from another soap in a writing room, I get a few dirty looks. But I honestly don't understand how you do this job unless you know what else is out there. Fashion designers focus on their styles, their choices, their inspirations - but they also know that they need to keep an eye out on what their competitors are doing, and whether they're succeeding or not. I'll never understand why some soap writers don't feel that way about their industry.

I'm all for a singular vision from a head writer, and I fully support the idea that you can't please everyone all the time, so sometimes you just have to stick to your gut instinct as a writer. BUT... If you don't know what's working and what's failing on other shows, how can you learn not to repeat the mistakes of others before you?

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