Friday, December 19, 2008

The Template for Saving Daytime, Part 1

This post is inspired by one of the best soap interviews I have ever read, conducted by Nelson Branco of the Canadian TV Guide (links below). I thank that reporter for one of the most insightful interviews in this area ever published.

This post is one of two. This first post talks about saving daytime CREATIVELY, in terms of storytelling and fan appeal. The second post talks about saving daytime FINANCIALLY, in terms of generating revenue in the new media landscape.

For both parts, I make the assumption that "my" show, The Young and the Restless, may be the template. In this post, I'll briefly try to suggest that Y&R is, at least for now, creatively 'saved' (acknowledging that it takes no more than ONE boneheaded corporate decision to undo it), and review how that was done. In the next post, I'll make the argument that no show is financially safe...but that Y&R has carefully done just about everything it can to maximize the probability of longevity. This post addresses the proposition that, as a the strong central leader, Maria Arena Bell creatively rescued Y&R. "How she did it", below, refers to the strategies engaged in by Bell. Interesting, many of these strategies have an older name: "Marland's rules".

None of this causes me to retreat from the idea that, ON THE CURRENT TRACK, relying ONLY on network (CBS) ratings, Y&R can't survive past the mid-2010 decade. I believe, however, that if our model for appraising and remunerating success is modernized, Y&R may well flourish beyond this time.

A. Subjective evidence for creative salvation

What makes me say Y&R is creatively saved? Well, first there is my own opinion. A lifelong fan of Y&R, I have gone through dry spells. One of them was at the end of Bill Bell's reign. (Nikki marrying her gynecologist? Kay Alden quickly undid that mess). Another was at the end of Jack Smith's reign. (I loved his Cassie-death story...with a passion...but after years of "all Brittany Hodges all the time", I could hardly stand it).

Twice, in recent years, my passion for the show has been restored. The first was early in Lynn Latham's regime. (Yup!). This is when Kay Alden and Jack Smith and Ed Scott and Kathryn Foster and Jim Houghton and Trent Jones, etc., were all still with her. There was that brief window after Nikki's mugging, where Victor was smelling lavender, and John was having dizzy spells, and Brad was suddenly looking at faded newspaper clips about a brutal murder in Parma, OH...and I hadn't been as excited about the multiple mysteries in AGES. I loved the story structure. We were focusing on John's neurological problems and Nikki's spinal health (would her last spinal injury on horseback...descend again into painkillers?)...when the REAL story was Victor's burgeoning seizure disorder.

Like every fan on the planet, my enthusiasm about Lynn Latham's Y&R didn't last. As it became a disorganized mess, with little throughline, little emotional resonance, too many newbies, and characters changed to suit plot...

But now...since the middle of 2008, Y&R has been on a never-ending high roll. Launched with Sabrina's Sudden Impact death, followed up with the remarkable Return-of-the-House-of-Abbott and the incredible "Kay's Death" umbrella, the show is hitting all the right notes. When Lauren Fenmore apologized to Traci Abbott for being a "mean girl" two decades ago (this is a scene between two recurring characters!!), I understood how fully the show was being written for us loyalists...those who have been there from the beginning.

Here's the thing (and I am not alone...I'm reading this everywhere). Y&R is in a place right now where many of us CANNOT WAIT till the next episode. Moreover, most episodes deliver "oooh" and "aaah" moments. Note, these are not moments borne of plot (explosions, gunfights, etc.). These are moments of characters connecting, or characters battling. Some of the best moments on Y&R this last month or so were the Traci-Lauren scene, Kay's will reading, Jack FINALLY unleashing his venom at Gloria (for the tainted cream scandal), or the remarkable Vail Bloom and Chris Engen playing EVERY emotional nuance in their tortured romance (compatible, two loners from similar backgrounds who found each other, sexually incendiary, sweet and sexy together, but she's a law and order girl and he's a really bad boy). Old and new, the show is truly doing well in almost every domain.

B. General critical praise

I'm a fanboy, prone to hyperbole, so it is easy to dismiss me.

But look at the parade of "laudatory" awards Y&R received this year:

Roger Newcomb (qualified praise)
Canadian TV Guide
US TV Guide

with copious praise from Soap Opera Digest for its major stories.

and (if you read message boards) fans everywhere. Maybe this is group think...mass hysteria...but I think most people understand that Y&R is creatively terrific right now.

C. How she did it

Interestingly, it seems that the formula used was deviously simple. So simple, it has been known for several decades as "Marland's rules" or "How Not to Wreck a Show". His article was published in the April 27, 1993 issue of Soap Opera Digest, shortly after his passing.

Marland's Rule

What Maria did


Watch the show."Yes. Listen, I admit — I didn’t watch every episode, but I followed Y&R since I worked here in the 1980s. Despite being a Bell, I’ve always loved soaps, and especially Y&R. So yeah, I followed Y&R like a fan. If you’re working in this business, you must be a fan. Even as [the boss], when I watch the show, I forget I work on it, because I switch back into fan mode. I cried like crazy at Katherine’s funeral!"
Learn the history of the show. You would be surprised at the ideas that you can get from the back story of your characters."It’s been incredible to utilize Bill’s bible. The characters and the history he left have only grown richer and richer over the years. My job is to move Genoa City into the 21st century."
Read the fan mail. The very characters that are not thrilling to you may be the audience's favorites.Bell, in an interview with Paul Rauch in Soaps in Depth (December 2008) said that they listened to "fans" and "focus groups", and that this indicated that classic characters and actors were what they wanted to see.

In Depth

Be objective. When I came in to ATWT, the first thing I said was, what is pleasing the audience? You have to put your own personal likes and dislikes aside and develop the characters that the audience wants to see."When I returned to Y&R,
a lot of things had changed. A lot of the characters and storylines had [swung] in some wonky, strange directions. I didn’t want to be one of those people who came in and changed direction by forgetting what viewers had experienced onscreen during past regimes. Instead, I felt it was really important to build on what was already here; wrap up stories that were left dangling for too long; and give viewers the satisfaction of a resolution and pay off. After we accomplished that, we moved in a new, fresh direction."
Talk to everyone; writers and actors especially. There may be something in a character's history that will work beautifully for you, and who would know better than the actor who has been playing the role?

"Omigod — working with Hogan has been a great deal of fun, as you can imagine. Although I’m the primary head writer and storyteller on the show, I have been lucky to have him on our team because he brings a fun sensibility to the stories he writes. He knows how to lay out a storyline. Hogan’s one of the funniest people on the planet. And Scott Hamner offers this incredible sense of integrity in his writing. Our show is really cohesive."
Don't change a core
character. You can certainly give them edges they didn't have before, or give them a logical reason to change their behavior. But when the audience says, "He would never do that," then you have failed.
See the "wonky" quote above.
Build new characters slowly. Everyone knows that it takes six months to a year for an audience to care about a new character. Tie them in to existing characters. Don't shove them down the viewers' throats.Here, the evidence is in production. Think of the introductions of Billy Abbott or Adam Wilson or Chloe/Kate Valentine Chancellor. Each are important scions of core families. None are truly front burner...they're on more like 2-3 days a week. Each one is tied to multiple veterans. Each one has shades of good and bad (mostly bad, though...but that sets up the redemption arc).

If you feel staff changes are in
order, look within the organization first. P&G [Procter & Gamble] does a lot of promoting from within. Almost all of our producers worked their way up from staff positions, and that means they know the show.
Some of the subsequent rehires, both as directors (e.g., Mike Denney) and writers (e.g., Janice Ferri Esser) have been from the "vintage" era. Of course, promoting from within was the classic ultimate "Bell" tradition.

Opera Network Writers and Directors Thread

Don't fire anyone for six months. I feel very deeply that you should look at the show's canvas before you do anything.

In Toup's Soap Opera Network Writers and Directors Thread, he notes that many of Lynn Latham's hires were not fired until given a chance to show their business. Correspondingly, "Darin Goldberg & Shelley Meals last listed as Writers on June 25", "Valerie Ahern & Christian McLaughlin last listed as Writers on July 7", "Cherie Bennett & Jeff Gottesfeld last listed as Writers on August 19", and "Josh Griffith last listed as Co-Executive Producer on October 2".

Vincent Irizarry's David Chow was universally reviled (even the actor says the character was inconsistently written by the previous regime, in a December Soap Opera Digest), but Arena Bell kept him on canvas from December 27/2007 through August 6/2008. She brought the character to a satisfying resolution (killed in a car wreck, his ashes thrown in a wheelbarrow of horse manure), rather than just dumping him.

Opera Network Writers and Directors Thread
Good soap opera is good storytelling. It's very simple.
My focus here? It’s as a writer and a storyteller. It’s important as a writer to ensure your story is taken to the screen to its absolute highest height. Since Paul’s been here, the material has been fulfilled. Really, my job is to write the show. In daytime, especially these days, having creative control is important. You need to be able and free to tell the stories you want to tell — in the way you want to tell them. If you have a vision and the passion, people will come along with you for the ride.

Now, Nelson Branco's interview (heavily quoted above--you must read the whole thing, because it contains so much more!) was also revelatory because it also showed a few more key ways in which Arena Bell has strengthened her show.

I. Production should follow storytelling, not follow it.
Form must follow function, and not the reverse. As much as I have applauded Ellen Wheeler's GL experiment, they have it backward. On that show, storytelling is following the new production model...and is therefore weakened. Storytelling should come first.

The other lesson is that a sumptuous production model may be more appealing than a lean "verite" one.

"Paul couldn’t be a better or a more experienced producer. He ensures our show is produced to perfection. When I watch Y&R, I’m always blown away at how our material is perfectly [realized] onscreen." (Source:

II. A singular creative vision, free from corporate interference, is essential.
Bill Bell understood that. Sadly, CBS, ABC, NBC, Sony, Corday, Disney...they all might not. And daytime is weakened by the misunderstanding. I'll write more about the "auteur" model of daytime in a future post.

"In daytime, especially these days, having creative control is important. You need to be able and free to tell the stories you want to tell — in the way you want to tell them." and "They all defer to my vision, and yet, because we share the same goal, we have all professionally jelled rather beautifully. As you know, you can’t run a soap opera if there are too many cooks in the kitchen — especially when it comes to story. Yes, soap opera is a collaborative medium, but there must always be one vision." (Source:

III. Write soaps only if you love the genre.

"The people who are the most successful in this business are people who love it inside and out. I think you make a colossal mistake if you think soap operas is anything less than any other medium or storytelling forum. We never dumb down our show in any way." (Source:

I contrast this with Leah Laiman (ATWT), who recently indicated she had a hard time coming up with compelling stories.

With one hour a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year to fill, I am in constant search for inspiration. I can adapt a plot from classic Greek tragedy (you can´t go wrong with Oedipus) or classic vintage movies (It Happened One Night works for almost any new couple). Newspapers and magazines offer an embarrassment of riches. The old chestnut switched-at-birth-baby story you might encounter on any number of shows I´ve written (General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, One Life to Live, Another World, Guiding Light) was the subject of numerous articles and, needless to say, a hefty lawsuit, several years ago. I grant you there aren´t too many people who return from the dead just as a former spouse is on the verge of marrying a new partner. Still, thwarted romance, in all its many guises, is a recurrent theme in reality as well as fiction.
In my next post, I'll talk about financial rescue of daytime.


Damon L. Jacobs said...

What a great post, Mark. Thank you for your time, research, and links. I wish all EP and HW's would read this!!

Brandee said...

lots of information to read here. thanks for the post!