Monday, January 14, 2008

Soaps and the writers' strike, Part 2

I've been thinking about the position of soap actors and crews during the strike, and the ways in which they are in such different circumstances from prime time casts and crews. In many ways, the fact that soap production continues speaks to the soaps' cultural standing, a standing that places the genre at the bottom of the medium, at the lowest levels of the cultural hierarchies that position HBO series at the pinnacle. There is seemingly an assumption in the industry and in the culture that soap production will go on, that soap actors will report to work, that the little matter of who does the writing is inconsequential enough for the programs to go on without it. No one has suggested that prime time series go on with scab writers, that ABC Studios hire some dudes to write and, hell, produce while they're at it, the season's back-end episodes of Lost. The late night and mock news shows seem to tread some sort of middle ground here--they go off air for awhile--their productions presumably halted without writers--but then return to air, as if they can run without writers (although of course Stewart, Leno, et al. are writing for themselves).

It's not as if Stewart, Leno, etc. have not be criticized for writing when they are purportedly on strike, so these shows' position as somehow acceptably in production after an interlude is complicated. I also see how the showrunner model of prime time, in which writing and producing are duties held by the same person, complicates the idea of keeping prime time shows in production with scab writers. Still, I do think there is something that reads as categorically different, both within the industry and outside it, for the soaps. I see this in the fact that prime time and film actors' refusal to cross a picket line kept the Golden Globes off the air, rather than the absence of a producer (an awards show would have separate people writing and producing). Like the Globes' potential producer, the soaps' producers are still working, as writing and producing duties are also separate in soaps, unlike in most US prime time series. And soap actors are still working--no Golden Globes-like refusals to cross lines there.

I'm not trying to be critical of soap actors' choices, just curiously asking why it is that there seems little doubt such workers will do their jobs while others, in other genres, will not. I know some soap actors have spent time on the picket lines and others have voiced public support for the writers' position. I also know that prime time and film actors have no contractual commitment to appear at something like the Globes, while soap actors are contractually committed to their shows. Still, I have a sense that the unquestioned continuation of soap production is attributable, at least in part, to the worker-bee identity assumed of soap workers of all kinds. Of course these folks would go to work, such an assumption would hold, as they are more like laborers than artists, more like clock-punchers than creatives. There are many concrete reasons why soap production continues unabated, but the cultural implications of those reasons are worth contemplating, as well.


Mike Roberts said...

Well, I think that part of any seeming contempt that writers of prime time shows might harbour towards the writers of soaps is a recognition of the 'dark side' of creative writing, indeed of almost ANY creative endeavour; the fact (and it IS a fact) that there is a huge degree of 'labourer' within the artistic. The prime timers don't want to face or admit that they are, at base, workmen.

Elana Levine said...

Thanks for this, Mike. You'd think that the writers' strike would expose the laborer identity of writers of all kinds moreso than it has. Still, the public support for the writers' cause does seem to suggest that people can identify/sympathize with the writers' cause, that they don't see them solely as artists, wholly removed from the work the rest of us do.

Jonathan Gray said...

I think you're definitely right to notice the link to cultural hierarchies, and it's bugged me too. I would also add that the differences assume a lot about soap audiences vis-a-vis primetime ones. In the run-up to the strike, I heard more talk about how the soaps might be "decimated" once people tune out, which though pointing to the damage that the last strike did to soaps, also posits the soap-viewer relationship as one of addiction. Remove the addiction, it seems to suggest, and people will be jonesing for "their stories," whereas the assumption is, perhaps, that primetime viewers can live without because they're more "cerebral," or "discerning" viewers in the first place.

Elana Levine said...

Excellent point, Jonathan. This sort of rhetoric is all over MSM coverage of soaps and has been for a long time. For example, moreso than the '88 writers' strike, the OJ Simpson trial is widely regarded in press coverage of the soaps as having driven viewers away. Once again, once their access to their "addiction" was interrupted they lost the urge for their fix, or so the logic goes. Soap columnist Marlena de LaCroix had a great column on this (I'm too lazy to figure out how to put a hyperlink in comments so here's the URL:
oj_didnt_do_it.html), debunking the idea that the OJ trial had such a clearcut role in the soaps' ratings decline since the mid-'90s.