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Who Killed Susan Lucci?

05 May 2011 @ 09:49

I meant to get to this subject over a week ago, but I’ve been too busy planning the best ways to Offend Feminists for fun and soul-satisfying profit…

In a fine bit of reportage and commentary, Kyle Smith looks at what is killing that classic American institution: the Soap Opera.  They’ve been around entertaining audiences since organized radio first began and now they are well on the road to extinction, with only a few left — and they’re on life support [tune in tomorrow to see if Laura lives!].

So, here’s the question: is there one cause for this decline or can many factors be blamed?

As in most things, it is the latter.  However, in this case there is one overriding cause agent of destruction at work and it is something that we all know too well in these dark times.

I’ll let Mr. Smith take it from here:

This month ABC killed off “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.” All eyes were on the obvious suspect, ABC Daytime president Brian Frons, who joined a long line of CBS and NBC execs who have been bumping off shows like “As the World Turns,” “Guiding Light” and “Another World.” He told Deadline.com he “pre-entered the witness protection program” before bringing down the ax.

But a good soap needs a twist, a nefarious power behind the dastardly deed. The ultimate villain, lurking in the shadows, is . . . collective bargaining.

The soaps’ failure, and the rise of the cheap reality TV shows that will replace them, is just the latest episode in a story that was old when “Days of Our Lives” hit the air in 1965. Whenever a business is bleeding, there’s often a union holding a bloody knife and a dazed “Who, me?” expression — like 6-year-old Michael Myers in “Halloween.”

Unions drive up costs and customers flee to non-union competitors like JetBlue or imports like Toyota. GM and American Airlines declare bankruptcy and renegotiate union deals.

The soaps are effectively an industry heading for bankruptcy, and even union members realize it.

In the last decade, soaps have been trying to cut costs to the bone. But those bones are covered in the impenetrable gristle of AFTRA (the daytime actors union), WGA (the writers guild), the DGA (directors) and the backstage union IATSE.

“One Life to Live’s” diva Robin Strasser, who started a hilarious Twitter feed to swat at the network for canceling her show, says that in recent years, “The actors took huge pay cuts. Our directors, people who have won DGA awards, cut their salaries back to DGA minimum. They took a bullet for the team.” But costs can only be cut so far. Union minimums and benefits are set in stone.

Soaps are “certainly not expensive by other entertainment gauges,” says former producer Michael Laibson, a leader of the creative teams at “All My Children” and “Guiding Light.” But “they don’t pay the people [on reality TV] the same kinds of wages. The acting, the above-the-line costs [for creative talent] are much higher on soaps. Generally, on a soap there are about 30 actors that are under contract so they have a guaranteed number of performances per week and a guaranteed salary per performance.”

Union super-minimum wages lead directly to high unemployment. AFTRA requires each of the main performers to be paid at least $913 a day, but stars get much more.

What is happening to soaps is merely the result of a much bigger problem that will not surprise you:

Are the soaps like the US textile industry — doomed to be killed by cheap competition?

Not really. The soap industry is highly skilled, and “Days of Our Lives” is a more polished product than “The Biggest Loser.” Soaps are more like airlines. The value of their product has dwindled rapidly, but unions don’t provide flexibility for trimming costs to keep up. Since soaps aren’t a separate industry, they can’t use bankruptcy as a wedge to reopen contracts and make cuts. An AFTRA source who didn’t want to be identified says, “We’re certainly mindful of the challenges the industry faces,” although not mindful enough to back down on their main goal: “We want to increase pay and benefits for our members.”

Hundreds of IATSE members are going to be out of work. Even unionized reality programs like ABC’s upcoming soap replacements “The Chew” (Mario Batali cooking show) and “The Revolution” (a “Biggest Loser”-style weight-loss show) will bring far fewer jobs in makeup, costumes, set moving, etc.

Maybe renegotiating the daytime serials portion of the contract would have beaten layoffs. But from the unions’ perspective, any concession sets a dangerous precedent. If they take a hit on daytime, isn’t that an invitation to cut prime-time contracts? So unions will continue to shrug at reality and the marketplace will continue to punish them.

At some point, union cost differentials become so absurd that productions get outsourced. Showtime’s “The Borgias” was shot in Hungary. China was happy to not only host production of the remake of “The Karate Kid” but to write a large check for the opportunity.

It seems to me I’ve heard this song before.

As for Miss Lucci: I doubt if she will want for work [hello Lifetime!], but if you have any problems my dear, old Bobby Bel is available to console you.

2 Comments
  1. 05 May 2011 @ 09:54 09:54

    I thought that Susan Lucci was really dead when I first read the title.. 🙂

    I can’t confirm this for sure but I did hear through the grapevine that she might be a Republican.. Hence her many past nominations but only one win (IIRC) for a daytime emmy.

    Everything is politics.

  2. bobbelvedere permalink*
    07 May 2011 @ 17:45 17:45

    DaveC: I heard the same thing too. As for the post title: for years I though the best job for me would be headline writer for the New York Post.

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