How many times have you heard a soap writer or producer’s time at the wheel described as a “regime”? We’ve all seen discussions about writers and producers on soap blogs and message boards.
And whether we like a story or loathe it, we want to put a name to it. We’ll talk about that show-killing producer, or the hack writer who coughed up such a lousy story. And those are reasonable assumptions; after all, their names are on the marquee (or in the credits).
And yet, I keep reading information – and learning historical facts – that remind me that it’s never that simple.
As easy as it is for us to blame a certain writer for piss-poor storytelling (Megan McTavish comes to the top of my mind here), story creation is almost never a sole proprietorship.
That may have been the case with certain past writing greats (Marland, Bell, Nixon, Slesar, Labine) or with shorter, half-hour shows (another reason we should revisit 30 minute shows as a platform for story).
But we are in the age of story by committee, and have been for some time. What may start in the writers’ room as a great story might mutate dozens of times, depending on the input from networks, show owners and focus groups.
We often blame one writer or one “regime” for a good or bad twist and turn, but the truth is, we don’t always know the genesis of a story. A few recent items in the soap press reminded me of this.
One was the Soap Opera Digest interview that departing Guiding Light actor John Driscoll (Coop) gave about his story. He told SOD this about how he learned he was being let go: “I was told about it in November and I get called into Ellen’s [Wheeler, executive producer] office and all of a sudden she starts tearing up. I had this smile on my face and I said, “It’s okay. Go ahead and say it; it’s fine.” She said, CBS wants some drama and this isn’t the story we want to do, but this is the one they seemed most interested in.”
Now, as much as I hated losing Driscoll, I thought the impact of Coop’s death and aftermath was one of GL’s finest hours, at least in its recent past. I would have attributed that idea to the writing team, but the DNA of this story is now blurry. Whose idea, specifically, was it? It may not have sprung solely from the pen of the writers. Or if the writers presented the network with several choices, the network (and not the writing team) dictated the final direction.
A week or so later, another Digest article talked about where writers get story ideas from. The Young and the Restless head writer Maria Arena Bell talked about how her interest in art history led her to write the late Sabrina as a gallery owner. I found that to be a surprise, since I thought the unpopular Sabrina character had been cut from whole cloth by the hands of Lynn Marie Latham.
This week, there’s a full interview by Devin Owens with Maria Arena Bell and the legendary Paul Rauch in Digest. Rauch, who’s now Y&R’s executive producer, was asked about his experience as a producer. Owens said he was surprised at the choice of Rauch as EP at Y&R since he was so well known for more fantasy-based stories, particularly at One Life to Live.
Rauch then volunteered the following about the infamous Guiding Light clone story:
“Let’s talk about the Reva clone, and this is the first time I told this….We did a lot of different stories on OLTL, like Viki goes to heaven, Clint goes back in time, and Eterna, which, by the way, were #1-rated stories during sweeps period……However, GL is not the kind of show that should be doing stories like that. But the network and P&G (now Telenext) came to me one day and said, “We think this is a story you should do.” And there was just no saying no. When they got tired of the story, the network said, “Give Reva a drink that ages her so she’ll die and we can get out of this. I always believed that story belonged on a show like One Life to Live or Days of Our Lives or what Edge of Night used to be. It doesn’t belong on Guiding Light because that’s a show about family and social interaction.”
Now, I’m not certain that Rauch isn’t trying to rewrite history here. But if what he’s saying is true, it calls what many fans thought – that Rauch or writers Barbara Esensten and James Harmon Brown were fully responsible for the idea behind the story – into question.
The process of making soaps can sometimes be as secretive and as unclear as the inner workings of the Vatican. And at the end of the day, we still want our artists to take a bow – or take responsibility. But this reminds me that there’s seldom one creative voice at the shows.