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Reflections On 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From the gobsmacking visual overhaul of GUIDING LIGHT at the beginning of the year to the axing of two of daytime's biggest stars, DAYS OF OUR LIVES's Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn (soon-to-be ex-Marlena and John), in November, 2008 will be remembered by industry watchers as one in which drastic budget cuts prompted drastic moves by producers and network execs in an effort to keep the genre alive in an increasingly challenging economic environment. "This year, especially in the last six months, has been, 'We're not playing games anymore. There's no time for it,' sums up talent manager Michael Bruno, whose high-profile daytime clients include ALL MY CHILDREN's Beth Ehlers and Ricky Paull Goldin (Taylor and Jake) and DAYS's Lauren Koslow (Kate).

But if there's a spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down, it's this: In 2008, only one sudser, PASSIONS, went off the air — and it had already been canceled (by NBC in 2007; DirecTV carried the show from September 2007 to August 2008). And while most shows saw a decrease in viewership (see sidebar), the erosion "could be a lot worse, let's face it," in the words of TV Guide's Michael Logan, who also notes, "Prime- time shows like HEROES and
GREY'S ANATOMY are seeing a big drop- off in their numbers, so it's not like [dwindling ratings are] necessarily a daytime problem?'

That said, the challenge facing the runners of the eight remaining daytime dramas is a daunting one: Produce the same number of shows per year (roughly 260) for less money, hold on to the existing audience and lure in new fans, to boot. "Everyone has to do more for less?' says AS THE WORLD TURNS Executive Producer Christopher Goutman. "It's purely the nature of where we are right now?"

The most headline-grabbing responses to the ever-increasing demands for fiscally responsible production are those in cast cuts, perhaps none more so than the recent, bottom-line-dictated ousters of Hall and Hogestyn, which came on the heels of NBC's decision to renew DAYS, but pay 40 percent less to keep it on the air. However, even those actors still receiving paychecks will be taking less to the bank; with few exceptions, contract renegotiations these days result in veteran, A-list, Emmy-winners signing on the dotted line for significantly slashed salaries. (Even Susan Lucci, AMC's Erica, is not immune; her pay cut recently drew mainstream headlines.) "It's hard not to take it personally?' volunteers one long- running star who was asked to take a pay cut (and did). "But times are tough, man?"

Bruno sees this as a seismic shift in the way that shows do business. "In the beginning of this downsizing in the last few years, by which I mean, getting rid of actors altogether or cutting salaries, it has been periph eral characters [whose portrayers felt the belt-tightening]. There were some shocks in there, like a Stuart Damon [GENERAL HOSPITAL's ex-Alan], but for the most part, these people were not the big stars of their show. But this year, and I know this for a fact, they have not gone to their C players, they are now on the B tier, and that is a big thing. Every show has three or four people that they're not going to touch, but now the fifth, sixth, seventh, eleventh person of a 30-person cast, they are going to them now and saying, `We love you, we would love you to stay, however, it is a 30 percent cut. We understand if you can't do it. Let us know by 5 o'clock.' That is the reality of what's going on now?"

The economic reality of the country and the industry means that "the strong-arming from the networks can really work now," Bruno asserts. "They're rolling the dice, saying, 'Maybe we'll lose that one person [who'll walk away rather than take a pay cut], but the other nine will do it.' " Not that cast attrition will grind to a halt as performers adjust to the fact that, in Bruno's words, "Daytime is no longer a cash cow." In his expert opinion, 2008 may have started a trend with no end in sight: He predicts, "We're going to start seeing more and more people going. Bigger names, more shocking names. Younger names." Nods one West Coast actress, "Nobody is sure of what to expect and whether we'll have jobs."

But it's not just the on-camera talent that's feeling the burn. In 2008, many shows trimmed considerably from their behindthe-scenes staff. When GL revamped its production format in February, Executive Producer Ellen Wheeler acknowledged, "There are people who no longer work for us because this change means we don't have [certain] job functions anymore; they don't exist in this new model." But even shows that underwent less thoroughgoing changes decreased its crew, which ATWT EP Goutman has called "incredibly painful." Says one member of a West Coast production team, "The people behind the scenes are the most afraid about their job [security]. There are so many sweeping production cuts that it isn't funny. It seems like every day there's another crew member being let go. And," adds the insider with a dose of gallows humor, 'There isn't any money for a good-bye cake!"

Of course, the news isn't all bad. Despite some backlash from fans over its new look, for instance, GL not only sidestepped cancellation, but turned a profit. "They're saving an enormous amount of money" with their new digital production model, Bruno commends. "They're making money, and believe me, that's what gets looked at." And just because budgets are tight doesn't mean that the purse strings can't loosen when the potential benefit to a show is undeniable, as when, over the course of the year, AMC lured back '80s superstars Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams (Angie and Jesse), snapped up GL defectors Ehlers and Goldin (ex-Harley and Gus), rehired Vincent Irizarry (David) and Eden Riegel (Bianca) and added two other popular daytime alumni, Tamara Braun (Reese; ex-Carly, GH; ex-Ava, DAYS) and McKenzie West- more (Dr. Sinclair; ex-Sheridan, PASSIONS). "That show had already been gutted," observes Bruno. "The casting is very shrewd, very smart — all great moves to rebuild the show and [evidence of] less obviously panicked thinking."

And creatively, the genre is still a vibrant one, many of its employees are quick to point out. "If you look at the shows right now and you look at the shows 20 years ago, across the board, what I see on the air is far superior," offers Goutman. Production advances like the green-screen technology AMC used in its 2008 tornado sequences "brings an exciting element of prime-time to daytime," enthuses Cameron Mathison (Ryan, AMC). And good old-fashioned storytelling helped YOUNG AND RESTLESS bounce back from a lackluster 2007 says Bruno. "Y&R has really turned itself around," he raves. "They've stopped what's not working. Bringing Eileen [Davidson, Ashley] back was smart, the casting of Billy Miller [Billy], making Chloe Esther's daughter. Classic, great soap."

So, as 2008 draws to a close, the daytime landscape may be changing, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "It's a different business model every six months," allows Bruno, "but [that may] be better for the shows, and not just financially. Daytime is going to become lean and mean." And in the battle for the audience, Goutman says, the bottom line remains that "if we don't tell good story, no one's going to tune in."

"One hears all the time, 'Daytime is dying,' " concludes Bruno. "Those in the know say, 'Yeah, we've been saying that for 10 years — but we're still here.' I don't think daytime will be the same as we move for! ward, but I do think it'll still be here."
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