A handful of soap writers quietly types new scripts

Concern over jobs and the genre's survival lures workers

January 03, 2008|By Lynn Smith

When talks broke down last month between the studios and striking writers, it began to hit home that scribes could be jobless for many months to come. One of those writers finally made the agonizing decision to stop picketing and go back to work.

The writer's show, a daytime soap, had run out of scripts. To this writer, the moral choice lay in keeping the show on the air.

"Daytime serials are not in a healthy situation," said the writer, who asked for anonymity, fearing fallout from both sides in the complex and highly charged standoff. "If we can keep shows on the air, I perceive it as something that needs to be done for the future generation of writers."

Although most daytime writers have joined their colleagues on the picket lines, others -- fearing for their jobs or the survival of the soap genre altogether -- quietly have gone back to work. Even those who are still picketing say soap writers' issues are unique.

Residuals, for instance, a key area of disagreement between the studios and the Writers Guild of America, are not an issue for them because their shows are rarely rerun. Instead, their interests tend to focus on health and pension benefits and minimum salary for the Internet, one place where the genre -- whose audience for the daytime perennials has been dwindling -- possibly could survive.

It's believed that during strikes in the 1980s, scab writers were hired to keep the soaps going. Some writers currently on strike say producers have tried to lure them back with promises of anonymity. And because the estimated 110 daytime writers are spread out geographically, many working at home, it would be relatively easy to keep such deals quiet.

Others, such as the writer quoted above, are starting to take advantage of a little-known inactive status known as "financial core" that allows union members to return to work without censure.

"You resign your membership but continue to pay dues," the writer said about the financial-core designation. "They [the Guild] still represent you. You still have your health care, your pension. It's absolutely fair. You remain involved in the protections that the union offers, and you support them financially. There are many reasons people make that decision."

The WGA would not disclose the number of members who've opted for financial-core status. "We don't think it's an issue, but since this is an internal matter, we choose not to comment," said WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell.

To encourage more writers' interest in the financial-core option, the studios' representatives placed a Q&A list about the process on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers Web site.

According to this site, members do not have to do anything to seek financial-core status. They simply choose to work, and the WGA has no right to impose discipline. A WGA site, however, said members must resign first in writing. It is not necessary to prove financial hardship. Financial-core writers may no longer vote or run for office. They also may continue to work without formal repercussions, and the union continues to represent them in bargaining negotiations.

Some might choose financial-core status because they need an income; others because they disagree with the union's politics.

More writers might consider the "fi-core" alternative, as it is called, if the strike stretches out. "In a month, things could change dramatically," said Bob Guza, the head writer and producer on General Hospital.

So far, the networks have continued showing original episodes of soaps. One reason is that many shows had been stockpiling scripts for almost a year in preparation for the strike.

Another, and one hardly anyone wants to talk about, is that the networks apparently have replaced striking writers with nonunion members, producers, scabs and "fi-core" writers. Viewers have yet to see or judge the work of the replacements, but some say that the stockpiled scripts soon will run out. Depending on the show, that could be anywhere from a few weeks to two months from now. A General Hospital writer said that the last team-written script aired yesterday and that the last team-created story line would begin airing tomorrow.

Many of the soap writers on the picket line that day said they had expected scabs to keep the shows going.

Michelle Patrick, who writes for ABC's All My Children in New York, said the show would continue, "because they've got people scabbing in there. We don't know who. They shield their identity to protect them from repercussions from the Guild. They work through e-mail, with false names."

Some writers were angry at the "fi-core" writers as well, as their actions are said to prolong the strike.

Most, however, refused to judge their colleagues who've opted for financial-core status, and they called it a wrenching decision.

"I know one woman with three children in three private schools. Her husband is retired. She hates it, but she had to do it," said Rick Draughon of Days of Our Lives. "I wish it wasn't happening, but you can't judge someone else's situation."

Lynn Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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