The strike by the Writers Guild of America is only four days old, yet its ultimate and unknown dénouement is creating more buzz than the conclusion of any storyline in soap history. Can the very low-rated nine network soaps survive the strike, or will the strike deal the entire 55-year-old television genre a fatal blow?
How and if this happens depends upon the possible outcomes of several scenarios. Unfortunately, as this is written, there is no official confirmation of how far scripts already written by the striking writers will go. ABC says it has episodes of its soaps prepared until January; other soaps are known to be shooting only three weeks ahead of their airdates. One of three alternatives will have to be utilized as soon as the current material runs out.
1. Scripts will have to written by scabs. In both the writers' strike of 1988, which lasted 22 weeks, and a short strike in 1980, anonymous scabs wrote the soaps. The scabs were said to be anyone from the shows’ producers themselves to novelists recruited by the networks. Scab-written material had long-lasting implications. I spoke with As the World Turns striking writer Douglas Marland at the time of the 1988 strike (he died in 1993) who was furious because scabs had hanged his carefully planned and crafted storylines. When the strike ended, Marland had to waste a lot of time undoing the damage; for example, un-marrying characters the scabs had married off. Primetime shows, which are episodic and mostly have conclusive endings, didn't face this problem. For soaps writers, strikes create scheduling and continuity nightmares.
On the other hand, the two previous strikes introduced new writing talents (we still called them scabs) to the medium. In the 1980 strike, a sci-fi novelist was recruited by General Hospital and he later created the wildly successful (if absurd!) Ice Princess storyline for Luke and Laura. Another scab from that strike went on to write for virtually every soap opera in the ensuing years.
2. Soaps will be replaced by soap reruns. Although soap reruns are rarely aired, except on SOAPnet, soap viewers usually love to see repeats of their favorite shows. Unfortunately, most want to see shows from the '80s and early '90s (such as Santa Barbara and General Hospital) when soaps were better written and produced than they are now. So as to not show up the weaknesses of current soaps, the reruns that may be aired during this strike will probably not be older than a year or two.
3. Soaps will be replaced by other (i.e. cheaper) forms of programming. If game shows, talk shows or any other kinds of programming (such as news and sports coverage) are substituted for striking soaps, the entire daytime medium could be doomed. Soap ratings are so low now that any kind of shows that can do better numbers in their time slots may well be picked to replace the soaps themselves. Permanently.
Blanket cancellation is, of course, the nightmare scenario for daytime soaps. Since the beginning of television in the '50s, they have occupied extremely lucrative advertiser-desirable network afternoon timeslots. These slots are coveted by producers of all sorts of daytime shows, such as talk, game and even female-interest home improvement shows now seen on cable. If soaps are cancelled due to the effects of a long writers strike, soap fans may indeed experience their final opportunity to tune in tomorrow.