In the event of a Writer Guild of America (WGA) strike next week, you can expect your favorite daytime soaps to do a lot of behind-the-scenes scrambling to make sure that the onscreen saga continues without repeats or substitution.
During the last two writers strikes in 1988 and 2007-08 — which each lasted at least 100 days — the production teams paused to develop a game plan on how to proceed without veterans to produce five scripts per week, according to Jill Farren-Phelps, nine-time Daytime Emmy winner for executive producing “The Young and the Restless,” “General Hospital” and “Santa Barbara.”
“The shows shut down for at least a week so that ‘writing teams’ could be fashioned out of whomever was ready and willing and able and thoughts could be organized,” she said.
The same is likely to happen if the WGA fails to forge a new deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by the time the current contract expires on May 1.
A long walkout would have a big impact on writer-intensive shows like soap operas — which typically operate only a few weeks in advance of airdate. During the last two strikes, some WGA members crossed the picket lines and wrote under pseudonyms (a.k.a., “scabs”), while others were non-union seizing the opportunity to get their foot in the business.
Most were experienced union members who declared themselves “Financial Core,” a term used for those who resign their WGA membership to continue earning a living as a writer on union shows. But doing so means forfeiting the rights of membership, including voting privileges and competing for WGA awards.
“Did we panic? I don’t think we had time,” she said. “This was pedal to the metal time and we had to do a good job under extreme circumstances.”
Because head writers and co-head writers keep tight control on the trajectory of storylines, Phelps said, “It’s very difficult to pick up where writers leave off and do exactly what the writers would have done.”
One unlikely consequence of the strike was that the show’s producers tended to loosen the purse strings and the usual controls just to get episodes finished. “During a strike, the financial constraints are all but released because the writers are no longer being paid so sets can be created and most of the money rules that strangle daytime are gone,” Phelps said.
“Plus, the network knowing how much pressure everyone is under to just get the show out, significantly dials back on notes. A lot of advantages were given to the ‘fake’ writers.”
During the 155-day 1988 WGA strike, Phelps was the EP at “Santa Barbara” and recalled it being much more “brutal” because experienced writers were far less likely to declare themselves “financial core.”
“We were totally unprepared for what it meant to write a soap,” Phelps says. “Whoever could write was writing. I spent 11 months in a crappy motel with a petrified pigeon outside on the ‘patio’ who’d had the misfortune of flying into a palm tree.”
When the 2007-08 strike happened, many writers who had been badly hurt financially by the previous strike didn’t have the appetite for another one. Those who chose to continue writing for their show were later faced with awkward situations when the strike was over and picketing writers returned.
“A division occurred between the writers who couldn’t afford to lose that much income for so long — especially if the strike went on as long as the 1987 one did — and the WGA loyalists who would not work during a strike,” Phelps remembers. “Everyone was trying to do the right thing for themselves and for their shows, but it was tense.”