A Real Cliffhanger

Alice Ann McHenry has watched soap operas nearly every weekday of her life since she was 15 years old. She's now 52. "They're my main source of entertainment," says McHenry, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and is a devotee of "Days of Our Lives," "The Young and the Restless," "As the World Turns" and "General Hospital." If she has to go somewhere during the day, she makes sure to tape episodes on her new VCR. The characters, she says, "are like family. I like the couples, like ['Days of Our Lives' '] Bo and Hope. I like the fact that they've held steady all these years." So it worried her when, in the week between Christmas and New Year's, "The Young and the Restless" uncharacteristically went into reruns for a few days. "I didn't mind seeing Victoria fall into a coma again," she says. "But they haven't done that before that I can remember."

With writers crafting picket signs instead of dialogue since they went on strike in November, most, if not all, of the eight daytime soaps currently on the air will have run out of WGA-member-written scripts by February. That prospect might not be devastating to a prime-time show like "Lost," but it could mean lost audiences for daytime soaps. With their serialized plots and dependence on cliffhangers, soap operas don't have much wiggle room. If storylines are interrupted, audiences have been known to tune out for good. Which is why many producers in the past month have stealthily turned to using scab writers who aren't members of the Writers Guild of America. "When the lights go out, the lights go out," says one network head of daytime programming, who confirmed the use of nonunion writers and requested anonymity talking about the issue. "History has shown us that when we suffer long pre-emption there's an erosion that's very hard to recover from." Network execs saw it happen during the writers' strike in 1988, and again in the mid-1990s, when the O. J. Simpson trial offered the promise of more riveting drama than anything on "One Life to Live."

Even if the strike is settled soon (there was hope of that after the Directors Guild agreed to a new contract last week), that won't cure the soaps' ills. Thanks to competition from cable TV and the Internet, and the fact that fewer women stay home, audiences have been defecting faster than the patients at "General Hospital" (which has never had as big a hit as when 30 million viewers tuned in to watch Luke and Laura wed in 1981). In the soapy heyday of the mid-1980s, some 50 million people—mostly women—were following at least one show, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Today the average soap gets fewer than 1 million viewers a day. NBC last year announced that "Days of Our Lives," which debuted in 1965, was "unlikely" to continue past 2009 when its license agreement expires. It also canceled "Passions" after an eight-year run, replacing it with an extra hour of the more profitable "Today" show.

Since the strike began, producers have been keeping the shows on life support by writing the scripts themselves—and in some cases using nonunion writers to do it. A handful of WGA scribes have gone on what is known in industry parlance as "fi-core" status, short for "financial core," a little-used and controversial measure whereby they resign from the guild in order to go back to work, but continue to pay union dues in exchange for certain benefits like health insurance. "They're essentially writing in secret, sticking scripts under doors and over the transom," says Karen Harris, a writer for "General Hospital" and chair of the WGA's daytime-television committee. Producers of several shows contacted by NEWSWEEK declined to comment.

Whenever the writers and producers make their peace, the hope is that the Internet can save the genre. NBC released its newest soap, "Coastal Dreams" (sponsored entirely by Stayfree Maxi Pads), exclusively on the Internet. That, says the WGA, is why it's critical for soap writers—and there are about 70—to support the strike and hold out for a set percentage of profits for work that airs on the Internet, something networks have resisted. "It's critical for us," says Harris. "Serialized dramas are going to be the vanguard" for Internet programming.

In the meantime, networks have been trying to revamp their shows in hopes of retaining viewers and possibly even attracting new ones. Last year ABC took a page from the Fox hit "24" for "General Hospital" when it featured a 16-episode story, set in real time, about an explosion and hostage crisis. In late February, CBS aims to launch new versions of "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns": many more scenes will be shot outdoors or on location, in hopes that more-dynamic visuals will attract younger viewers.

But even soap stalwarts are beginning to accept that such changes may not be enough. Veteran Arleen Sorkin, best- known for her role as "Days of Our Lives" ' lovable Calliope Jones, remembers the days when her grandmother's biscuit recipe "literally said, 'Put the biscuits in the oven before "Edge of Night" and then take them out before the start of "Secret Storm",' " she says. "It really makes me sad what's happening." It also pains fans like Alice Ann McHenry. If all the characters she's come to love and hate were to disappear for good, "it would make me very, very unhappy," she says. "These shows really do mean a lot to a lot of people." Yes, to a lot of people, but maybe not to enough.