Deidre Hall and Chandler Massey
They created the brave, ballsy storyline everyone is raving about — the coming out of Will Horton — but Days of Our Lives head writers Marlene McPherson and Darrell Ray Thomas are now out of a job. They've been replaced by a new writing team headed by suds vets Gary Tomlin and Chris Whitesell, who previously served as co-head writers on the NBC soap. Is this a sincere, concerted effort to raise the ratings and save Days from cancellation? Or yet another example of deadly network interference? TV Guide Magazine spoke with Days co-executive producer Greg Meng about this unexpected development.
TV Guide Magazine: Word is, NBC instigated this writer change. Is that the case?
Meng: We spoke with the network and collectively felt we needed to take a pause, make a change with the writing and the style of the show for a while and see if that will redirect things. The ratings situation is very complex and difficult, and we have a tremendous challenge with that right now. Everybody on the Days team, and that includes NBC and Sony, our distributor, wants this show to succeed and we're doing everything we can to make it work. We all have different visions as to how to achieve that success but the good news is that we're all in synch on the future. No one wants cancellation. Even though we brought in Darrell and Marlene to reset Days last September, it was always our feeling that the show needed to constantly be nurtured with smaller resets. This isn't the end of the world. We're just resetting it again in an effort to get it right.
TV Guide Magazine: Why couldn't that be done with Darrell and Marlene? It's not like they were stinking up the joint. They seem to be a very promising team and their very best work — Will's coming-out story — is better than anything anyone in soaps has written in years. Surely there was something there worth retaining.
Meng: Marlene and Darrell brought such a fresh energy to Days and really honored the tradition and values of the show. They had an impossible job turning everything around on a dime. And they left us in a very good place.
TV Guide Magazine: After the firing, Marlene tweeted that NBC "never let us tell our stories. They kept stopping us and changing our direction." You got a comment?
Meng: I can't really address where she's coming from. She and Darrell loved the show so much and it became a part of their lives. We definitely want to retain a relationship with them.
TV Guide Magazine: Why wasn't this fixable with them?
Meng: It was a unique situation. We have this big elephant in the room — the ratings. And we are not seeing any movement. The goal is to have a long life on NBC and we must do everything we can to get the ratings up. It's that simple. That said, Sony's research tells us that one out of four of our viewers is not being measured by Nielsen. That's a pretty big percentage and I don't think they're even counting the SoapNet replays in that information.
TV Guide Magazine: Is NBC aware of this research?
Meng: We are about to discuss all that with them.
TV Guide Magazine: It would certainly be worse if the network didn't appear to give a crap about Days, like we saw happen with the ABC soaps. But do they really know what's best here? We're talking about NBC. They're pretty much failing at everything these days.
Meng: Everyone does not agree on the creative points but we do have tremendous enthusiasm from Bruce Evans and Rebecca McGill, the two network representatives. They are hands on, very encouraging, and supporting us in every way they can. So that's very valuable.
TV Guide Magazine: When are you up for renewal?
Meng: Our current deal has us on the air through to September 2013, so it's really important that we do as best as we can, ratings-wise, starting [this] September. That's our final stretch.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about the new team. It wasn't that long ago that you fired Gary Tomlin as exec producer. Now he's back as a head writer. What's the thinking there?
Meng: The thinking was that Gary knows the show and is as up-to-date as anybody. He hasn't written for Days for many years. He knows the characters, and we want the show to continue to be character-driven.
TV Guide Magazine: And Chris Whitesell?
Meng: Lately I've had the luxury of getting to meet the best of the daytime writers. When in history have so many of them been available? I started formulating chemistry ideas. Who'd work well with Gary? Whitesell was at The Young and the Restless doing outlines, I believe, and it seemed to us like he and Gary would be great collaborators. They are not yes men. They really bring things to the table. Their energy together is great.
TV Guide Magazine: You've also expanded the writing team to include Lorraine Broderick, who won the respect of all of us when she came in to give All My Children a proper sendoff.
Meng: I really wanted Lorraine. She has worked with both Gary and Chris, and never really had the opportunity to work at Days, though we did have a deal in the works with her several years ago that didn't happen. She's on board as an outline writer and she's very excited. We think it's a dream team.
TV Guide Magazine: When will the new material begin to air?
Meng: Probably mid-August. We're that far ahead. But we have some really big stuff coming up in the next few months, especially prior to the Olympics. We're off the air two weeks during the Games but the week leading up to that is huge and it ends in a great cliffhanger. Then there are a lot of surprises the Monday we come back. You won't want to miss those episodes.
TV Guide Magazine: The late James Reilly brought Days some of its best ratings and greatest notoriety with premature burial, devil possession and other wackadoo stuff. There's been rumor that NBC wants to see a return to that. Do you see this happening in some form?
Meng: That worked at the time for the moment, but it's a different era now. We're finding people want more reality and balance, especially in these trying times. We don't want to go cheesy, not that anything we did in the past was cheesy. We just want to be respectful to the show. What we're hearing is that people want really good romance.
TV Guide Magazine: Or just straight romance? Could it be possible that the mainstream Days audience does not want to watch the gay storyline and where it might be going? ABC claimed that was the case when One Life to Live suddenly dropped the Kish romance.
Meng: I don't know. I think it's a beautiful story and we are committed to it. But probably it's not the story that most women are going to tune in for every day, the one they don't want to miss. I think it's a story everybody likes, but the women want to see romance. Our goal is to get back lapsed viewers — our family of viewers who stopped watching altogether or aren't watching us every day.
TV Guide Magazine: If romance is what people want, could the problem be that most of your major couples have split up or been separated by circumstance? We're talking about John and Marlena, Bo and Hope, Carrie and Austin, Sami and Rafe, Nicole and EJ. That's a lot.
Meng: People do want to see those couples but the problem is you can't tell good story when couples are together and everything's all hunky-dory. That's the challenge Darrell and Marlene have been up against. They tried some unique ways to split up those couples yet that hasn't quite worked. But they get an A-plus for effort. In hindsight, I do think too many couples splitting up has been an issue. We also brought in the wonderful Sarah Brown [Madison] and threw her into a lot of material very quickly. Maybe too much too quickly. But, again, we feel like we're in a great place to make the next step.
TV Guide Magazine: Is that "next step" going to involve some major actors going away?
Meng: Yes. We're looking at weaving people in and out, and bringing them back later if we can.
TV Guide Magazine: Will it be as shocking as, say, the time you axed Drake Hogestyn and Deidre Hall a few years back? Will these firings be epic?
Meng: Yes. And that's all I'm going to say about that right now.
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