As reported exclusively here last week, ABC Daytime has made a break with corporate tradition and confirmed new multi-year deals with One Life to Live's executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati. This is an obvious effort to quell the cancellation rumors that have plagued OLTL for months. Valentini, now in his eighth year as showrunner, has re-upped for two more. Carlivati has signed for three years. Because ABC owns its soaps, this is the closest it comes to a show pickup. But is it truly a reason to rejoice? TV Guide Magazine corralled Valentini and Carlivati to find out.
TV Guide Magazine: What do the contract renewals for you two really mean? Is this news tantamount to ABC saying OLTL will be around at least a couple more years?
Valentini: You don't renew deals with cast and production staff and you don't continue to take out money on advertising if you don't think a show is going to be around for awhile. You can never say a show will be here forever. But we can say to our audience that our network has faith in us and wants us on the air. We're here. We're going to continue telling good stories and turning out the best show we can.
TV Guide Magazine: As a rule, ABC Daytime will not discuss talent or exec deals but that's clearly changed in light of the cancellation buzz.
Valentini: In our minds, the show was never going off the air. There was this ugly rumor that got started somehow in some way, but we were not worried about cancellation.
TV Guide Magazine: Really? Given the recent loss of major soaps and the general precariousness of daytime TV, shouldn't everyone be concerned at this point?
Carlivati: I think that everyone should be, of course, but [the cancellation] of Guiding Light and As the World Turns was a different situation, what with them being owned by a sponsor rather than a network. The loss of those shows doesn't mean the rest are dropping like flies.
Valentini: We are continuing to grow OLTL and build the cast in a way that satisfies all the demands and needs in daytime — which means having new characters that shake up the canvas and telling stories with the veterans and the fan favorites that the audience can get excited about. We're now thinking about our next milestone in the history of OLTL — the 45th anniversary [in 2013], and, hopefully, we'll even have a 50th!
TV Guide Magazine: So more of the same as you move ahead? Or will you approach OLTL differently, considering these tough times in the soap business?
Carlivati: The new contracts don't necessary change the way we do things, but we are conscious of being in this new era. I'm always thinking about how I can move a story a little bit faster, or how a story might grab the audience more. We look to push the envelope and be a little more outrageous, but the flip side is that you don't want to go into panic mode and do things just to shock the audience. The trick is to stay true to your characters and the stories and believe that the audience is going to be engaged without shock value.
TV Guide Magazine: Did your renewals come with a mandate from [ABC Daytime chief] Brian Frons?
Carlivati: It's the same as always. We meet with Brian regularly and he always challenges me to look at certain aspects of the stories, to go deeper on some, to make certain stories more real for the audience. He's always telling us not to lose sight of this or that. He's very analytical and can look at a story and tell you where the flaws are. So that is the mandate he gives me going forward — to find the real emotion, to make the show relatable. I like a certain over-the-topness to stories. I like the bigness of our show. So I must find the balance to making the epic moments both relatable and soapy, so that we still have all those juicy scandals and the big secrets exploding.
Valentini: All our veteran players are under long-term contracts at this point and so all the ducks are in a row. We can use their characters fully for many years to come.
Carlivati: At the same time, our young people are one of our big strengths and we'll continue to move them into new phases of their lives. We've now moved Langston, James and Starr on to college. Dani, Destiny and Matthew still have a couple of years left to go in high school. We're already looking at young characters like Shane and Jack and thinking, "Well, when they're in high school, we can do this, this and this..." We have to keep that optimism. In our minds, the show's going to be on for a hundred years. Natalie and Jessica, Viki's twin daughters, are about to have babies — those are the future characters of the show! We were recently in a story meeting with Brian, where we were discussing a certain secret coming out, and Brian said, "It would be so much better if you held that for five years." And, of course, it's very encouraging to hear him talk that way.
TV Guide Magazine: Don't soaps need to become less simplistic and more mature if they are to succeed with the modern audience? We daytime viewers don't live in a bubble. We also watch the great shows in primetime. We know good writing from bad. We know fresh and bold from been-there-done-that. But those who make the soaps today don't always give us credit for being sophisticated and discriminating.
Carlivati: We certainly want to acknowledge what's going on in other forms of entertainment but at the same time the danger is trying to turn our shows into something they're not, something they shouldn't be. We shouldn't be imitating movies, or other TV shows, or what we see on the internet, because at heart OLTL is a soap opera and that's a form that is unique and special and has its own rules. That's the trick and the balance for us, to keep it soapy — and I don't consider that to be a dirty word. It's what our fans truly do want.
Valentini: Also, we can portray moments you can't do on Grey's Anatomy or Desperate Housewives because we have the luxury of more time and more characters and greater ability to play the nuances.
TV Guide Magazine: We seem to be in an era of relative stability at the top of most soaps. But there was a time when, if the ratings were down or the writing sucked, the executive producers and head writers would come and go so quickly it would make your head spin. Mickey Dwyer Dobbin wielded a very sharp hatchet at the P&G shows. Why don't we see more changes at the top these days, what with the ratings crisis?
Valentini: That's a very interesting question. In our case, we would like to think it's because we've been with this show for a very long time and know it intricately. The network is looking at two people they know can get the job done. Change is not always good for the audience. A new EP can often mean people getting fired. It can mean huge cast changes or huge story changes, and that's always unsettling and upsetting for the audience.
TV Guide Magazine: Care to comment on those in the press and on the message boards who claim to care about soaps but are ravenously eager to spread bad news about OLTL?
Valentini: There's nothing wrong with critiquing a show, or saying that a certain storyline didn't work, or to be extremely passionate about not liking something, but to just tear a show down without any knowledge or any understanding of what's really going on is hard to understand. Is it really worth it to say those things? A lot of information is disseminated through rumor and hearsay and it's unfortunate because it affects a lot of people. Actors will come to me having a panic attack because it says on the internet that they're getting fired — and it's not true. It's so upsetting.
Carlivati: There are some things you let roll off your back but other times it is hurtful and frustrating. You want to get on the internet and say, "That's completely not true!" But I don't because I have bigger things to be worrying about [Laughs]...like who is the father of Jessica and Natalie's babies?
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