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When the 'World' Stops Turning

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When the 'World' Stops Turning
When CBS announced Dec. 8 that it was canceling the 54-year-old soap opera "As the World Turns," the news was less surprising than spotting Meryl Streep in a "For your consideration" ad. Eye Network president Nina Tassler had cast doubt on the show's future at the August upfronts, when she told the New York Post that the program was "having ratings challenges" and that its health was being closely watched. A month later, the final episode of another CBS daytime stalwart, "Guiding Light," then the longest-running scripted program on television, aired.

As a genre, soaps are not faring well. In a cost-cutting effort, ABC's "All My Children" will vacate its New York studio and begin shooting in Southern California in January, while another ABC soap, "One Life to Live," is rumored to be on deathwatch. After "As the World Turns" leaves the airwaves next September, there will be only five daytime dramas left on network television. Only one of those shows—the not-so-sturdy "One Life to Live"—will be shot in New York.

"The first response is one of deep sorrow," Holter Graham, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists' New York division, said about the news. "We're losing yet another in what has for a long time been one of AFTRA and New York's stable performance opportunities."

For decades, hundreds of working New York actors have relied on a steady stream of opportunities flowing from the soaps. But that source is now all but dry. Graham insisted that the problem is not indicative of the city's status as a TV production hub in general but rather the case of a particular—and particularly old—form of television entering its final days.

"The writing was on the wall about daytime and that it was a changing market a long time ago," Graham said. "The economic crisis given to us by the Bush administration sped up that process and made that writing on the wall bright yellow highlighter."

Of greater import to the New York actor's state of mind, according to Graham, are local government attitudes toward incentivizing film and TV production. Since 2004, productions shot in New York have been eligible for a 30 percent tax rebate from the state on all below-the-line costs and a 5 percent rebate from the city. But funding for the city program ran out in July, and the state program is expected to be tapped out soon. Legislation to refill the coffers of both is pending in Albany. Meanwhile, Graham worries that a new city shooting fee may act as a disincentive to producing in New York.

Fee Fi Fo Fum

In August, the city's Department of Citywide Administrative Services announced that it would begin charging a nonrefundable $3,200 fee for permits to shoot on municipal property. Graham called the new rule, scheduled to go into effect Dec. 23, "idiocy," likening it to a controversial proposal abandoned by the state in March to tax Broadway theater tickets $5 to $10. But Julianne Cho, associate commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting, defended the DCAS decision in a written statement to Back Stage.

"The activity at the DCAS buildings represents less than 5 percent of the total location shooting that occurs in New York City, affecting only a fraction of productions," Cho said. "In these tough economic times, we're striving to maintain the best level of customer service while at the same time cover administrative costs associated with the use of city buildings by productions."

Cho pointed out that private locations often charge as much as $10,000 per day, while the DCAS fee covers the entire length of a shoot, and that the city offers other incentives, such as free parking and police assistance, that save productions an estimated $19,000 per week.

Ed Frye, chair of AFTRA's New York legislative committee, doesn't discount the value of the city's contributions. "One of the virtues of the Bloomberg administration's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting is they've really made an effort in trying to streamline production here in New York to make it as simple and easy for producers to come here and work as possible," Frye said. "They've been very helpful and, I think, very successful." But referring to the new shooting fee, he added, "Things like this are exactly, in our opinion, the wrong thing."

And while the outlook is encouraging that funding will be approved for another year of city and state tax-incentive programs, Frye bemoans the lack of will in the Legislature to make a long-term commitment to them. As proof of the tax credits' effectiveness, he pointed to a January study by the accounting firm Ernst & Young that found that while tax credits cost the city and state $215 million, they generated $404 million in tax revenue and helped keep or create 19,500 jobs.

True West

While few would argue that the demise of a soap opera is a sign of the end times, it means that a lot of actors are suddenly out of work, and they could be facing tough days ahead. Already, according to Frye, the 2010 pilot season is expected to look a lot like the 2009 version, when only two pilots were shot in the city, compared with 19 the previous year.

"If there were clear signals from New York state that some kind of continued, multiyear program was going to take place, then that would certainly help to influence some of these decisions about where these pilots can and will be shot," Frye said. "I don't think it's too late."

Alexandra Chando has had pilot season on her mind lately. A cast member on "As the World Turns" from 2005 to 2007 (during which time she earned an Emmy nomination), Chando returned to the show in September for a short-term engagement. Along with her cast mates, she was distraught over the cancellation, which came just days after she shot what will likely be her final episode. But she had already moved on to the next stage in her career. Come January, Chando will be leaving New York and relocating to Los Angeles.

"Before I was on the show, I would go out to L.A. for pilot season," Chando said. "I knew it was someplace that I wanted to be, only because things move a lot quicker in L.A. What it comes down to is that I'm at an age right now where it's a good age to move out to L.A. and start working on my career more seriously."   

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