Changing Channels

When Daniel Kennedy landed a recurring role on All My Children last year, he quit waiting tables, moved into his own apartment, and began concentrating solely on acting. Earlier this spring, he got his real estate license and is now a full-time real estate agent in Manhattan—even though he still works on the long-running daytime drama once or twice a week.

Asked why he is pursuing a second career, the Juilliard graduate said, "Because Guiding Light was canceled and I have to think ahead."

On April 1, CBS announced it would cancel the longest-running scripted series in broadcast history. The last episode of Guiding Light, which started on radio in 1937 and has been on TV since 1952, will air Sept. 18. The program will be replaced by a cheaper-to-produce game show or talk show. Officials of Procter & Gamble Productions, which owns the series, are looking for another outlet, either on cable or online, but the ratings for soaps have been declining for years and the genre's long-term viability on the broadcast networks is dubious.

If that were the only change afoot for broadcast television, working actors might not be so anxious these days. But a faltering economy, combined with the proliferation of digital video recorders and Web-based video, are driving ad revenue down, at least in the short term, and threatening the long-term business model of free, ad-supported television—typically the most lucrative form of employment for actors. In addition, the aftereffects of the writers strike and the real-life soap opera surrounding the performers' unions have slowed production over the past 18 months, making the process of finding work more difficult than usual.

Ravi Patel is one of the lucky ones. He landed a role in the pilot Past Life, a one-hour drama that Fox just picked up for its fall schedule, and the Los Angeles–based actor will shoot at least 12 more episodes. Getting a role on a successful series on a Big Four network is still the best ticket to long-term financial stability for most actors: A third or fourth banana on a sitcom can earn $30,000 an episode or more.

Despite his good fortune, and although he has been working as a full-time actor for only four years, Patel has seen enough to know that things are tough in TV land, even for actors, who are accustomed to living with uncertainty, financial and otherwise. "It's been a mess," he said. "You have a number of forces at work that have made this pilot season particularly stressful on the talent side, but also for everyone in entertainment."

More Talk, Less Action

Some of those forces, such as the recession and union trouble, are cyclical or temporary. Others—new media, the splintering of the audience, the entrenchment of reality television, and the slow demise of daytime drama—are more permanent and will alter programming for ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. For now, they all spell trouble for actors.

In an Atlantic Monthly article in March, Michael Hirschorn crystallized the situation when he wrote, "Amid an economic downturn that's calling into question most old-school business strategies, the underpinnings of much of the mainstream television business are coming unstuck—and the first casualty may be the profusion of triple-decker, lavishly produced, scripted television that we've all taken for granted."

The jumping-off point for Hirschorn's article, titled "The Future Is Cheese," was the decision by NBC to move Jay Leno next season from his longtime post as host of The Tonight Show to a new talk show in the 10 o'clock hour of prime time five days a week.

For three decades, beginning with Hill Street Blues in 1981, the 10–11 p.m. time slot on NBC was the premier showcase for hourlong dramas, where actors could earn a very nice paycheck and do quality work besides. St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Law & Order, and ER were just a few of the critically and commercially successful programs that formed the backbone of what would become Must-See TV.

Trouble is, those shows cost a lot of money to produce—$3 million an episode or more. For a typical 22-episode season, that's $66 million. An hourlong program runs about 44 minutes, leaving 14 or 15 minutes for ads (network promotions for other programming account for 1–2 minutes). For a top-rated show, a network can sell ads at about $500,000 a minute, which would yield $7 million per episode. The $4 million gross profit enables a network to develop other scripted programs, the majority of which fail to last a single season.

When the economy is booming, or at least growing, the model works well enough. But in a deep recession, ad revenue may decline by as much as 15 percent next season, according to an analysis by Barclay's Capital. As a result, program development has gotten chancier for NBC, which has finished last in the ratings among the Big Four the past two seasons.

So now Leno has a show in prime time. Even if he earns $30 million a year, as some reports have suggested, his salary represents less than one-tenth the cost of developing and producing five different dramas in the same time slot. On NBC's fall schedule, there will be 10 scripted series, compared to 13 last season. The network will pick up an additional scripted show in the winter, when Sunday Night Football goes off the air.

Quick Exit for 'Kings'

A prime-time talk show isn't the only indication of NBC's skittishness when it comes to developing drama. Earlier this season, the network pulled Kings—what Hirschorn would call "lavishly produced, scripted television"—from its Sunday 9 p.m. time slot after four episodes. It wasn't just that it had poor ratings at the start; it was losing viewers for the program that followed it: Celebrity Apprentice, a reality show. Kings was moved to the no-man's land of Saturday night and does not appear to be returning next season.

Assaf Cohen, an actor and member of the Screen Actors Guild's Hollywood board, is troubled by the potential loss of work for performers. (In any given episode, a one-hour drama can have from 25 to 50 speaking roles and 25 or more background roles.) Nevertheless, he understands NBC's predicament.

"It is disconcerting, but we have to put ourselves in the networks' shoes and understand why they're making these choices," Cohen said. "We're not defending their choices, but we're doing our best to understand them, so we can best move forward to increase the options for scripted material."

One bright spot, he added, is the proliferation of series on basic and premium cable. Cohen himself was cast recently in a USA pilot, Operating Instructions, which he hopes will be picked up soon. "You see networks like USA, TNT, AMC expanding scripted television," he said. "Starz is increasing its scripted shows. There's a clear trend, as the FCC still maintains strict regulation on broadcast, scripted TV is expanding on cable."

Still, compensation for actors on cable is generally not as lucrative as on broadcast TV, particularly when it comes to residuals. An actor gets paid every time a show is re-run on an over-the-air network. But on cable, series contracts are less uniform; oftentimes an episode can be re-run seven to 15 times before actors see a cent.

Dark Days Ahead?

Though nighttime drama has found other avenues on cable, daytime drama might not be so fortunate. In addition to CBS canceling Guiding Light, producers of All My Children instituted salary cuts in November. From Susan Lucci on down, every actor's salary was reduced. And ABC announced earlier this month that it was producing a daytime talk show with actor-comedian Aisha Tyler. Though executives told The Hollywood Reporter that it was for syndication or cable, there was speculation it could be shown on ABC in the afternoon, where All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital currently reside.

Actor Ricky Paull Goldin has worked on soaps on all three networks for the better part of two decades. When he switched from Guiding Light to All My Children two years ago, he voluntarily took a 22 percent pay cut. "I would rather work and have a contract for less money with more stability and less stress in my life," he said. And, despite the precarious position daytime drama is in, he prefers his current situation to sweating out pilot season every year, hoping a nighttime series not only gets picked up but runs for more than 13 episodes before being canceled.

"A daytime series is the only job in the world where you can turn around and the guy in the cast with you has been on the show 27 years," Goldin said. "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme, trust me. But it is about the work and is about the longevity, and it's still entertainment, and you're still in the top 6 percent of the people in the world who try to go after this. The long and short of that is, I feel blessed."

Goldin is blessed—as are Kennedy, Patel, Cohen, and others who are regularly in the mix. The question becomes, how much longer will they be? For Cohen, it's not time to worry just yet, despite the recession and the rise of new media.

"The fact is that the networks are putting so much money into television," he said. "Right now the money is coming through the advertisers. Even if there is less of it, it's still the dominant way through which the networks are earning their revenue.… I think new media is certainly expanding, but certainly for the next few years, broadcast is still the dominant and primary format by which most Americans are viewing television."