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Financial Times

Bundles of one dollar bills
Credit: Getty

Soaps were once so flush with cash that hefty star salaries — not to mention extravagant costumes, location shoots and other spendy habits — were par for the course. Not so in today’s climate, where the slashing of budgets has made an impact on both sides of the camera.
“I think in the past, if your first contract was at a certain level, you could expect a bump up when you renegotiated, if you’ve proven your worth to the show as a popular character,” shares one performer. “But nowadays, raises are hard to come by, at least ones that make an actual difference in your quality of life. It might be something nominal, but it’s not going to bring you up even remotely to the level of someone who signed on previous to the budget-conscious era.”

“That’s where you used to make your money,” nods another source. “You used to make your money in renegotiations. But these days, they’ll go, ‘Okay, we’ll give you $100, and you’re lucky that we’re re-signing you.’ ”

The way talent deals are structured have taken on a new meaning in this belt-tightening era. “There are two parts to all deals,” explains one insider. “Money [an actor’s rate of pay per episode] and a guarantee of [how many shows per week] an actor will work. For many years, you didn’t care about the guarantee, because the actor was probably going to get written for. Now, you really have to try to keep the guarantee at two shows a week because they write towards the guarantee much more than they ever have. It used to be that even if you had a two guarantee, for the most part, if you were working, over the course of the year it would come out to three-and-a-half. Now? It really is at a two.”

And the powers-that-be keep their eye on the bottom line when it comes to how much each actor is earning. “If [producers] see that someone who is guaranteed two shows a week and should be in 104 shows [over the course of a year] is at 106, they’ll say, ‘Wait a second, pull back. Don’t write them for x amount of weeks to get caught up,’ ” elaborates the source. “On the flip side of that, they don’t want to pay people for doing nothing, so then when you have someone under a guarantee — let’s say you have 104 and all of a sudden they’re at 70, and in five weeks they’re supposed to be at 104 — they don’t want to write a big check, so then they go, ‘We need to write them.’ ”

Laments one veteran actor, “There’s this constant whittling down of the number of shows you do, the number of dollars you work for. My day rate, that hasn’t been cut, but I’m making substantially less than I used to because my guarantee is a lot lower than it was [in previous contracts].”
Though the four remaining soaps survived the severe budget cuts of the last decade, salaries never bounced back once the economy recovered. “There’s still money out there,” bemoans one star. “These days, you’ll see it go to an elite few, actors who the networks believe will keep eyes glued to their shows, or it will be spent on returning favorites who the network feels can pull in lapsed viewers. But if you’re not on that very short list, you’re pretty much out of luck. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in daytime for 30 years. All salaries these days have a cap. The given consensus at the very top is that the majority of daytime actors are expendable, and the networks have no problem reminding us of that when it comes to finances.”

Case in point, said actor relays that his show had been trying for months to get one of the soap’s longtime vets to come back and play a short-term story arc. “The actor they were wooing had been out of the game for a little while and was asking for too much per show,” the source states. “It was basically double what actors of that rank make per show nowadays. Unfortunately, the going rate for seasoned vets is a shadow of what it used to be. Well, when the actor realized the powers-that-be weren’t going to budge, negotiations broke down and that was that.”

But people who have been on the shows longer do still benefit from seniority, says another performer. “Even if you’ve taken pay cuts along the way, you’re probably still guaranteed more in your contract than someone with a newer contract that was negotiated in the budget-conscious era. You could easily be making twice the amount of someone who works as much as you do, because you’re benefiting from a contract from a different era. But a lot of people have worked many years without a raise and there’s some resentment over it. Everyone wants to feel like they’re appreciated by your bosses.” Agrees another fan favorite, “There are a couple of people on my show who make, like, 50 percent more than what the rest of us make. And it does get talked about, absolutely. People know what other people make and yeah, there’s some bad feelings that come from that.”
Quietly taking actors off contract is another behind-the-scenes trend rarely talked about publicly. “There is a rotation of recurring characters, and far more people are no longer under contract than even 15 years ago,” confides one heavy-hitter. “There seems to be a cycle of use of those recurring characters, and I’m sure it’s based on budget. In addition, it has been common for some time for actors to be asked to take pay cuts to go back under contract after time off.” One veteran actress shares, “I make less today as a recurring player than I did in my first daytime contract over 30 years ago. I’m not here for the money, let’s put it that way!”

But it isn’t just salaries where people are noticing the cost-cutting measures. The little touches that soaps employed during the gravy years are missed. “Even if you start with something like flowers,” says one actress. “You’d walk onto the set and they would roll out all these different flower arrangements. Now, maybe it will be one little fabric arrangement. Were all of those fresh flowers an extravagance? They probably were.” Adds this star, “Fresh flowers are still a luxury, but used much less to dress sets than in the old days, and plants and orchids replace cut arrangements in offices and home sets.”

The other furnishings on the sets have seen more glory days, as well. “Sometimes for me, the thing I miss the most is in terms of set decoration,” sighs the star. “The sets were so beautifully dressed and intricate. If you had an office, it really reflected the character; the personality of who that character was. Now, often an office set is interchangeable. It will just be redressed, depending on what character is using the office. It hurts to do that. It’s a conversation we have amongst ourselves all the time when we reminisce, especially when there’s something like a new office set. You can’t help but compare it to all the other sets that have been seen over the years that really were quite fantastic. It made the entire experience richer for you as an actor. I think the thing that I miss the most is the changing of sets. We don’t use as many different sets as we used to.”
One veteran scribe shares that it’s a producer who dictates how many actors and sets could be used in a particular episode. “There was a period of time on one of the shows where the writers were told, ‘Okay, you can have six sets, no more, no less, and only two of them can be new, they all have to be repeats,’ meaning repeated sets from the previous episode, and that became very restrictive. There was a period where one of the shows was really running out of money and they said, ‘You can only have 10 characters a day.’ It’s a weird thing, but 11 works, 10 doesn’t. I don’t know why, but you can’t really move people around with 10 people. It’s too evenly split or something. So I would try to explain, ‘This is not going to be good, nobody is going to move anywhere, they’re always going to be standing in the same place, we’re only going to have two-character scenes, this, that and the other,’ and usually they would nod and smile and say, ‘We need to do this for budget reasons.’ ”

Wardrobe spending is nothing like it was in soaps’ heyday. “As far as the budget’s impact on wardrobe, tops are provided and formal wear, but they are reused like in our own personal closets at home, and rotated more now than in the past,” says this longtime performer. Adds another, “The budget was really slashed. Where the costume designer shops has definitely changed. For our show it happened slowly, and in the beginning it was a shock. But you get used to it, and you make do. When it comes down to it, it’s about the stories and the characters and telling those stories as best you can. That’s what we’re working to do.”

And trays brimming with food during group scenes? Forget about it. “With props, even in party scenes or dinners, something as simple as prop food is bare minimum,” confides this fave. “Most scenes take place before or after meals, so no food is needed to show, and cheese trays have replaced lavish catered spreads for the weddings and funerals.”

Though so much has changed both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, at the end of the day, “I think the general feeling is that we all want to do what it takes within reason to keep our shows on the air,” says one veteran performer. “In order to preserve what’s left of daytime drama programming, yes, budget cuts and tightening belts has become the name of the game. There is nothing like scripted drama, and thankfully there is still an investment from the networks and studios in these remaining shows.”