Daytime’s Other Drama

Despite its popularity with black audiences, daytime television discounts black talent in front of, and behind, the camera. These industry insiders are pushing for change.

several editors and crewmembers reporting to her. Of these, three are African American.

Wheeler stresses the need for black audiences to request greater representation through letters and calls to television networks. She says it is going to take executives of color to bring about changes to benefit the parity of newsroom diversity. Wheeler warns that African Americans seeking entry level positions have their work cut out for them. She landed her first gig (Today with Tom Brokaw) when she was in her early 20s and learned a valuable lesson. According to Wheeler, “Mentorship is severely lacking in the business. You have to make your own magic.”

TIME FOR A REWRITE
Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, Michele Val Jean never dreamed that she would be a Daytime-Emmy-Award winning writer on General Hospital. After 41 years, it is the longest running dramatic serial on ABC, which owns and produces the show. Val Jean joined General Hospital in 1993 as a scriptwriter and was named an associate writer in 1996. After two top writers resigned in 2000, she became the first black head writer of a soap opera.

Head writers chart the narrative course of the soap over a period of six to 12 months and, in doing so, determine the fate of each character. Outline writers segment the overall plot into weekly and then daily portions. The writing of the script is assigned to a team of scriptwriters. General Hospital has one other African American scribe, Michelle Patrick.

Whereas nighttime shows are plot-driven, daytime shows are character-driven and can be told in real time. Val Jean appreciates this because with the character Elizabeth (1996 to 1997) she carefully guided a rape story. “I was raped when I was 12. It was a very powerful way to slay my own demons while educating other women.”

Val Jean is a prodigal daughter of sorts. After a seven-month hiatus to pursue film projects, Val Jean recently returned to General Hospital, opting to be a scriptwriter. Prior to that, Val Jean, 53, was a scriptwriter on NBC’s Santa Barbara for two years before it was cancelled. She wrote her first scripts for the series Jake and the Fatman. Her big break into daytime was as a writer for Generations, which starred then newcomer Vivica A. Fox. Launched in 1989 on NBC, Generations was perceived as the first “black soap” although its cast was diverse. It was cancelled in 1991 due to low ratings.

“NBC put the show on at 11:30 a.m., up against The Young and the Restless. No one was going to turn off the No.1 soap to watch an upstart,” says Val Jean. “I will always be grateful and glad that Generations was my first daytime experience.”

A major challenge for writers is to transition from prime-time dramas — which give them six weeks to pen a script — to daytime dramas — which allot just one week. Val Jean says it’s an even greater challenge to get one’s foot in the door. “There have not been, on any consistent basis, writer-development

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