“Days of Our Lives” is in the midst of a reboot. The longrunning soap realized that with its ratings declining and the genre struggling for survival, it needed to make a change. What’s revolutionary is that, instead of stuntcasting a movie star or producing an expensive action sequence, “Days” went back to its roots, bringing back popular actors, building a new set that is a tribute to the show’s history, and actually talking to the show’s fans. In a candid interview, co-Executive Producer Greg Meng shares how the show went so wrong, why headwriter Dena Higley was replaced by Marlene McPherson and Darrell Ray Thomas and why he thinks of the soap’s fans as family.
Why did you decide to reboot the show?
All of us in the daytime genre have been suffering from a decrease in measured viewership. We were looking at that and… with such plot-driven stories, we’d gotten ourselves into a bit of a corner and the show was starting to get a little dark and the plans were for it to even go darker in stories. The other thing was I had been going around since December with the Days of Our Lives:45 Years A Celebration in Photos book with different cast members. We’d gone through many cities for book signings with thousands of people turning out. In fact, I personally met over 10,000 people one-on-one as the author of the book and executive on the show and started getting feedback from the fans. There was a trend that was developing. We started out in Detroit. We had, believe it or not, two book signings in New York because we had so many people show up. We were in Miami, New Orleans, Houston,… we’ve been all over the place. And the trend was the same everywhere. The trend was, “We don’t know “Days of Our Lives”anymore.” A lot of them were loyal fans and they were saying they were looking for an excuse to come back and watch the show… They felt like some of the characters were not the characters that they used to be, and they were missing some very strong fan favorites. So I came back and started talking to [Executive Producer] Ken Corday and we huddled and it was like, “Well, we need to listen to our family of fans. We’ve definitely gotten off track.”
You made the decision to hire new headwriters. How did you decide on Marlene McPherson and Darrell Ray Johnson
Both have a history on the show, coming in and out in the past. I have maintained a close relationship with them over the years. They came most recently from ABC Family, but they worked extremely closely with James Reilly on “Passions” for many years and Jim had a great relationship with “Days of Our Lives” too, so they were very much family. We also were looking for some new perspective, somebody who can write drama with a sense of humor, not taking ourselves so seriously that we’re looking from the outside in. These two know the history and the families and the characters on the show. But they also are a breath of fresh air. They trained with a long line of revered headwriters working on the show… but they also come with a new, today point-of-view. That’s what we wanted. A fresh look, but still honoring the traditional families and the basic concepts of “Days of Our Lives.” We’d gotten so far away from the original, basic concept of what the show was about. That resonated with me when I was doing the book. I was looking at these photos behind the scenes of the Horton family living room and the early cast members and I was thinking, “Man, we have totally gotten away from those very strong traditional family values that started in the Horton living room” The times change, fashions change, but those basic concepts don’t change. Family values don’t change. Family may have been redefined from something you’re born into. Now there are so many different kinds of families.
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How are you going to restore the appeal of existing characters?
We’re bringing back layers to the characters. For instance, the character of Sami played brilliantly by Alison Sweeney, has gotten to be such a whiner, just a one-dimensional character. That character has many, many layers as do the other characters on the show. [Our new writers] want to write the show from the point of being character driven and not so much plot driven so we don’t get ourselves into corners. They define these multiple layers and colors in the characters then organically the story just falls into place. They’re also operating from a road map. They’re creating a plan of where these characters are going, but we also want to listen to the family of fans. If you’ve got a road map and you’re going to the Grand Canyon but you want to make a left turn to Mesa Verde, you can do that. But if you don’t have an overall map, you’re just all over the place.
Why did you decide to build the new Horton Square set?
For years, we’ve needed to come up with a cost effective way to do an exterior. It’s very expensive when you do a park or anything that requires greens or even fake looking plants. We needed to open up the show for shooting so we could have more flexibility. Noel Maxam, who’s the other co-executive producer, had been also very interested in creating something that would open up the show and we could shoot it not unlike ‘Grey’s Anatomy.”I was at a Broadway show with Crystal Chappell (ex-Carly), and [saw] the way the theater sets unfold into other sets. It was like, oh my gosh, why aren’t we doing that? So the set we created has multiple businesses on it. We also have the interiors of the business and those interiors also change into other businesses interiors so our set unfolds and unfolds into multiple things. We wanted to create an area that has always been there, downtown Salem. The Brady Pub is on the square as is Chez Rouge. Then we are launching the new day spa set, which is also on the square, and then two important businesses are also on the square.
How did you make the calls about which characters to bring back and which characters to write off?
The call to bring back certain beloved characters came from the family of fans. Everywhere I went: “We love Bo and Hope. Where’s John and Marlena?” I would be sitting next to Deidre [Hall] because she was with me on the book tour. We had lunch about a year ago. She was doing a book and I said, “I’m doing a book. Let’s do them together.” Of course what I really wanted to do was see how people felt about her when we were out, which I found out rather quickly. She was mobbed. And then of course I was mobbed: why isn’t she on the show? I took Drake Hogestyn to Houston, and you would have thought the president was in town. That was eye opening, but not surprising. Some of the people we let go, we got ourselves into a corner with story… We’re telling so many stories now, multiple stories in different length arcs that it allows us to weave some people in and out and back again so we can tell a tapestry of stories. So instead of the old fashioned, “You’ve got x amount of people and this is what they’re doing and this is where they’re going, we’re freeing ourselves up for some flexibility to tell more story in more interesting ways with more people.
What are your goals for the reboot in terms of ratings?
Any pop in the number of viewers is a bonus for us. Yes, we have to have the ratings to stay on the air. But I’ll tell you this. We are so lucky to be a part of the NBC/Comcast family because NBC has been nothing but supportive and nurturing and really just amazing to us. Not only in the past but now especially with these changes. But our goal is to deliver the show that our family of fans wants to see. Hopefully that reflects in some bump in the ratings. For ego purposes and everything else, we’d love to make some big differences in the ratings.
This is not the first time that the show has reinvented itself. The James Reilly years, with storylines like Marlena being possessed by the devil, were a big departure from the show’s original vision. Why do you think the show has this unique ability to transform itself?
Jim Reilly was such a visionary. He really put it out there and pushed things outside the box. So that was definitely a chance we took. It worked in some ways, in other ways I’m not sure all the fans were happy with it. But it moved us forward. It got people talking. It was not vanilla story, that’s for sure.
How will the feel of the show change over the next few months?
We’re trying to create stories where people are working in a real world. They have jobs, and those relationships. They also have friendships which is another thing we’re trying to develop. Guys can be buddies. Girls can have friends… We’re trying to create more diversity on the show. We’re trying to make Salem really representative of the world today.