The Most Polarizing Pair in Soaps: Execs Jill Farren Phelps and Chuck Pratt on the State of The Young and the Restless
These days you can't watch CBS Daytime's No. 1 program, The Young and the Restless, without having an opinion…or 12. Love it or hate it, Y&R will not be ignored. Nor will the hot-button duo who run the show—executive producer Jill Farren Phelps (Santa Barbara, Guiding Light, General Hospital), and head writer/co executive producer Chuck Pratt (Santa Barbara, General Hospital, All My Children). Pratt joined the soap six months ago (his work began airing in February), startling viewers with a series of what have come to be known as Prattastrophes: He had a plane crash, a building collapse, a penthouse fire, and the start of a serial killer plot all playing out in one episode. Ratings spiked, with the soap averaging 5.58 million viewers during the all-important February sweeps. Compared to this time last year, Y&R's ratings are substantially up in total viewers, as well as in all key female demos. So how come the show's fans—at least the rabidly vocal ones on Twitter—have never been angrier? We sat down with Phelps, who has 11 Emmys, and Pratt, who has five, for some solid-gold chit chat. It was a monster session, so here's Part 1.
You are the two most controversial and polarizing people in soaps. Surely you must have known, when you joined forces for Y&R, that heads were going to implode, right?
Phelps: No, I didn't think about that. I'm so used to controversy that it didn't even occur to me. I thought about what a really great writer Chuck is and that he was exactly what Y&R needed. [Laughs] But, hey, if the viewers hate him more than they hate me it would be OK for a week, you know?
Pratt: Unfortunately—or fortunately for my sanity—I don't pay particular attention to the…
Pratt: Yeah, the haters. I wasn't concerned about outside reaction. You don't join shows that have been on the air for decades, shows with a great legacy like Y&R has, without encountering a lot of unhappiness from certain parts of the audience. I understand that passion, but you can't do your job if you take to heart the bad things people are saying about you. If you hear it, it hurts, I suppose, but it can also interfere with doing your job. And we're being paid to do a job here.
You share 30 years of soap history, going back to your first show together, Santa Barbara. Chuck, you exited General Hospital while Jill was still exec producing that show. There was never any bad blood?
Pratt: When I came to Y&R, I wasn't at all concerned about my ability to work with Jill. There were other people we worked with who were a problem, to her or to me, and we've worked under some of the same crazy people. But she and I have never had problems. To Jill's credit, most writers I know like working for her. [Laughs] And she likes some of the writers.
A lot of disgruntled fans on social media keep harkening back to the way Y&R's late, great creator, Bill Bell, would have done things, and they don't think you two even come close. What do you want to say about that?
Phelps: This is a very iconic show. Bill created it and stayed with it for a very long time, so long that he became synonymous with it. Since he left us, the question is frequently asked: Will anybody ever again be able to do what Bill did? And the answer to that is no. But that doesn't mean Y&R can't be great again.
Pratt: You can feel the spirit of a Bill Bell show but, within that, there is a lot of room to shake it up.
Phelps: When Bill ran Y&R it was his store. He could do whatever he wanted…
Pratt: Without a lot of network pushback. Look, when I came to All My Children, with its creator, Agnes Nixon, right there in front of me, I knew there was no way I could duplicate what she did. And the same goes for Bill Bell. You can honor and respect these geniuses, and identify those thematic elements that made their work great and try to keep those elements alive in the storytelling, but you can't sit there and try to duplicate genius. You'd have to be crazy to try. At this point in my life, I'm not looking for jobs for the sake of jobs or to make money to buy a new house. I'm looking for the challenge. I would not have come onto this show if CBS had said, "Y&R is doing great. Just keep it that way."
So how did you see this job? What was your mandate from the network?
Pratt: To wake up the sleeping giant.
Phelps: You say that we're controversial and—though I don't mean this in a self-congratulatory way—being controversial involves a certain amount of bravery. When Chuck and I were together on Santa Barbara, there weren't any rules. There was so much freedom and excitement in not having rules. I've done more soaps than most people in this business and I've broken a lot of those so-called rules over the years and, on occasion, it has resulted in some very public misfires. You go off on a tangent the audience doesn't like and you get branded with that for the rest of your life.
Like when you killed off Maureen Bauer on Guiding Light?
Phelps: I will always be the woman who killed Maureen Bauer. And I should be blamed for it. It was the wrong thing to do and it was a very public lesson for me. I never did that sort of thing again. I did not, however, kill Frankie Frame when I was producing Another World. I will not take the blame for that.
Pratt: And people will never forget that I killed Babe.
Phelps: Every time he says that I think he's talking about the pig.
Pratt: Babe on All My Children. I liked her and thought she was kind of cute, but [the network] said, "Kill Babe." So I did.
CBS had considerable involvement in the Y&R storytelling-arguably too much—during the previous head-writer regime. Have the programmers backed off since you took over?
Pratt: I thought that was going to be the biggest issue for me coming in, because I had just come off experiences with Brian Frons at ABC and I am too old to go through these textbook examples of interfering, insane network people. I needed to find out if that was the case [at CBS]. I admit I had heard various stories but I met with everybody there and they seemed fine. I've been through some executives in recent years in primetime who make any executive in daytime look like a saint. [Pratt's primetime credits include Melrose Place, the Desperate Housewives pilot, Ugly Betty, and The Lying Game]. I saw uniformly among the CBS and Sony executives a real desire to make Y&R work, and a desire to work with me, even though they would read all the Tweeting stuff and go, "Is it really true? Did you really do such and such?" "Are you the reason such and such happened?" And I'd go down the list: "Yes, no, no, no, yes, yes." "I don't remember," was usually my answer, just like in a court of law. I didn't see problems [with CBS], but I saw potential problems, so I wrote a very friendly nine-page…
Pratt: Yes, manifesto is what we call it now but it was just a quick memo about how I think writing works best.
And that is…?
Pratt: That long story should come from the head writer and the writing team, in discussion with Jill, of course, and then that long story would be delivered to the network for comment. And the [executives] at CBS have really stuck to that manifesto. We present long story, they respond to it. And they are held responsible for what they've said. For example, if they say "Weren't you going to do a story about…?" And we say, "Yes, but you killed it." "Are you sure?" "Yes, you killed it. We have the notes from that meeting to prove it." So there has been little, if any, disagreement between us in these six months.
How much of that has to do with you being a guy? Do the CBS Daytime programmers, all of whom are women, respond differently to a male head writer, as opposed to Y&R's previous head-writing team, which was female?
Pratt: I have no idea.
I can't believe this hasn't occurred to you.
Pratt: It really hasn't. Perhaps women [working with] women could be a different dynamic, but I attribute what's happening between me and the network right now to us being in the honeymoon phase. And that may change.
Phelps: When Chuck came in there was a big exhale because, for one thing, we'd been working with head writers who were not in the building—they weren't even on the same coast as us. And he also basically said, "Sit back and let me do my thing."
Pratt: And I haven't had to fight for stuff. Have they killed a few of my ideas? Yeah. But, on other shows, you come out of the gate and any story you want to do you have to fight for it. That's not the case here. If they think an idea is too controversial, I have to respect that. But I reserve the right to come back with that story and try again.
What exactly does your co-executive producer title get you?
Pratt: That title comes from my being in primetime where, off and on for the last eight or nine years, I have been an executive producer. What comes with that title is a level of inclusion, a level that sometimes you don't have as a head writer in daytime, and also a level of power and respect at the network and with Jill.
Phelps: I'm not the boss of him and he's not the boss of me.
Pratt: It's something I felt I deserved. I have definitely earned it. And it gives actors more access to me, and I want that. Many head writers in daytime don't want that access. They are terrified of actors. I'm the opposite. I really respect them. Even the bad ones I find interesting. I get what they're going through and how hard it is.
Phelps: The actors were very protective of me when Chuck arrived. They were concerned that I was somehow diminished by this. But we are true collaborators in every sense. And when I don't want to do something now, I say to Chuck, "You do it! You go fight that battle."
Tell us more about these actor concerns.
Phelps: They'd come to me and say, "Are you staying? Are you going to be okay?"
Pratt: [Laughs] They sneered at me!
Phelps: When I told the actors that "co-executive producer" was a title Chuck had earned from his primetime career, and that I didn't have a problem with it, they were fine.
The angry fans on Twitter are loud but they're a sliver of the total Y&R audience, which, judging from the ratings, appears to be quite happy, or at least willing to go along for the ride. How do you account for so much upset on social media?
Phelps: If you've been watching Y&R for years or even decades—40-plus years in the case of some of our viewers—you feel a real sense of ownership. Most will go along for the ride, even when you take a sudden, unexpected right turn. They're happy to do it. But social media has unleashed a lot of people who play "Gotcha!" especially when it comes to the history of Y&R. They want to see us stay within a certain comfort zone, but if we don't take chances, if we don't do things outside that comfort zone, then we're robbing our audience of the opportunity to get excited about the show in a whole new way. We can't become risk averse and afraid of audience reaction. I'm not saying the fans aren't really important or what they think doesn't matter. I'm saying that if we are afraid to do something because of potential blowback then you just get the same old thing you've gotten before.
And this new way of doing things needs to be seismic?
Phelps: Seismic gets attention. Safety gets you nothing.
Pratt: It stirs up the audience and sometimes that negativity is a vote to keep going forward. Yeah, they hate it but they're watching. When I hear that they want the status quo, that they want to see a certain couple stay happy—"We love to see them together, keep it going!"—then I'm thinking, "There go the ratings." Social media is finally giving people a voice, people who have been sitting frustrated in their living rooms, and now they can get it all off their chests, and other people will read it. It attracts a lot of newer viewers. When we do something controversial or take a character to a new, different place, I want to hear from the longtime viewers.
That leads us into the storyline that is stirring up the most fuss at the moment—Jack Abbott and his doppelgänger. While the plot works well on some levels, and the ripple effect is potentially huge, can you understand why fans are pissed about yet another evil-twin story? There have been so many on this show in recent years.
Pratt: I have the advantage of knowing where the story is going, so I don't know if the gripes will become louder or softer, but the whole reason for it is that I looked at Peter Bergman and Eric Braeden and saw two great actors, two titans who are the tent poles of Y&R, who needed to be challenged with a big, strong story, one that would be based on Victor's long-time desire and need to beat Jack once and for all—an umbrella story that could affect every character.
Phelps: We like to do umbrellas. We both learned that from Gloria Monty. And Chuck was very smart to want to do it with Jack and Victor, who are this show, just as at General Hospital it's Sonny and Luke. When you're flipping channels and come upon these shows and see those faces you know exactly what you're watching.
Pratt: Jack was becoming little more than the happy-go-lucky businessman all the women wanted to sleep with, and the show wasn't using him much. And Victor was becoming a caricature. The doppelgänger story we can play and play, and it can go away and maybe come back again down the line if we don't kill off one or the other. That was 100 percent of the reason for it. A doppelgänger story is the last thing I wanted to do but it solved what I felt was a huge problem. At my first story meeting with everyone, the first thing I said was, "Two Jacks." And everyone went, "Are you kidding?"
Jill, what was your immediate reaction to Chuck's idea?
Phelps: Because it's not the kind of story I've done. We never did a doppelgänger at Santa Barbara or at Guiding Light. Did we ever do it when I was at General Hospital? I don't remember. Anyway, it seemed like an idea that was strictly "daytime" but one of the things I've learned working with writers is to not pick apart their ideas.
Pratt: Especially on the first day.
Phelps: I have seen networks just devastate writers. I'm not saying that's happening at CBS but it's been my experience elsewhere. So I've learned to step back. If a writer is really, truly excited about a story, then he will tell it well.
Will the "Two Jacks" story address fake Jack's rape of Phyllis or gloss over it? Phelps and Pratt debate that in the conclusion of our interview and face several more burning questions: Why are we seeing less of the African-American characters? Can the Michael Baldwin cancer story be saved? Will soap superstar Eileen Davidson ever get a storyline of her own? Why is everyone still using Sharon as a piñata? Will Kevin go gay? All that and more—in Part 2 of our interview.