Somewhere in New York City, two grown men are sitting in an office hanging on every word that's uttered on NBC's weekday soap opera "Search for Tomorrow." Diehard fans? Well, yes and no. They're captioners with the National Captioning Institute and their job is writing "closed captions," the subtitles that enable hearing-impaired viewers with caption adapters to read what most viewers hear. Since March 3 they've been closed-captioning "Search for Tomorrow," TV's longest-running daytime serial.
The word is that they've become ardent fans. And their work especially pleases one of the show's stars.
In town recently to help NCI publicize the captioning of "Search for Tomorrow," Jeffrey Meek, who plays Quinn McLeary on "SFT," has a special interest in closed captions. "My mom has to wear a hearing aid, but she's very proud and won't admit her hearing's degenerating," said the 26-year-old actor from Riverside, Calif. His mother watches the show regularly, he said, but now that it's being captioned, he's getting her an adapter. And if things progress as Meek hopes, he'll be delivering a lot more lines for her to read in the weeks ahead.
Along with a flood that wiped out the whole town of Henderson, "SFT's" home for 34 years, the show's format has also undergone sweeping changes. "We're going back to the basics," said Meek, "focusing on just a few characters in depth and writing about real situations and real emotions."
That shift of focus will put an intense spotlight on the three McLeary brothers -- Quinn's the middle one. The show's producers hope the format change will net more viewers by making the show more attractive. And with the addition of closed-captioning, it should be more appealing to viewers in the approximately 100,000 homes equipped with NCI's TeleCaption adapters. That device generates captions under programs designated in television listings by either the abbreviation CC as in TV Week or the TV screen-and-quote trademark of NCI.
Although almost 100 hours of closed-captioned programs are available each week on broadcast TV, there's usually a 10-hour stretch between the morning news shows and the evening news and prime-time line-up. Now, "Search for Tomorrow" offers at least a narrow footbridge across that gap.
"SFT" is the first soap to be captioned. Funding for the show's captioning -- about $1,100 per 30-minute segment -- comes from Procter & Gamble, producers of "SFT" since 1951 and corporate pioneers in the field of closed captioning, said Lottie Gatewood, public affairs specialist with NCI, the nonprofit group that is the leading supplier of closed captioning. Adding captions to "SFT" was a "perfect link," she said, for the soap company that also pioneered the soap opera genre. NBC picks up the technical costs associated with broadcasting the captions.
All of which is good news for Meek and his mom. Voted best actor on the series by the editors of Soap Opera Digest last year, Meek is tall, dark and rangy, a California-casual kind of guy who fits easily into his Don Johnson de rigueur loose linen jacket and soft pleated pants. But he's sincere and serious about what he does for a living. A graduate of the University of California's theater program, he was quickly spotted by West Coast talent scouts in community theater productions and offered his first part -- on "General Hospital" -- two days after he was graduated.
After a year as a regular on "SFT," Meek said he's excited about his new story line. Quinn is the banished son who returns to the bosom of his family after 10 years of bumming around in Europe. He is the flamboyant brother, the sort of fellow who, when knicked by a bullet, sloshes down a glass of champagne rather than heading for the emergency room.
Although the theater is his ultimate goal, Meek said he appreciates the training he's getting on the show. "Daytime TV is a total training process for an actor. You have to audition, rehearse and perform all on the same day."
Each night he spends three to four hours working on the next day's script. "It's more than just memorizing lines. All the writers give you is a rough graph of what the character should do. So it's up to you to decide how the dialogue should go and how the character would say it. You do your homework and then present it to the producer for his approval." That's the auditioning part.
Then there's the dress rehearsal and the performance, the actual taping. "It's all so immediate. There are no teleprompters, so you're virtually playing each scene live," said Meek.
Over at NCI's New York office, the captioners share some of the actors' problems. They get a script for the day's show (taped 10 days before its airdate) but they can use it only as a rough guide since the dialogue and even the action may have evolved considerably. And since most soaps are pretty wordy -- basic talking-head shots minus the sweeping scenery pans and exterior shots that fill up so much TV time -- the captioners have a lot of words to get down.
The wordiness also gets to Meek sometimes. "The hardest scenes to do are the ones that deal with exposition. Because there are so many different writers and so many updates for new viewers, you'll find yourself doing the same scene or having the same conversation -- sometimes verbatim! -- over and over again."
But with the help of some telling advice from friend Tony Geary (of "General Hospital" fame), Meek strives to make the most of even mundane scenes: "If you can find something for your character in every scene, just one moment when you do something that's just for you -- even if it's just the way you pick up a salt shaker -- then you can make the scene seem fresh."
Meek has ambition beyond daytime television and said he's ready to take on an off-Broadway play.
"Later this year or early next year Tony Geary and I plan to do David Mamet's two-character 'A Life in the Theater' in Boston." And he's set an unofficial two-year limit on his soap opera career. "I didn't get into the profession to be just one character -- I want to be a lot of characters."