So you think soap operas are definitely not must-see TV. Well, you’re in the minority because research shows that sinetrons consistently pull in better ratings than almost anything else on Indonesian TV.
But what about the men and women who pump out all those scripts to keep the airwaves filled with tangled love affairs and scheming businesspeople? Alexander Thian, a businessman-turned-script editor for sinetrons, pulls back the curtain and gives us a rare look at the inner workings of the industry.
Today, the 29-year-old reveals to My Jakarta that he doesn’t even have time to shower when deadlines are looming. And when he wants to clear his mind? He chills out with episodes of ‘Fringe,’ ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘Modern Family.’
You used to own your own business and then got into writing for sinetrons? How did that happen?
I was about to close my cellphone shop in Cinere Mall when a friend offered me a chance to write for sinetrons. He told me to go and meet this guy, who turned out to be the legendary Hilman Hariwijaya. He wrote the popular ‘Lupus’ stories, and it hit me that he also wrote the sinetron ‘Cinta Fitri,’ which I used to make fun of a lot. So out of curiosity I decided to give it a try.
How hard is it to write a sinetron?
It starts with deciding on a synopsis with the TV station. Then we do the scenes. The station will review the script, making numerous revisions based on what they see on TV. If a character ‘fails’ or is hated too much by the audience, they have to be taken off the show. We’re playing God here.
Now you’re a script editor? What exactly does that involve?
It takes a lot of hard work. I probably just shower once every three days because I always have deadlines to meet. If I don’t write, they’ll strangle me for not having anything to shoot. One day we had so many revisions going on that the five scenes I wrote earlier that day aired later that evening. The pressure is intense. If you don’t have the passion, you won’t survive. You really have to manage your time. When I was a senior writer, I once stayed awake for three straight days because I had to do revisions for three episodes and it kept changing hourly.
What kinds of things get revised the most often?
The conflicts. And by changing those it means you’re revising the whole script. We usually have four to six sequences. If the first sequence is changed, then the next one has to be adjusted, which is really time consuming. That’s why there are at least two or three writers on a script. We have to cooperate on the dialogue and style. So brainstorming is always going on.
Sinetrons are great, but what about more intellectually stimulating TV?
We tried but it didn’t succeed. We did a sitcom before. It had a simple and clean story but the ratings didn’t pick up. It’s because of the demography. Here, the sinetron audience is housewives and babu-babu [maids]. My producer often say, “Let’s do the babu scenes,” which means forget all of the logic. So all I think about is how I can make a character suffer and cry.
Do you often interact with real maids?
Of course. I go to my sister’s house. She has three maids and one of them is a sinetron freak. Any sinetron she says is bad, believe it or not, doesn’t get good ratings. But if they love it, the show will run for hundreds of episodes.
What are your thoughts on writing something you may not be really passionate about?
Someone said writing isn’t about talent, that it’s more effort. I want to write a show like ‘Friends’ but I can’t do it. I used to think that I could change Indonesia, that there would be no more cheap sinetrons. But it didn’t happen because the audience didn’t want that. At the lowest point of my life, I cried about writing sinetrons like that. It went against my idealism, but you have to compromise because people love the shows.
Also, you have to determine your goals. I want to make a living. A writer can make Rp 1 million [$106] an episode for hundreds of sinetron episodes. Senior writers can earn as much as Rp 15 million an episode. If you loathed sinetrons but someone offered you Rp 5 million to write an episode, what would you do?
How much are you involved in the ‘slapping scenes’?
I try hard to keep violence out of the scenes that I write. I hate that. There’s an joke that writing sinetrons will make you a really good criminal. You have to plot something that doesn’t make any sense but will wow the audience.
If you were to expose Jakarta through a sinetron, what would you feature?
I’d definitely focus on a group of poor writers who really hate sinetrons but are forced to write them for a living.
Will you always be a writer?
Yes, but maybe not for sinetrons. This is just temporary. Maybe I’ll write a book while traveling, like Trinity Traveler. She goes around the world, writes about the places she visits and gets paid for it.
Alexander Thian was talking to Dyah Paramita.