2 beloved TV soaps revived online start Monday
Taped to a wall at the entrance to the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford is this greeting: "Welcome (back) to Pine Valley."
Pine Valley, of course, is the mythical setting of "All My Children," a daytime drama that ran on ABC for nearly 41 years until 2011.
But now, in one of those plot twists so common to soap operas but so rare in the real world, "All My Children" has been raised from the dead.
"AMC" will be back starting Monday with much of its august cast intact (including David Canary, Julia Barr, Jill Larson, Debbi Morgan and Cady McClain, and perhaps even Susan Lucci eventually returning to the fold), along with shiny new actors to add more pizazz.
But this time, "AMC" will not be on a broadcast network. It will be online.
So will "One Life to Live," another venerable soap cut down by ABC after 44 seasons. It, too, will spring back to life on Monday. (Welcome back to Llanview, everybody!) Returning fan favorites include Erika Slezak, Robert S. Woods, Robin Strasser and Hillary B. Smith, each of whom has logged decades on the show.
Each serial will unveil four daily half-hours per week, plus a recap/behind-the-scenes episode on Fridays, with 42 weeks of original programming promised for the first year.
They will be available for streaming on computers on the Hulu website. Subscribers to Hulu Plus can watch on a variety of other devices. And the episodes will be available for purchase on iTunes.
This resurrection could reverse the doomsday plot that has plagued soaps for decades as viewership withered and numbers sank (there are four left on the broadcast networks; there were a dozen in 1991).
And it is somehow fitting that TV's oldest genre, carried over from radio, should now be making the transition to a 21st-century online platform complete with Agnes Nixon, who created both shows, as a digital pioneer. It's a potentially restorative move that could prove the TV medium failed soaps, not the other way around.
Reflecting a new age of viewing patterns and business strategy, "AMC" and "OLTL" will be the first offerings of The Online Network, an ad-supported outlet for first-run entertainment delivered online.
"What better way to start than with two shows that have been watched by fanatical fans for as much as 40 years?" says Rich Frank, a partner of Prospect Park studios, which owns The Online Network.
He notes that even as ABC pronounced death for these soaps, "AMC" was averaging 3.2 million viewers a day and "OLTL" had 3.8 million viewers. He sets the threshold of success for his new venture at "a very conservative percentage" of that audience.
"Being online is going to draw people in," predicts Jennifer Pepperman, "OLTL" executive producer. "You can click on it and watch it any time you like."
Meanwhile, the drama will adapt to its new medium.
"We don't want to totally reinvent the wheel, but we want to make the wheel turn better and turn quicker," Pepperman says.
Executive producer Ginger Smith echoes Pepperman.
"We want to keep the core," says Smith, who has risen on "AMC" from production assistant in 1988. "I still want escapism and romance, but we're going to have stories that are sometimes a little darker and edgier than we did on ABC."
As she is speaking, "AMC" is wrapping its first weeks in front of the cameras. Then "OLTL" takes over the 27,000-square-foot soundstage to start production. In this back-and-forth arrangement, each series will tape 210 episodes this year.
"But these are not webisodes," Frank says. "We are shooting television as everyone knows it. This is traditional TV storytelling distributed a different way - and it's a superior way."
Frank is a veteran entertainment exec who headed The Walt Disney Studios and served as president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. With his Prospect Park partner Jeff Kwatinetz, he produces TV series including USA network's "Royal Pains" and FX's "Wilfred."
But even as their company was doing business with traditional networks, Frank envisioned an online network delivering content to devices not limited to TV, and sidestepping traditional cable delivery.
Then ABC canceled those two soaps.
"They fell into our lap," says Frank, though minimizing the lengthy process of licensing them.
"These two shows come with 40 years of advertiser relationships and a die-hard fan base," says Kwatinetz, whose resume includes running The Firm, a talent management company whose clients included the Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Clarkson.
"I saw the digital revolution coming in the music business," he says, "and now, in television, it feels the same. My experience in the entertainment business tells me that what people want more than anything is convenience. Now television, by going online, is so much more convenient."
So everything old is new again, and the fundamentals still apply: These two shows have retained a most profound link with soaps' glorious past: Agnes Nixon. Now 85, Nixon was mentored by the grande dame of the soap opera genre, Irna Phillips, in the radio age.
She was writing for a TV soap - "Search for Tomorrow" - as early as 1951. Then, in the late 1960s, while married, raising a family and serving as head writer for "The Guiding Light," she created "AMC" (as she puts it) "in my free time."
She wrote a "Bible" sourcebook for this prospective new series, but the show was turned down by CBS and the sponsor, Procter & Gamble.
Next she breathed new life into NBC's flagging "Another World," then was approached by ABC to create a new serial. Believing there was something "wrong" with "AMC," Nixon started over and created "OLTL."
"It its first year, it had good ratings," she recalls during a recent interview. "So ABC said to me, 'How about creating another for us?'"
"I said to my husband, 'I can't think of another one.' He said, 'How about "All My Children"?' So I opened the desk drawer and took out the Bible and sent it to ABC. They said, 'Boy, that was fast work!'"
Nixon doesn't write these days, but she's been involved on a daily basis as the series resume. She's also heading up what's become a big reunion.
"AMC" exec producer Smith says, "With every former member of the cast, staff and crew, when I called them they said, 'We want to get in the trenches with you.' When I called Cady McClain, she said, 'Where do you want me and what time do you want me there?'"
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