April 28, 2013

Can Soaps Left For Dead See New Life Resurrected In A New Era Of Internet TV?

The humble soap opera (a.k.a. "soaps"), which got their name from the original dramatic serials' broadcast on radio which soap manufacturers, including Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Dial Corp. (now owned by Germany's Henkel AG) and Unilever, once sponsored.  Soaps as a genre of television programming are (or were), by definition, ongoing, episodic works of dramatic fiction presented in serial format on radio or as television programming.  Its also worth noting that a number of actors and actresses (and a few musicians) began their careers on soaps.

For decades, soaps were a staple of daytime radio, which migrated to TV, yet this particular genre of television content faced extinction when the new millennium began.  Indeed, in recent years, ratings for most soaps fell in the U.S.  As a result, many of America's longest-running soaps ended between 2009 to 2012.

Wikipedia reports that the longest-running drama in television and radio history, "Guiding Light", barely reached 2.1 million daily viewers in 2009 when it ended after 72 years.  As a point of comparison, Luke and Laura's wedding on ABC's "General Hospital" soap in 1981 attracted 30 million viewers (a peek for soaps).  But the decline for soaps in more recent years was true for many other once-lucrative soap operas.  “The Guiding Light” was hardly alone.  “World Turns" aired its final episode in 2010 after a 54 year run, and it was the last of 20 soap operas still produced by Procter & Gamble.  "All My Children" and "One Life to Live", each having an over four-decade run, were both cancelled in 2011, with "All My Children" airing its finale in September 2011 and "One Life to Live" last airing in January 2012.

Behind Soaps' Decline

A confluence of factors contributed to the decline of soaps.

Until the 1970s, advertisers of consumer products (like soap) made by companies like P&G and Colgate-Palmolive could reliably advertise to (and reach) the female homemakers who typically buy such products for their households.  But starting in the 1970s, as more and more women worked outside of the home, daytime TV viewership declined.  Add to that the fact that new generations of potential viewers weren't raised watching soap operas with their mothers, which left the shows' long and complex storylines unknown to younger audiences.  Beyond the shift in roles for women who largely work outside the home today, the trend was accelerated by technology in the new millennium.

Technology: The Final Nail in Soaps' Coffin, Or The Genre’s Resurrection?

We saw digital television multiply the number of channels available to viewers (whether via traditional broadcast or on cable/satellite).  At the dawn of the new Millennium, it looked as if that might be a potential savior for the soap opera format.  For example, on January 20, 2000, Disney's Soapnet (stylized as SOAPnet) started broadcasting current (and perhaps even more old reruns) of soap operas and prime time dramas (note that Disney also owns the television network ABC).  However, Soapnet's success in attracting viewers proved elusive.  Indeed, plans for a rival network from Sony Pictures Entertainment to be dubbed SoapCity (also showing soap content) were abandoned early in 2000 after Sony failed to acquire cable carriage.

Soapnet itself, in spite of already being carried on some systems, was discontinued on a number of cable and satellite providers starting in March 2012, with Disney Junior replacing it in its channel space.  Although Soapnet continues for providers who have not yet made carriage agreements for Disney Junior (such as Dish Network) and for those providers who have kept Soapnet in their lineup and have either taken on Disney Junior as an additional channel or opted not to carry Disney Junior (e.g. DirecTV, etc), it's future is unclear as to whether Soapnet will might cease operations on all cable and satellite providers.

That put us in a situation where the soap opera category of television programming appeared doomed to extinction, perhaps taught as an example of historical marketing by consumer products manufacturers and distributors, or used by network programming executives on how a genre of programming which had endured from radio into broadcast television would ultimately succumb in the new Millennium, caused by failing economics and new technological advances.

As I've blogged about in the past, the day of internet-delivered video content (what we now collectively call "television") has emerged, and with seemingly unlimited capacity to stream original (or old) programming content to digital televisions or on various computers (PCs, laptops and tablets), often providing programming at times far better suited for viewers since it is all on-demand, which means soaps may yet continue their story, complete with the twists and turns soap plots were known for.

On April 25, 2013, the Associated Press ran an article entitled "Back from the dead! 'All My Children,' 'One Life to Live' revived on Web", with news that two long-running (but recently cancelled) soaps would be resurrected on the web.

In his article, Associated Press Television Writer Frazier Moore wrote:

"Taped to a wall at the entrance to the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford is this greeting: 'Welcome (back) to Pine Valley.'  (Author P.S.:  I cover the Connecticut Film Center in another post, see http://goo.gl/B73dP for that particular post).

Pine Valley, of course, is the mythical setting of 'All My Children,' a daytime drama that ran on ABC for nearly 41 years until it was snuffed in 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.

Was its cancellation just a bad dream, from which the show is now awakening? In any case, 'AMC' will be back starting Monday [April 29, 2013] 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."

Check out the video commercial for the resurrection of "All My Children" resurrection on Hulu below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/od1LeaCDK5E:

It added:

"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."

For what its worth, the two shows had been on TV a combined total of 84 years.  Variety, long an entertainment business go-to trade publication, featured an entertaining if descriptive headline for the news (see http://variety.com/2013/tv/news/inside-the-online-revival-of-all-my-children-one-life-to-live-1200412961/):

"The Bold and the Digital: Production and distribution getting a radical rethink"

That's an obvious play on the name for another soap known as "The Bold and the Beautiful".  But the headline suggests, the day for content we once passively turned our television receivers on to watch has finally seen major technological changes in how that entertainment content is delivered, which has disrupted other types of entertainment such as music.

The two venerable soap operas noted will come back to life, but will be distributed online.  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.

NPR recently addressed this online resurrection of these two soaps.  You may listen below, or by visiting http://n.pr/13DKI4y:

Marketplace talked about the soaps migration to the online platform, which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://bit.ly/16bqWl4:

The resurrected shows will be available for streaming on computers on the Hulu website (http://www.hulu.com/). 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 scenario that has plagued soaps in recent decades as viewership withered and numbers sank (there are now only four soaps left on the broadcast networks; there were a dozen in 1991).

The details of this soap resurrection online are as follows:

Starting Monday, April 29, 2013, brand new 30-minute episodes of both "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" will appear each Monday through Thursday on the free Hulu.com website and the paid monthly subscription service Hulu Plus.  Fans can also buy episodes in Apple's iTunes store.

Reuters reported "The producers, former Walt Disney TV chairman Rich Frank and talent management veteran Jeff Kwatinetz, hope to ride a wave of interest in first-run series online, highlighted by the recent buzz for Netflix original drama 'House of Cards' and its coming revival of the former Fox comedy 'Arrested Development'".

Commercial Success for Soaps Delivered Online Not A Sure Thing

As I already noted, internet-delivered "TV" programming does something networks like Soapnet did not (could not or would not): provide on-demand, anytime, anywhere entertainment programming to a number of computerized electronic devices connected to the internet, whether its a traditional television set (possibly with an add-on device like Roku), or on a tablet computer that someone can watch at their desk during their lunch break at work.

In fact, "All My Children" star Jill Larson (known Opal Cortlandt to soap fans) had this to say: "It's no longer daytime -- it's anytime now."

Will Older Viewers Tune Into Soaps Online?

There is still some skepticism that such an older-skewing audience will necessarily tune-in.  For example, one subsegment of traditional soap viewers, notably elderly women, may feel technologically challenged to even find the show, although that does sell their skill sets short, and newer, smarter televisions may yet turn it into a plug and play even if the technology isn't there today.

TVs sold today have so many wires and connections that its a bit of a hassle to set up, and even worse to move within your home.  Many observers thought that Apple, which made computer operating systems user-friendly with the Mac, or made an entire library of digital music (and retail store) accessible via the iPod is a logical choice to bring ease-of-use back into the digital television.  So far, however, Apple TV is significantly more expensive and certainly no easier to set up, yet is more restrictive in terms of content than rivals from Roku, therefore Apple has not quite enlightened or created a new market ... yet.

In my mind, at least, new technology may actually help ventures like managing an ever-growing body of entertainment delivered via the internet.  After all, imagine if you could use a TV remote control and enter a particular channel number to retrieve online-distributed content from all over the internet?  That may lure in a bunch of viewers who simply want the ease that television once represented: turn it on, change the channel and watch.  No one wants to spend several hours programming all that stuff to help us navigate, connecting different wires (or entering wifi and network passwords).  Roku, while decent, still limits itself to just a few providers (YouTube is not among those, although I believe Hulu is).

Smaller Still Works With Online Delivery

Technology aside, the resurrection is credited to a man named Mr. Kwatinetz, the former head of a Hollywood talent agency, and Mr. Frank, a former president of Walt Disney Studios, who now own a production company known as Prospect Park, which snapped up the rights to the two soaps shortly after ABC canceled them in 2011.  The New York Times reports (see http://nyti.ms/11vq70A) they don't necessarily need every single one of the three million viewers who watched "All My Children" or "One Life to Live" on ABC to watch online to make the economics work.

The New York Times, reported "By some estimates they need only about one-sixth the viewers, or 500,000, to break even. That's because the episodes cost far less to produce than they used to; ads on Hulu can be much more targeted than ads on television; and some viewers will pay out-of-pocket, either through iTunes, where episodes will retail for $0.99 each, or through the $8-a-month Hulu Plus service. (The most recent episodes will be available through the free version of Hulu, while the whole library will be on only Hulu Plus.)"

Mr. Kwatinetz also told the New York Times he expected the audience to come from two camps: longtime fans and "younger people who are already watching most of their TV online." (To entice the latter group, the new shows are faster-paced and racier than the ABC versions.) Still, Ms. De Kosnik said, some former viewers could be "confused by the thought of trying to find TV shows online."

Unlike in the past, these days, the options of WHAT viewers can watch seem to be expanding) and those entertainment options are now being delivered in innovative ways - online.  Right now, Hulu is the channel for this, but rival Netflix has inked deals with a few others to resurrect shows like "Arrested Development".  This will be a test to see whether grannies in nursing homes with iPads in hand will tune in to some old favorites.

Author P.S. (September 9, 2013):  NPR reports that after an arguably very successful reboot on Hulu, the long-running soap "One Life to Live" is now facing new, legal challenges.  A legal dispute has shut down production all together, which has fans worried the show's days may be numbered in spite of a successful reboot online.  See "How Many Lives Does 'One Life To Live' Have?", and have a listen at http://n.pr/17QhQFK.

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