Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the soaps get dumped. Again.

Editor's note: when it was announced that ABC was cancelling the daytime soaps All My Children and One Life to Live, we posted a former executive's take on the cancellations. The post caused a bit of a stir, so we thought we'd go to our friend Ed (also a former soap exec) for his take on the announcement that both soaps would no longer be moving online. This is like getting dumped by your rebound:

When I first sat down to write about Prospect Park canceling their plans to move All My Children and One Life to Live online, I was angry, and the tone of this post was going to be angry. But as I began to write, I realized that I’m not really angry. I’m disappointed. When Prospect Park, a production company known for basic cable series, Royal Pains and Wilfred, announced that they would produce both AMC and OLTL as internet-based series, fans of both shows heaved a collective sigh of relief as they would now not have to say goodbye to two iconic series. As a soap fan and a TV programmer, I was both grateful and impressed by Prospect Park’s initiative. Finally, a company realized the value of soaps and their passionate fans. Well, that didn’t last long as Prospect Park announced the night before Thanksgiving that they had suspended their efforts to transition both shows online due to lack of financing.

While I do believe Prospect Park, who I’ll now refer to as PP, had good intentions, I don’t think they truly understood what they were getting into. Producing two daytime dramas is much different than producing a primetime cable series. Aside from the production costs, number of episodes produced in a year, daytime dramas have large casts and crews. AMC and OLTL were cancelled in April with AMC scheduled to be the first to end in late September. PP announced their acquisition of the internet rights to the shows in July and intended on continuing AMC on the Monday after its ABC run ended. That timing was just never going to work. AMC was scheduled to end production at the end of August. PP hadn’t even begun negotiating with the multitude of unions involved. So when they decided that they would launch both shows in January after OLTL ended its network run, it made sense. But what didn’t make sense was that while OLTL had been successful in signing over a dozen of its cast member to the internet version of the series, only three AMC actors had been signed. This was an early sign that at least AMC’s future was doomed and that PP didn’t have a full grasp on the magnitude of producing these shows.

While creating their online network, PP was also shopping the shows around to cable networks for airings after episodes debuted online. There was also talk of PP possibly syndicating the shows to local TV stations in lieu of a cable deal. As someone who has worked in local TV, syndication and cable, this all made sense. PP couldn't command the same ad rates for the shows as ABC had. Even a small license fee from a cable or syndication deal would help offset production costs. I also suspected that PP would retain some commercial time in these deals which would provide an additional revenue stream. But, once again, the timing was off. PP had only named their network, aptly named The Online Network, by fall and there was no marketing against it. Even now if you go to their website all that comes up is a form asking for your name and email address so that they can keep you informed about their launch plans. How was a cable network or local TV stations supposed to acquire and promote the shows on such a short time frame? Even with the brand these two shows built over the last 40 years, they would still need to be promoted by their new homes. And remember, because there was no deal with the Writer’s Guild no stories beyond the finales had been written.

Oh the finales! When ABC cancelled both shows, the writers began plotting out the final days of Erica Kane and Vicki Lord. When PP rode in on their white horse, they asked both shows to rewrite the endings so that there would be a compelling cliffhanger to drive viewers to the new online versions. AMC fans were left with what was a quite lovely and compelling final week of episodes focusing on the families of Pine Valley which culminated in a classic AMC party filled with toasts, proposals and a gun shot as the series faded to black. I’m sure had PP not come along, AMC would have ended on a more sentimental note rather than having all of the show’s characters' lives hanging in the balance. Unfortunately for One Life to Live, they shot their final episode only a week before finding out they would not be continuing online. If PP had at least given them the courtesy of a heads up as they had to have known that they would most likely not have the funds to continue One Life during the final week of filming, I’m sure One Life’s creative team could have at least scripted a final scene to give the show more of an “ending.” PP should have just been honest and said it’s not going to happen. Now, as I understand it, OLTL will end with multiple cliffhangers, giving fans very little sense of closure.

Closure. That’s what it really comes down to for us soap fans. We’re not crazy or irrational. Well, some fans are, but they’re not the majority. We just want to know that the characters we have come to know, love and welcome into our homes five days a week will get the happiness and contentment they’ve been striving for all these years.

I’ve been watching soaps since I was a young boy and when I was about twelve or thirteen I was asked when I’d stop watching soaps. The question was asked as if soap opera viewing had some kind of natural expiration date. It was if I was expected to wake up one day and say to myself “today I stop watching soaps.” I couldn’t answer that question because I couldn’t imagine a reason why I would stop watching. In my mind, the stories of the denizens of Pine Valley, Bay City, and all those other fictional towns would play out forever. If I were to ask a football fan when they would stop watching their favorite teams play, I would probably be met with an incredulous stare. You see, us soap fans are no different than sports fans. There are those we root for and those we root against. We are emotional in triumph and defeat. We look at the people on the screen as extensions of ourselves, striving to be greater than their current circumstances might allow.

So, no, I’m not mad a Prospect Park. They merely didn’t realize the scope of what they were trying to accomplish within a short time frame. I’m disappointed that more time and thought wasn’t put into the plan because I do believe that there was a way to continue both shows. Maybe not in their current formats with their current casts, but it was an opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate the genre.

2 comments:

  1. Well said. I often use the sports fan analogy myself. I find there is little difference between knowing multiple players' batting averages, etc... and knowing how may multiple personalities Viki has. I'm also very sad PP couldn't make a go of it, I was trying to stay optimistic till the very end. I'll never stop watching soaps, I'll just have to find them elsewhere. I consider that an open call to all those TV programmers reading this blog!

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  2. Great post! I think it just goes to show that outside of the people working on soaps, no one really understands how much work goes into producing one. I'm still hoping the shows will somehow get different finales.

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