Burning Questions About ABC’s Online Soap Deal

Jerry ver Dorn stars on One Life to Live (ABC)

Jerry ver Dorn stars on One Life to Live (ABC)

Now that the shock of the news that “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are moving to a yet-to-be-named new online entertainment channel owned by production company Prospect Park is starting to wear off, I have a lot of questions. I am not alone. The Internet has vacillated between euphoria, skepticism and confusion as fans and daytime insiders alike tried to figure out what just happened. The Wall Street Journal has revealed more details. “The deal gives Prospect Park exclusive rights to the two shows for more than a decade, and pays Disney millions of dollars a year in royalties for as long as the shows are produced, according to people familiar with the terms.” It looks like Disney has finally figured out how to make money on its soaps: cancel them.  Here are my most burning questions.

Will It Cost Money to Watch the Soaps?
The number one question on everybody’s mind seems to be how on earth a website is going to be able to make money on the soaps when the ABC/Disney behemoth was unable to make them profitable.  According to The Wall Street Journal, “Producers could sell the shows as an online subscription to consumers… They are also exploring advertising sales and sponsorships or product-placement deals.” Advertisers are still spending far less on online advertising than they are on television. Most websites, including this one, air far fewer commercials per episode than television does. (On the other hand, it’s impossible to fast forward through commercials on the web.) Setting aside possible budget cuts and producing fewer episodes, I wonder if this new online network will have a subscription model. Would you be willing to pay ten dollars a month for new episodes of AMC and OLTL as well as whatever programs are available on the network? If 300,000 people sign up, that would theoretically be 3 million dollars a month, which could pay for a big chunk of the production costs. Viewers are willing to pay extra to watch “True Blood” and “Dexter.” Maybe they will also pony up for shows that have been a big part of their lives for decades. These programs could be what drive viewers to the new channel. Prospect Park may be betting that people who paid for AMC and OLTL will also check out brand new programming that has yet to establish a following. It’s difficult for original programming on the web to build a substantial audience, as the producers of most web series would attest. If people have to pay for the soaps, it would also put a lot of pressure on writers and producers to deliver shows that make the audience happy. Would you pay for the AMC that was airing six months ago?  If the shows are going to be available for free, I can only assume that the new network is willing to lose money in the short term in order to generate interest in the new site. Either that, or Prospect Park has figured out a way to produce high quality, full length shows for far less money than anybody else while still paying people living wages.

Which Actors Will Stay With the Shows?
Apparently, no actors have signed on to the web series. In theory, this could be “All My Children” and “One Life To Live”: The New Class, with a whole new cast of characters. However, that is hardly something that fans are going to tune in to see. I have read a lot of speculation that the younger, lower paid actors are the ones who will stick around, while the higher paid veterans will be unwilling to take paycuts. I have a contrarian point-of-view. There are far more opportunities for younger actors in the entertainment industry. “As The World Turns” teen actresses Meredith Hagner (“Lights Out”) and Alexandra Chando (“The Lying Game”) are starring in primetime shows, along with twentysomething Eric Sheffer Stevens (“I Hate My Teenage Daughter”). Young soap actors are embraced by ABC Family and the CW. The talented older actors who did not land roles on other soaps are working in theater – which pays far less than television – or taking non-acting jobs. It’s not fair, but the kid who is playing Baz on “One Life To Live” has a better chance of landing primetime and movie roles than Jerry ver Dorn. I suspect a lot of AMC and OLTL’s veterans are aware of this and will be willing to take paycuts because they have fewer options.  The same holds true for daytime writers. In this climate, experienced WGA members may well be willing to work for the obscenely low WGA New Media Scale, (think working as a writer for an Administrative Assistant’s salary) because there are no other jobs.

How Many Episodes? When Will the Shows Premiere?
It seems unlikely, given that this new site does not even have a name yet, that AMC will be able to debut online immediately after its ABC finale. Will the audience still be interested after a couple of months off? Will there be fewer than five episodes a week? Will there be original episodes 52 weeks a year? Everything that viewers take for granted about the daytime schedule can be changed – including the daytime part. The web is 24/7. Will the site make new episodes available in the shows’ current early afternoon time period, or at midnight? Does it matter? Will viewers still watch every day, or will they opt for marathon-style viewing on the weekend? This is an intriguing experiment. Nobody knows how viewers are going to respond.

How Will the Freedom of the Internet/Lack of Ratings Pressure Influence the Content?
Imagine Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) dropping the F-bomb, or all of the men who currently wander around Llanview in nothing but the briefest boxer briefs getting completely naked. It could happen now that the shows no longer have to conform to the FCC’s regulations. The sex scenes could be as explicit as those on “True Blood.” I, for one, think that this could be a good thing if done tastefully. TV-MA has worked well for premium cable. As long as it is done in such a way that it will not alienate more conservative viewers, this freedom could inspire more creative storytelling and attract new viewers.

It should also be the end of ABC’s micromanagement of the shows.  This should allow the writers to tell the stories they want to tell, assuming Prospect Park’s executives are willing to trust that the shows’ creative teams know what they are doing. At the moment, it does not matter how old viewers on the internet are, just how many people watch. That means less pressure to get women viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. It also means no more relying on Nielsen’s small sample. Every viewer will finally be counted.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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