Trend: ABC Migrates Soaps From Daytime To Primetime

ABC's Revenge, Pan Am and G.C.B. (ABC)

ABC's Revenge, Pan Am and G.C.B. (ABC)

The ABC soap opera is dead. Long live the ABC soap opera. Though the network has canceled its long-running daytime soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” and parent company Disney is shutting down its SoapNET cable channel, all of its new primetime dramas are serialized shows with female protagonists. In other words, soap operas.

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The network is pinning its hopes on “Pan Am” (a highbrow drama about the glamorous lives and romances of female flight attendants in the early 1960s), “Once Upon A Time”  (a serialized fantasy about a woman who moves to a mysterious small town populated by fairytale characters — think “Twin Peaks” meets “Into the Woods“), “Charlie’s Angels” (an updated version of the iconic 1970s series about female private investigators that will have ongoing story arcs) and “Revenge” (Loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, a beautiful woman moves to the Hamptons hellbent on destroying a wealthy family).

Preview “Revenge”:

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These shows will be joined mid-season by “G.C.B.,” a comedic soap about a woman who moves back to Texas and reconnects with her mean-girl friends from high school, and “Scandal,” a soapy ensemble drama about a crisis-management firm from “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes.  Speaking of “Greys,” it, and its spin-off “Private Practice,” may be billed as medical dramas, but most viewers are more interested in Meredith and Derek’s relationships than in whether the patients will be cured. This is also the final season of “Desperate Housewives,” the satire of suburban life that reinvented the primetime soap for the twenty-first century.

Though most of broadcast television’s highest-rated scripted shows are procedurals, ABC only has two: “Castle” and “Body of Proof.” So why is ABC taking such a big gamble on primetime soaps when its daytime division has decided that the genre no longer appeals to contemporary women? ABC’s President of Entertainment, Paul Lee, previously turned ABC Family into a cable powerhouse with a line-up of teen soap operas that appeal to young women.  What makes Lee think older women also want to watch soaps? He described his programming philosophy at the recent Television Critics Association panels. “We live in a world, because you can watch whenever and wherever you like, that appointment television becomes more important. It’s no longer least objectionable programming. It’s what did I DVR.” In other words, in his opinion, serialized programming is more likely to be Must See TV.

Preview “Once Upon a Time”:

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However, Lee, perhaps conscious of the soap stigma, shied away from labeling the series as soap operas saying, “We are known for creating storytelling with empowered women.” He claimed that ABC is, “The number one must‑view brand because of the sort of power of our storytelling and our aspirational stories.” The closest he came to labeling a show as a soap was when he described “Revenge”, saying, “It’s got this great sort of ‘Dynasty‘-Hamptons world, and yet it has the revenge-Count of Monte Cristo storyline going through it.”

Most of the new shows’ producers were also reluctant to label their shows soap operas. “Charlie’s Angels” producer Miles Millar said, “This version will have more about their off‑the‑case relationships.”  Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Bosley, added, “There will be a lot of backstory revealed as the season progresses.  We’re going to figure out a lot, who Bosley is, what he’s about.  And I think a lot of that is going to come through Charlie.  He has a lot of secrets on Charlie, and he knows the Angels really well.”

Preview “Pan Am”:

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“Pan Am” Executive Producer Thomas Schlamme, known for his work on prestige serialized dramas including “West Wing” that eschewed the soap label, says of “Pan Am,””I don’t think it’s straight-out escapist.  It’s not a comic book…  But it is wish fulfillment.”

“Once Upon A Time” has numerous fantasy and mystery elements that separate it from the typical primetime soap. But Executive Producer, “Lost” alumnus Adam Horowitz insists that, at its heart, the series is about the relationships between the residents of Storybrooke. “The show really ‑‑ it’s about these characters and it’s about their lives and what they’re going through.” In other words, it’s a soap in fantasy clothing.

In contrast, the creators of “Revenge” are proud to call their show a soap opera. Said Executive Producer Wyck Godfrey, “We come from the feature world, you know, making movies for primarily female audiences.  And for us, if we were going to do a television show, we wanted it to be a drama.  We wanted it to be soapy.  And, you know, I grew up in the era of a ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas,’ and those were the shows I watched.”

The series creator Mike Kelley even cited one specific 1980s soap icon as an inspiration. “Abby Ewing from ‘Knots Landing‘ was one of my favorite characters growing up, and she did the most wicked thing ever in one season where I think at the end of, let’s say, Season 4, she tells this guy, ‘I will get you for what you did.’ A nd then Season 5 starts and they become friends and they become romantic and it’s this whole thing and then they get engaged.   And at the end of the season, they’re at the altar and he says “Do you take this man to be your husband” and she goes, “Hell no,” or something like that and walks off and I’m like that’s great.  I want to write that.”

Will ABC big gamble on primetime soaps work? That is a cliffhanger that will not be resolved until the shows debut this fall.

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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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