The soap fandom is reeling from the surprise announcement that just three weeks after their online debuts, “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are being cut from four new episodes a week to two. According to Deadline, this will drop the number of produced episodes from each series from 168 to 110. Some fans are focusing on the positive: The soaps are still back. So what if there are fewer episodes? Others are upset and wonder if, despite production company Prospect Park’s multi-paragraph explanation of how the data on the first few weeks of viewing led it to conclude that it was releasing too many episodes a week, there is some sort of hidden conspiracy or that the shows are already on the verge of cancellation.
There’s no denying that it costs less to produce 110 episodes than 168. Everyone who works on the shows will make less money. There even may be some people who are let go. That’s bad news, especially since everyone is earning less money than they did on ABC. But I am inclined to believe that, whatever budgetary issues factored into the decision, that Prospect Park has learned that it is best to come clean with the fans. Their year and a half of stonewalling both the press and viewers did them no favors. Unlike most press releases, this contained actual data. And it was interesting, with ramifications for the entire fledgling full-length online series industry.
Prospect Park was venturing into uncharted waters. Netflix’s original series have 13-episode seasons. Other than the short-form, largely unscripted YouTube series, no one has attempted a daily Internet series before. There was no way of knowing whether or not viewers would return to the shows they had not watched in over a year in sufficient numbers for the production to be profitable, or if people would watch in the same way that they did when the shows were on TV. According to Prospect Park, the answer to the latter question is no. When the shows were on TV, the majority of viewers watched live. They did not bother to record the shows on days when they could not watch.
Now, with every episode conveniently available online, people are choosing not to skip episodes. That makes sense to me and seems like a positive. If you consider that the average soap viewer only watches two or three episodes a week, that means the unwatched episodes are a loss for the network. Who cares if viewers get behind as long as they keep watching? But Prospect Park has noted that people like to marathon or binge-watch the shows on the weekend, a viewing technique I pioneered in junior high with my VCR. They think that watching a total of five hours a week (four, if you skip the behind-the-scenes Friday episodes) is too big of a time commitment. I am inclined to disagree, but I realize the hardcore soap fans that I know are not typical.
It is interesting that viewers are consuming the soaps in the same way that they consume other online television. Binge-watching, whether it’s an original online series, or a show you never got around to watching when it was on TV, but all your friends swear is great, has replaced “going outside” and “spending time with your family” as what people do on the weekends. Apparently, Prospect Park thought that the majority of people would watch a new episode each day, like they did when the shows were on TV. Again, I am not sure why one form of viewing is considered more desirable than another, given that, unlike with time-shifted DVR viewing, it’s impossible to fast-forward through commercials online. Of course, the segment of soap viewers who followed the shows online are more likely to be the motivated viewers who watched every episode and binged on the weekend in the first place. The still-developing conventions of online viewing are different. ABC would never release a whole season of “Scandal” at once, but that’s what Netflix does with its series. Maybe Prospect Park would have been wiser to release 20 episodes a month and let people watch at their own pace. Who knows? Not me, or anyone else, because this has never been done before.
The piece of information that I found most interesting about Prospect Park’s statement is that the company was concerned that most viewers were only watching one of the two soaps. It never occurred to me that they expected most people would watch both. There were plenty of people who turned on “Good Morning America” or “The View” and left the TV on ABC until “Oprah” finished. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t prefer one soap over the other. Online viewing is more deliberate. After a year’s absence, people are going to be inclined to focus on their favorite. The new versions of the shows are distinct from each other, and people may prefer the creative direction of one over the other. I doubt that people who were just watching “All My Children” are going to pick up “One Life to Live” now that the shows are airing on alternate days, but Prospect Park may have done research that indicates otherwise.
I am choosing to see the glass as half-full here. Two soaps that I have loved since I was a child have not only returned, but they are, against all odds, really good. With their more contemporary language and storylines, they may push the four televised soaps to again be trailblazers, the way that they were in the 1970s and 1980s. But with two half-hour episodes, “AMC” and “OLTL” now are airing roughly the same amount of weekly content as a prime-time drama. There will no longer be the sense of stories unfolding in real-time or the luxury to spend time on scenes that don’t advance the plot. I lament that we are losing what made daytime soaps different from other serials: that they were on every day.