Even as the big broadcast networks continue killing off or otherwise compromising their daily daytime dramas – the only genre of television programming they can still call their own – a basic cable network has stepped up to prove that soap operas don’t have to die. They simply need to adapt to changing times. If that means migrating from broadcast to cable, so be it.
The network at the forefront of what could become just such a shift for soaps is Nick at Nite, which two weeks ago premiered a one-hour week-night serial titled “Hollywood Heights.” Based on the Mexican telenovela “Alcanzar una Estrella,” “Heights” will play out until sometime in October with a total of 80 episodes.
Now, 80 episodes is a long way from the approximately 250 per year that are produced for network soaps, but it’s a good deal more than the episode order for the dominant teen- and young-adult targeted prime-time serials that are hot at the moment, including ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and MTV’s monstrously good “Teen Wolf” (which in its second season has become the most entertaining drama featuring werewolves on television). Amazingly, despite the demands of so much larger an episode order, “Heights” is as well-produced and professionally packaged as those shows. The credit for this efficient excellence goes to executive producer Jill Ferran Phelps, a broadcast soap veteran whose most recent credit is a 10-year run on “General Hospital,” and head writer Josh Griffith, an alumnus of the late and lamented “One Life to Live.” They are both doing terrific work here as they blaze what may be a new trail of daily soap storytelling in the creatively fertile world of basic cable.
To date, “Heights” has revolved around a pretty young high school student with a crush on a successful rock star. It is no secret to anyone familiar with “Alcanzar una Estrella” that over time she will break into the music business herself and become involved in a rocky romance with the current object of her affections. That’s about as basic and sturdy a foundation for a soap opera as any other: girl likes boy she thinks she can’t have, boy takes an interest in girl, girl and boy become a star-crossed couple, romance and heartbreak ensue. During the glory days of afternoon soaps – that would be the late ‘70s and the ‘80s – that simple narrative structure was a proven formula for unprecedented success, no matter how outrageous or outlandish the overarching plotlines. A good love story laced with occasional pleasing payoffs was all it took to keep millions of viewers enthralled – that and a backdrop of multigenerational family drama, something that has been all but eradicated from network soap operas, but which has been carefully constructed in “Hollywood Heights.” This might be a series that focuses on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of kids and young adults, but their parents and other grown-ups are very much a part of the action.
“Heights” is in every way a major experiment for Nick at Nite, from production to scheduling to publicity and promotion. It’s off to a great start and is already far superior to the unfortunate telenovela adaptations a few years back on MyNetworkTV. Nobody can say how “Hollywood Heights” will perform over the next four months, but with any luck it will earn ratings and respect significant enough to warrant a second season renewal, and perhaps the development of an additional nightly serial by Nick at Nite -- preferably a complete original and not one derived from an existing international program.
Creatively, I think that “Heights” so far has been a bit on the safe and sterile side, even more than “Degrassi” and certainly more than the often quite edgy fare on ABC Family. So I’m hoping it takes a few content risks as it goes along, which will make it more appealing to teens. I also think that five hour-long episodes per week may be too much of a demand to place on potential viewers in the new media world of ever-increasing competition and ever-shrinking attention spans. That’s a common concern expressed about network soaps -- but if the end product is strong enough, that need not be an issue, right?
Then again, if “Hollywood Heights” becomes a social-media phenomenon like “Pretty Little Liars” that may be all it needs to become a groundbreaking success. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if during its run as the most popular program on the planet with young people “General Hospital” had been able to benefit additionally by the kind of massive support that digital technology and social media today provide. (How much bigger would the audience for Luke and Laura’s record-setting wedding have been if people had been able to watch it on mobile devices?) “Hollywood Heights” can’t hope to achieve the same level of success that former teen fave “General Hospital” once enjoyed, but it would be nice if it ushered in a new era of popularity for its seemingly outdated genre, just as “GH” did back in the day.