Watching episodes of today's low-budget, limited-run Web soaps (with their average running times of approximately five minutes), it is difficult to imagine the genre developing into something that might rival or replace the daytime dramas of broadcast television. But remember, television soaps in their infancy ran for only 15 minutes and were shot with static cameras in black and white (and those were a quantum leap from the radio serials before them). In the '50s and early '60s, it was unimaginable that soaps would blossom into the handsomely produced, big-budget extravaganzas that they became in the '80s and early '90s.
Still, there is much for soap opera enthusiasts to be excited about as a new decade in Internet content development begins. (The same holds true for advertisers who understand that there are no viewers of video entertainment who are as loyal to shows and sponsors as soap fans.) The two latest entries in the Web soap arena, "Venice" and "Gotham," are well-stocked with popular stars from past and present daytime dramas.
"Venice" became an online sensation long before its December debut
when cocreator and star Crystal Chappell, who was featured in a popular lesbian love story during the final months of Guiding Light, announced that Jessica Leccia, the actress who played her
girlfriend on GL, would play her lover on the Web series. Sure enough, "Venice" opened with a PG-13 bedroom make-out scene between the two, indicating that Chappell meant what she said in
recent interviews about taking advantage of the greater creative freedom the Web can provide. (GL fans had clamored for love scenes between the two, but physical contact between them was kept
to a minimum.) Filmed on location in Venice Beach, Calif., "Venice" also features Galen Gering of Passions, Nadia Bjorlin of Days of Our Lives, Tina Sloan and Jordan Clarke of Guiding Light
and Hillary B. Smith of One Life to Live, among other soap stars. It looks great, though the first two episodes are compromised by uneven sound quality.
"Gotham," created by and starring As the World Turns alumna Martha Byrne, opened in November on a somewhat quieter note, moving a bit too quickly in its premiere to introduce a handful of its characters and plot threads in under three minutes. But its lush settings and fine fashions (supplied by Nicole Miller, with much onscreen credit) made clear that with time and resources it could develop into a slick, sophisticated serial. The soap stars on its roster include Michael Park and Paolo Seganti of As the World Turns, Kin Shriner of General Hospital, Lisa Peluso of Loving, Anna Stuart of Another World, Kurt McKinney and Maeve Kincaid of Guiding Light and Brianne Moncrief of All My Children.
Most Web soaps are taking shape with early (and minimal) financial backing and no active business model, though "Venice" is an exception. Chappell decided early on to charge viewers $9.99 for each season of 12 episodes. (The first episode is free.) Should "Venice" amass enough subscribers through this pay-per-season model to finance production, Chappell will have indeed broken new ground.
There has recently been a significant migration of soap opera talent from television to the Internet, particularly actors who are
looking to develop their own material and, ideally, create new jobs for themselves. (They're also seeking to remain visible in the entertainment community and hold on to as much of their fan base as
possible.) Former All My Children star Eden Riegel paved the way in 2008 with "Imaginary Bitches," an online series about a lonely young woman who creates two imaginary friends that turn out
to be very outspoken and demanding. More a comedy than a true soap opera, "Bitches" was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in the New Approaches/Entertainment category and was honored in 2009 with two Webby
Awards. The first season is now available on DVD and a feature film adaptation is in development.
Guiding Light veterans Lawrence Saint-Victor and Karla Mosley have also hit the Web with "Wed-Locked," a series about a young couple humorously navigating the minutiae of modern marriage. Much like Riegel with "Bitches," Saint-Victor and Mosley aren't so much trying to produce a soap opera for the Internet as deliver something new that would likely never be seen on television. Perhaps because of its relative intimacy, "Wed-Locked" has a certain sexy charm about it that the more ambitious "Venice" and "Gotham" are missing.
Meanwhile, former General Hospital star Tristan Rogers is developing a multiplatform online serial titled "Reality Bytes." One Life to Live actor Nicholas Gonzalez can be seen in "Then We Got Help!" an ongoing Web drama about four couples in therapy that should appeal to fans of HBO's In Treatment. Another General Hospital alumna, Vanessa Marcil, one of the most popular soap opera actresses in the history of the genre, stars in the upcoming action-drama "The Bannen Way," set to debut in January on Crackle. (If the sensationally cinematic trailer for "Bannen" is an accurate depiction of what's to come, this series could do for Web programming what Avatar will do for movies.) "Bannen" isn't a Web soap, but Marcil's involvement and her enduring connection to the soap opera community are doing a lot to help generate publicity for it. And then there's "Empire," an instantly addictive serial drama that doesn't feature any soap opera stars in its cast, but should. It plays like a soap; it is great fun and it deserves the kind of attention it would receive if a soap actor or two were featured on its canvas.
So far, none of these Web soaps come close to the slick professionalism of "The Lake," a teen serial that debuted last summer on thewb.com. "The Lake" was produced and directed by Jason Priestley and sponsored by Johnson & Johnson's Clean & Clear skin care for teens. Filled with fresh-faced young actors and actresses frolicking in the sun, some of whom were seen using the product line during the drama of it all, "The Lake" was the perfect Web union of serial and sponsor. Which puts the soap right back where it started.