Media history was made earlier this week when, for the first time, two broadcast series that had been cancelled by their network returned to life largely intact on the Internet. Specifically, new episodes of the long-running and now former ABC Daytime serials “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” produced by Prospect Park’s The Online Network and distributed via Hulu, HuluPlus and iTunes became available on Monday; this after an outcry from millions of fans of both shows when ABC saw fit to replace them with unremarkable reality efforts.
Significantly, the online versions of “AMC” and “OLTL” don’t seem very different from the shows that entertained millions of loyal fans on ABC for over four decades. New episodes appear only four days a week and have been reduced to a breezy 30 minutes each, but that makes great sense these days given the thousands of viewing options that are available across all media at all times. Each show has returned with much of its cast intact, along with familiar sets (rebuilt at the new Stamford, Conn. studios where they are produced) and continuations of select past storylines (along with kick-offs of a few new ones).
Most impressively, the production values are first-rate, which sets “AMC” and “OLTL” far above most of the many Web soaps that have popped up in recent years. With a few exceptions, most of those look like they were shot by students as class projects, and most of the dialogue and acting in them is decidedly uninspired. (Certain Web series, such as the thriller “Chosen” and the action-adventure “The Bannen Way,” both on Crackle, look spectacular but should not be categorized as Web soap operas, even if they are serialized.)
By contrast, as far as soap operas go, the new “AMC” and “OLTL” look like the real deal: handsomely executed television series that just happened to be produced for online viewing. Further, their move from broadcast --where soap operas do more to push network standards than just about any other genre but nevertheless remain compromised by antiquated FCC restrictions -- has instantly loosened certain content strangleholds on these veteran franchises. Right out of the box, the kids are running around without clothes on during “AMC,” and cursing up a storm on “OLTL.” (On “OLTL,” s-bombs are dropping over Llanview like ducks from the sky during hunting season.) As a result, it’s as if these two shows have taken big leaps into basic cable territory, which ought to add to their popularity with younger viewers who grew up watching anything other than broadcast.
To put this another way, the online versions of these shows already feel more in sync with what teenagers and young adults are watching than the four veteran soaps that are still running on the broadcast networks -- and while I wish only to support the latter, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to do so if they don’t find ways to further modernize themselves and attract new young viewers. So far, there has been a nice balance between the screen time given to grown-up characters and the younger generation in both “AMC” and “OLTL.” But I have to think the kids might claim a little more space as they progress, if only because younger people are more prone to watch television online. Then again, these may be just the shows to compel certain older people to finally explore new technology.
Some may say that the imminent arrival of a fourth season of former Fox comedy “Arrested Development” on Netflix will represent an even more profound development in the business of television than what we are seeing this week. If “Arrested” thrives there, observers assert, its success will open the door to an exciting life extension for all those shows that don’t quite cut it on broadcast or basic cable television. That’s a nice thought, and it may prove true to some degree. But we will have to wait and see what the Netflix version of “Arrested” looks and plays like, because while it will feel familiar and while the entire cast is returning to the project, executive producer Mitch Hurwitz explained at a press conference in January that there will be dramatic differences between the new “Arrested” and the old: Episodes will be told from the points of view of different characters, the entire cast won’t appear in each episode, etc. Of course, the greatest difference is that Netflix will make the entire new season of “Arrested” available at the same time, while viewers must wait day to day to see new episodes of “AMC” and “OLTL.”
Watching “AMC” and ”OLTL” this week, I can’t help but wish once again that a media company had seen fit to try this with “Guiding Light,” the long-running Procter & Gamble-produced soap opera that ran on radio from 1937-52 and then transitioned to television and ran on CBS until 2009, when it was cancelled. Of course, it’s never too late to make anything happen in the digital era, so let’s put this idea out there: If “AMC” and “OLTL” succeed online, how about reviving “GL” and taking a shot at producing what would be the only media property in American history to move from radio to television to the Internet?