Can the Internet Save Soap Operas?

As production begins for web versions of 'One Life to Live' and 'All My Children,' fans say the answer is "yes"

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Michael Nouri and Bobbie Eakes in 'All My Children,' the week of Sept. 27, 2010.

It seemed, at first, like a love that would last forever. After so many years together, what could go wrong? But, as does often happen, the thrill began to wane. A last attempt at rekindling that romance ended in tears. Until, a year later, they tried again—and found that love as strong as ever.

Sound like a soap opera? It is. Two of them, actually. For nearly four decades, sudser staples All My Children and One Life to Live were afternoon television constants. When—after years of sliding ratings and high costs—they finally went off into the Great Cheesy Set in the sky (in September 2011 and January 2012, respectively), longtime fans were devastated.

But there was a mysterious stranger waiting in the shadows. A few months before the shows left the air, the L.A.-based production company Prospect Park had struck a deal with their network, ABC, getting a license to both shows and promising they would continue “with the same quality and in the same format and length,” but on a new platform: the Internet.

Of course, the road to love is treacherous and bumpy. After months of will-they-or-won’t-they and a year during which it seemed sure that the shows would never actually make the move online, Deadline broke the news in December that Prospect Park was trying again. This time it was for real. Starting this spring, new episodes will be available via iTunes, Hulu and Prospect Park’s website The OnLine Network.

Production on the revamped shows—they’ll still have new episodes every weekday, but each will last 30 minutes rather than an hour—begins this month. And, despite the year-long vacuum and the perils of the platform transition, soap-opera experts are cautiously optimistic that this plot line will have a happy ending.

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It’s All About the Fans

It wouldn’t work without fan excitement—and that excitement is justified, says Carolyn Hinsey, a soap-opera blogger and veteran columnist for Soap Opera Digest. “How can you not be positive? If you could bring someone back from the dead and they might be a little sick for a while, wouldn’t you still rather have them back?” Hinsey told TIME, likening the experience to visiting an old friend. “And then they’ll get better and better, and hopefully they’ll be totally healthy and you’ll get to go hang out with them again.”

Hinsey believes that the concerns expressed by some fans in the comments sections of soap-opera fan sites—Will the casual fans have found something else to fill their free time? How will fans with slow internet connections watch the show now? What about fans with no internet access?—should not hinder the shows’ success. Many of the cast and crew from both shows (and One Life in particular) are returning for the new incarnations, after all, and prime-time soap Dallas succeeded in coming back (albeit to TV) after a hiatus lasting more than two decades.

As for the logistics of online viewing, she believes that truly devoted fans will always figure out a way to watch. “A lot of viewers didn’t have cable either, and when TV started going in the direction where you needed a cable box, they got cable. My grandmother had the antenna with the Reynolds Wrap on the end of it but if she was alive when you needed cable to watch soaps, she would have gotten cable. So I think a lot of older people will figure out a way to watch it online,” Hinsey says. “And they don’t need 3 million viewers to be possible, as a half-hour internet soap. If you get a million viewers you’re one of the biggest internet hits around.”

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And the much-trumpeted end of the soap opera, she believes, was just a self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated by network brass, who hastened to make real the demise of the genre by failing to promote or embrace shows that still had strong ties to their viewers. Her evidence? Over Christmas week this past year, the remaining ABC soap, General Hospital, reached a two-year high for viewership.

Settling Scores?

Another potential reason for fan-engagement, as befitting the genre, is revenge. Hinsey says many soap fans felt insulted by ABC’s decision to replace soap operas with lifestyle shows like The Chew and The Revolution. That resentment is on full display online: soap-opera activists like Y.B., better known as “Screw the Chew” (a 34-year-old from California who has been a soap fan since age 7, and wishes to remain anonymous), took to Twitter and Facebook to lash out at the network, organize boycotts of ABC and its sponsors, and plan live protests at events like ABC’s May 2011 showcase. The outcry was strong enough to influence Hoover to pull its vacuum ads from the network and—although both ABC and Propsect Park would not comment on the matter for this article—the fans believe their activism is at least partially responsible for the show’s return.

So a successful online version will be a poke at the network they feel abandoned them, although it’s not as much of a win as a return to television would have been. “We’re definitely going to watch online. Even if it’s not exactly the way we wanted it, we’re still going to support it and watch,” says Y.B. “We proved to everyone else that we wanted them back and they came back. It does feel good to prove them wrong.”

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History on Their Side

There’s also cause for hope based on the history of the soap opera. That’s even if the decline of the genre isn’t just in TV executives’ collective imaginations. C. Lee Harrington, an editor of the 2012 book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era, says that the drop in interest has been real—General Hospital‘s recent viewership numbers notwithstanding. After reaching a high point in the 1960s, there was a steady decline in ratings that continued until a sharp drop in the late ’90s. “When Guiding Light was cancelled [in 2009, after 57 years on television and another 15 on radio], it seemed like ‘anything can be cancelled,’” she says, “just because of its longevity.”

Fewer women were spending their days at home, and cable television and internet provided alternatives for those who still did. Then, in 1995, the trial of O.J. Simpson dominated daytimes airwaves and disrupted long-established viewing habits. Reality television came along, offering a cheaper-to-make alternative for networks looking for content. And soap operas, as a concept, didn’t seem to make so much sense anymore. “As the pace of life got quicker and quicker,” Harrington says, “the idea of investing in something that you needed to watch every single day just became less and less relevant to how people are living their daily lives.”

The New Model

But that doesn’t mean soap operas are done. To the contrary: Soaps once made the transition from radio to television, why can’t they make the transition to internet? They already have, in some cases: Harrington cites Venicewhich stars soap vet Crystal Chappell and won a 2011 Daytime Emmy in the “special class format” category—as a successful early version of an online soap model. “There’s an audience out there looking for a different way to consume soaps. In some ways, this could be going back to the early days of radio, when you had 15-minute installments,” she says. And even compared to five years ago, the Internet is very accessible to soap fans, who already populate and contribute to a wide array of message boards and forums.

“The merging of television and the internet isn’t far away, whatever that might look like,” she says—but whatever it does look like, it will include soap operas. “This is a really ancient form of storytelling, the serial narrative. At the end of one installment, you want to know what happens next. We’re seeing it less on daytime television, but that form of storytelling will absolutely continue.”

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And she’s got a point, because there’s another reason viewers will have an incentive to tune in, especially with All My Children. They need to find out what happens. The show’s finale ended—naturally—with a cliff-hanger.