A Soap Opera Goes Digital: On the Set of the New (Online-Only) ‘All My Children’

We visited the set in Stamford, Conn., and saw how the show is transitioning from TV to Internet

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David Giesbrecht

Cady McClain as Dixie Cooney and Eric Nelsen as AJ Chandler on 'All My Children'

Someone has scribbled a word, in purple ink, to the sign that greets visitors to the All My Children production studios in Stamford, Conn. — it no longer reads just Welcome, but Welcome Home. It’s a sentiment that surely applies to countless soap opera fans for which Monday, April 29 will be long remembered: the day that the much-loved soap opera — which started in 1970 and was among the dozen daytime dramas that were recently scrubbed from afternoon TV schedules — returns, after almost 19 months off the air. And this time, on the Internet.

The idea of a homecoming also hits home to actress Cady McClain, who began playing the character Dixie Cooney on All My Children in 1989 and is now back on set in Stamford, in a large dressing room where her dog has free rein and the cast and crew she’s worked with for years are just around the corner.

“It’s like going back to your favorite grandparent’s house that you thought had burned down and you walk inside and everybody that you ever loved is inside,” she says. “I guess that’s heaven.”

The metaphor works, but that would be quite a house: below a floor full of offices, craft-services tables, lines of desks for production assistants and dressing rooms in various stages of decoration, is the sound stage. The massive space is a labyrinth of sets, used for both All My Children and One Life to Live, which is making its big return at the same time. (The walls and props can be moved around to help a room switch between shows.) Here’s a hospital room and hospital hallway. Here’s a coffee shop. Here’s a lavish hotel room. Here’s a police officer’s desk, currently surrounded by cameras and monitors, their focus trained on the scene in front of them.

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And the “house,” as it were, has been remodeled. All My Children—once a traditional hour-long network daytime soap—is now a half-hour show releasing solely online, via a dedicated website, iTunes and Hulu. (One Life to Live has the same arrangement.) It’s an experiment that has been a long time coming: after AMC was cancelled and aired its last episode (a cliffhanger, natch) on ABC in September of 2011, a production company called Prospect Park purchased the rights, hoping to make a go of it as an online show, but early attempts to make that hope a reality faltered. Until today, that is. Now AMC begins the next challenge, a grand experiment that is perhaps the biggest in the genre since Guiding Light moved from radio to television—and it won’t be long before fans and those behind the scenes find out whether it worked.

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Jeff Kwatinetz, one of Prospect Park’s founders, is confident that this is only the beginning. He lives in New York and Los Angeles but has been spending his time lately in the corner office of the Stamford studio (which he found through Ice Cube, with whom he works and who shot Are We There Yet? in Stamford). “I think that online distribution is the future of television. I can’t imagine it going in a different direction,” he says. “We saw the record companies trying to force people to get in their cars and go to record stores and that didn’t work so well.”

But at the same time, while he’s sure that online television can be successful (he points to House of Cards as evidence), he’s aware that it won’t be immediately clear exactly how successful his attempt at it will be. A lot of people were watching AMC when it was cancelled—but a TV network can only show one thing at a time, unlike the internet, says Kwatinetz, and the network didn’t care about the soaps; no love is lost between Prospect Park and ABC, though Kwatinetz can’t comment on the ongoing lawsuit between the two—but some of those viewers may have given up and some may be frightened off by the move online. Though there are a few other potential revenue streams for Prospect Park, most of the money they make will be from ads viewers see when they watch the shows on Hulu, and ads depend on viewership numbers—but, unlike television soaps viewers, the new viewers aren’t expected to watch episodes on the day they’re released. It could take weeks for Kwatinetz to know exactly how many people are tuning in.

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The show’s executive producer, Ginger Smith, says she hasn’t been told how many eyeballs Kwatinetz wants, but she’s not worried: “I think we all know in our heart of hearts that we’re going to succeed,” she says. In the mean time, she’s more concerned with keeping those eyeballs glued to their screens than attracting them in the first place. Smith was with the show for 23 years—starting as an intern and working her way up to producer—until production moved to L.A. in 2010; she decided to jump the storyline forward five years when she was asked to return as executive producer for this incarnation. Aging the characters who were children would enable them to carry their own stories. Those stories will, she hopes,  attract a younger audience—people who might not have time to sit down and watch an hour of television every day, but will have time to stream two and a half hours a week on their own schedules—and provide a springboard for stories that can draw on old-favorite plots. “I think we’re going to get numbers from everybody curious to begin with. My concern was that I can’t let the momentum of the story drop,” she says, “which is why you might see some other people introduced onto the canvas who the audience didn’t expect. That will be my gift to all of them if they stick around.”

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The time jump isn’t the only change long-time viewers might notice, say the cast and crew. For one thing, the show will return to socially conscious stories like those that Agnes Nixon, the show’s original godmother, made waves with in decades past; Cady McClain says upcoming episodes will deal with how the millennial generation is unique and newcomer Sal Stowers (who joins the cast as Cassandra Foster) hints that her story is so intense the production team sent her flowers to acknowledge how difficult it had been for her.

For another, the show’s pace will be different, and not just because the episodes are shorter. Both Smith and Kwatinetz said that the average TV soap viewer watches only two episodes a week, so every plot point has to be reiterated. On the Internet, they’ll assume everyone watches everything, so there will be no filler and stories will move faster. On the Internet, you can also explore stories that might seem too risqué for TV, and use language that wouldn’t cut it on a network. (Not that there are no standards: a line about Satan’s testicles was cut, during filming, from the scene being taped in the police station set. It was replaced with something milder.)

The show’s mood is a little different too, says McClain: more naturalistic, more intimate and without soap-opera markers like “tags,” the extended pauses at the end of scenes. The mood is different backstage, too—Ginger Smith says working at the old ABC set was “like, uh oh, doom is coming, it’s the end of daytime drama, it’s the end of soap opera” and that every meeting felt like the axe was about to fall—and the audio and visual quality have also improved to make sure they work on different kinds of devices. Kwatinetz adds that the budget for fashion and music has also increased.Even before today’s premiere, one person was excited about those improved production values: new cast member Eric Nelsen, who plays AJ Chandler. He and his dressing-room-mate Robert Scott Wilson (who plays Peter Cortlandt) have a ritual of watching the trailer before filming, to get pumped up. “It’s like, look how good that looks!” he says. “We have to make every scene look that good!”

But what really matters, says Cady McClain—who has passed on her soap knowledge to Nelsen, teaching him tricks like how to do a proper soap hug so that the camera catches both faces—is that the online version of All My Children sticks to why people watch soaps in the first place. “This is what it is,” she says. “We tell stories and we tell them well.”

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