Reviving soaps produces real-life drama

When Jeff Kwatinetz decided to turn the canceled ABC daytime dramas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” into shows for the Internet, he accidentally cast himself into a real-life soap opera as both the hero and the villain.

To revive the soaps, Kwatinetz and his entertainment company Prospect Park had to find financing, do battle with labor unions, trade legal salvos with Walt Disney Co. and fight the zealous soap opera fans who were supposed to be his most ardent supporters.

“It’s been crazy,” said the former talent manager, now chief executive of Prospect Park. “If I were able to turn back the hands of time, there would be lots of things that we would do differently.”

Kwatinetz intended the two soap operas, which his firm licensed in 2011 after Disney-owned ABC canceled their broadcast run after four decades, to provide the foundation for TOLN, his long-planned next-generation online programming service. He figured that daytime soaps, which are known for intensely loyal and passionate fans, would be a perfect prototype to launch TOLN.

But skeptics pointed to Nielsen data that showed a majority of daytime drama viewers were women over 50 — not exactly the iPad crowd.

Production began Feb. 25, fulfilling the requirement.

Then came the lawsuit. Prospect Park sued ABC, accusing the network of trying to sabotage its efforts to revive the soaps by killing off some “One Life to Live” characters who had guest roles on ABC’s “General Hospital.” Kwatinetz had agreed to lend the characters to ABC so the actors portraying them could keep working while Prospect Park got the Internet productions up and running. But he didn’t expect the characters to wind up dead.

ABC countered that it did nothing wrong, saying in a court filing that it had “acted reasonably and in good faith at all times.”

Prospect Park’s versions of the soaps went live via the online video service Hulu on April 29, garnering raves from fans — until Kwatinetz reduced the number of new episodes available each week. Instead of releasing four episodes a week for each soap, the company released two episodes a week. He determined that making too many episodes available was forcing fans to choose between “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” Fans exploded in anger over the reduction in episodes.

Another controversy erupted after some viewers were horrified that the actors, testing the freedom of the Web, were using four-letter words not found on daytime television. (The producers backed off and cleaned up the language.)

Shortly thereafter, production was halted for two weeks in June because of a dispute over wages and benefits with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The hiatus “gave us an opportunity to stop and look at things and see what wasn’t working,” Smith said.

The producers determined that they had miscalculated audience willingness to follow the shows to the Web. They also decided that shows had to be shorter, move faster and be available in multiple episodes for binge viewing. And instead of letting stories unfold slowly, over months or even years, they had to write crisp story lines with a distinct beginning, middle and end.

The first online season ended recently, after the 43rd episode of “All My Children” and the 40th episode of “One Life to Live.” Prospect Park is shelving “One Life to Live” until the ABC lawsuit is resolved. It will focus on producing “All My Children,” which proved to be the more popular show online.

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