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Second Coming: Will the Web Save Soap Operas?

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Let us travel now back to the 1860s, to the city of Brooklyn, N.Y. The Civil War dominates the collective consciousness. Everywhere one looks, bearded, bedraggled white men can be found brewing their own alcohol and butchering their own meat—just as they can now. And James Stranahan, a former congressman, leads the effort to build a public park in the heart of the city, something along the lines of the magnificent Central Park being constructed across the river. Stranahan believes that Brooklyn’s park will “become a favorite resort for all classes of our community, enabling thousands to enjoy pure air, with healthful exercise, at all seasons of the year.” He also believes that it will drive up real estate prices and attract wealthy new residents. (Yes, even then, Brooklyn was rapidly gentrifying.) Stranahan’s vision would yield Prospect Park, a place that would give generations of surrounding locals a good excuse not to schlep all the way into Manhattan on nice summer weekends.

Now let us fast-forward 150 years to something completely unrelated. Last week, burgeoning entertainment company Prospect Park (full circle!) announced that it had purchased the rights to the recently canceled soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” from ABC with the intent of turning them into Web series. Like Stranahan, the company’s founders hope to build something that will attract money—in this case, the kind of money that comes from eyeballs and advertisers. Both “AMC” and “OLTL” average close to 2.5 million viewers. But details on how the shows will successfully transition from broadcast to the Web are scant. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, a soap opera can cost as much as $50 million a year to produce. The likelihood that either show will make anywhere close to that through Web-based advertising is about as high as the likelihood that Julie Taymor—or anyone, really—will be hired to direct a Broadway adaptation of “Green Lantern.” As the Times noted, “Prospect Park will have to cut deals with the talent of the two soaps, who would probably have to take pay cuts if they want to be involved in the new versions of the shows.”

The Prospect Park deal was heralded by some as salvation for two long-running, much-loved programs that have employed thousands of actors over the years. In reality, it will be something far short of that. New Web-based series will be welcome, but it’s a near certainty that they won’t employ nearly as many actors—nor pay those that they do employ nearly as much—as the broadcast incarnations did. These series will not do much to fill the massive job-opportunity void being created as the broadcast networks abandon the daytime drama format they nurtured from the beginning of television.

But work is work, and if Prospect Park can prove that small-scale soaps can thrive on the Web, it will establish a niche that has been barely explored and provide jobs that no one expected to be there just a few weeks ago. In this case, less may not be more, but at least it’s something.

Pictured: Brittany Allen in a scene from "All My Children"

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