The news that ABC’s canceled soap operas are to continue after all, in the same format, online may not sound like it, but it might be the most significant news in original online television content this year. Will the web become the new television afterlife?
Admittedly, the game changer isn’t that All My Children or One Life to Live have been taken off the air in favor of cheaper daytime programming — that, sadly, is the way the business works — but the news Thursday that both shows have been, essentially, un-canceled, and licensed by ABC to Prospect Park, a producer of online-only content to continue as web-only series while keeping the same creative teams behind the scenes and, interestingly, running times despite their new venues. Essentially, the shows are continuing as-is, except they’ll be online instead of on regular television.
I doubt that I’m the only person who sees this as a potentially huge event. For one thing, it offers the chance to bring an entirely new audience to online television — if even half of AMC or OLTL‘s current audience follow the shows to the web, that’d not only likely be a significant increase in the audience for original longform web content, but also definitely be a demographic shift for those paying attention to online longform drama. For another, it’s a sign that the internet is ready to seriously try and take on television at its own game.
We’ve come close to this before — Hulu and Netflix are both working on all-new original content, and various canceled TV shows have had unaired material appear online — but normally, the TV/online relationship is either one of “Here are some deleted scenes that we’ll put online before they end up on the DVDs” or “I wonder if we can develop this online hit into a TV show.” Seeing the crossover happen in this direction is so new that it’s exciting, even though I care little for the shows themselves. If the two soaps find success online (although quite what would define success in this setting, I’m unsure), it could open up the floodgates for other shows that couldn’t quite make the math work on television to return online — imagine the possibilities! — or, perhaps more importantly, offering an additional revenue stream to make shows financially viable for broadcasters. What would a digital debut-network TV-DVD model look like to shows that don’t necessarily have the highest ratings? What shows could that help keep alive?
It all depends, of course, on how many people tune in for the online versions of the soaps. If no one watches, it’s not the future of anything, just a failed experiment — and, sadly, another nail in the coffin of serious online television production. But if it works, if the existing audience log on in big enough numbers, then who knows what could happen? Who would’ve expected so much to rest on the success of One Life to Live?