The biggest drama in soap operas these days isn't who's cheating, who has amnesia or who's waking up from a coma. It's how the backstabbing and love triangles that hooked afternoon TV viewers will work on the Internet.
In a bold wager to revive canceled ABC soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," a pair of Hollywood veterans are taking the 40-year-old dramas online, remaking them for lifelong fans as well as a younger, Web-savvy audience.
Starting Monday, new 30-minute episodes will appear each Monday through Thursday on the free Hulu.com website and the paid monthly subscription service Hulu Plus. Fans can also buy episodes in Apple's iTunes store.
The producers, former Walt Disney TV chairman Rich Frank and talent management veteran Jeff Kwatinetz, hope to ride a wave of interest in first-run series online, highlighted by the recent buzz for Netflix original drama "House of Cards" and its coming revival of the former Fox comedy "Arrested Development."
The trick will be to entice the soaps' older, not-always-Internet-savvy viewers while luring a younger crowd with faster-paced storylines, modern music and contemporary actors next to the shows' longtime stars.
"The challenge ... for them is how to continue to engage the people that are so passionate about it, and also use it as an opportunity to grow," said Stephanie Stopulos, digital director for media-buying firm Starcom USA.
To help attract new viewers, the producers cast "Jersey Shore" star Jenni "Jwoww" Farley as a bartender on "One Life to Live." Paula Garces from the wacky "Harold & Kumar" movie franchise has joined "All My Children." Snoop Lion, previously known as rapper Snoop Dogg, wrote and sings on the theme song for "One Life to Live," and will play himself in some episodes. He made cameo appearances when the show was on ABC.
The soaps' rebirth will test whether older-skewing audiences will migrate online. When it ended its TV run, "All My Children" attracted an average audience of 2.5 million viewers with a median age of 57, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media.
The online soaps will have the same suspense, heartbreak and betrayal, though plots will move quickly and avoid the more outlandish storylines of the past, according to Kwatinetz.
The shows "won't be bringing people back from the dead," he said. "There won't be people rescued from aliens. The stories are grounded, the storytelling is quicker-paced. It's more relevant."
The online soaps need to attract new generations to survive long term, said syndicated columnist Lynda Hirsch, who has written about soaps for more than 30 years. "You can't have your base die off," she said. "You've got to get younger people."
"All My Children" and "One Life to Live," once hour-long afternoon dramas, were stalwarts in what Time magazine once called "TV's richest market." Big advertising dollars from the daytime soaps supported prime-time schedules during their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s; Luke and Laura's wedding on "General Hospital" in 1981 attracted 30 million viewers on ABC.
Soaps thrived because they had a lock on one of TV's most sought-after demographics: stay-at-home moms, who couldn't get enough of the hunky doctors, evil twins and juicy cliffhangers. As the number of women in the workforce rose, the audience aged and the popularity of the genre faded, network executives had trouble making the economics work.
In April 2011, Disney-owned ABC announced that it was canceling "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." At the time, producers Frank and Kwatinetz were building a studio called Prospect Park with cable TV hits "Royal Pains" and "Wilfred," and noting online video's growing following.
Internet distribution offered a direct route to viewers aged 18 to 34, a demographic group that watches video whenever they choose on cellphones and tablets. Having episodes on demand also meant viewers didn't need to be home during the day—or even near a television—to catch up.
Prospect Park is backed by funding from private equity firm ABRY Partners. The studio will receive a majority of the ad revenue from episodes on Hulu and a percentage of the sales from iTunes, a person familiar with the arrangement said. Content providers typically keep 70 percent of iTunes sales.
Each soap has its own Facebook page splashed with glitzy, Vanity Fair-style cast photos, and they have already registered more than 1 million "likes" combined. Stars tweet and field questions via video chats. The studio is also running print, television and radio promotions, including an ad in Parade magazine, a weekly that draws readers over age 50.
Soap expert Hirsch believes fans will embrace the shows if they understand the new platform. Some longtime viewers don't realize they can watch for free on Hulu.com, she said. "
There is so much confusion," she said. "No matter how many times you write this, they are not getting it."