STAMFORD, Conn. – Taped to a wall at the entrance to the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford is this greeting: “Welcome (back) to Pine Valley.”
Pine Valley, of course, is the mythical setting of “All My Children,” a daytime drama that ran on ABC for nearly 41 years until it was snuffed in 2011.
But now, in one of those plot twists so common to soap operas but so rare in the real world, “All My Children” has been raised from the dead.
Was its cancellation just a bad dream, from which the show is now awakening? In any case, “AMC” will be back starting Monday with much of its august cast intact (including David Canary, Julia Barr, Jill Larson, Debbi Morgan and Cady McClain, and perhaps even Susan Lucci eventually returning to the fold), along with shiny new actors to add more pizazz.
But this time, “AMC” will not be on a broadcast network. It will be online.
So will “One Life to Live,” another venerable soap cut down by ABC after 44 seasons. It, too, will spring back to life on Monday. (Welcome back to Llanview, everybody!) Returning fan favourites include Erika Slezak, Robert S. Woods, Robin Strasser and Hillary B. Smith, each of whom has logged decades on the show.
Each serial will unveil four daily half-hours per week, plus a recap/behind-the-scenes episode on Fridays, with 42 weeks of original programming promised for the first year.
They will be available for streaming on computers on the Hulu website. Subscribers to Hulu Plus can watch on a variety of other devices. And the episodes will be available for purchase on iTunes.
This resurrection could reverse the doomsday plot that has plagued soaps for decades as their viewership withered and their numbers sank (there are only four left on the broadcast networks; there were a dozen in 1991).
And it is somehow fitting that TV’s oldest genre, carried over from radio, should now be making the transition to a 21st-century online platform complete with Agnes Nixon, who created both shows, as a digital pioneer. It’s a potentially restorative move that could prove the TV medium failed soaps, not the other way around.
Reflecting a new age of viewing patterns and business strategy, “AMC” and “OLTL” will be the first offerings of The Online Network, an ad-supported outlet for first-run entertainment delivered online.
“What better way to start than with two shows that have been watched by fanatical fans for as much as 40 years?” says Rich Frank, a partner of Prospect Park studios, which owns The Online Network.
He notes that even as ABC pronounced death for these two soaps, “AMC” was averaging 3.2 million viewers a day and “OLTL” had 3.8 million viewers. He sets the threshold of success for his new venture at “a very conservative percentage” of that broadcast audience.
“Being online is going to draw people in,” predicts Jennifer Pepperman, “OLTL” executive producer. “You can click on it and watch it any time you like.”
Meanwhile, the drama will adapt to its new medium.
“We don’t want to totally reinvent the wheel, but we want to make the wheel turn better and turn quicker,” Pepperman says.
“AMC” executive producer Ginger Smith echoes Pepperman from her office a few steps away at the just-moved-in-looking, bustling headquarters the two shows share.
“We want to keep the core,” says Smith, who has risen on “AMC” from production assistant in 1988. “I still want escapism and romance, but we’re going to have stories that are sometimes a little darker and edgier than we did on ABC.”
As she is speaking, “AMC” is wrapping its first weeks in front of the cameras. Then “OLTL” takes over the 27,000-square-foot soundstage to start production. In this back-and-forth arrangement, each series will tape 210 episodes in the year ahead.
“But these are not webisodes,” Frank says. “We are shooting television as everyone knows it. This is traditional TV storytelling distributed a different way — and it’s a superior way.”
Frank is a veteran entertainment exec who headed The Walt Disney Studios and served as president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. With his Prospect Park partner Jeff Kwatinetz, he produces TV series including USA network’s “Royal Pains” and FX’s “Wilfred.”
But even as their company was doing business with traditional networks, Frank envisioned an online network delivering content to devices not limited to TV, and sidestepping traditional cable delivery.
Then ABC cancelled those two soaps.
“They fell into our lap,” says Frank, though minimizing the lengthy process of licensing them.
“These two shows come with 40 years of advertiser relationships and a die-hard fan base,” says Kwatinetz from across the partners desk he and Frank occupy in their shared corner office.
Kwatinetz’s resume includes running The Firm, a talent management company whose clients included the Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Clarkson.
“I saw the digital revolution coming in the music business,” he says, “and now, in television, it feels the same. My experience in the entertainment business tells me that what people want more than anything is convenience. Now television, by going online, is so much more convenient.”
So everything old is new again, and the fundamentals still apply: These two shows have retained a most profound link with soaps’ glorious past: Agnes Nixon.
Now 85, Nixon was mentored by the grande dame of the soap opera genre, Irna Phillips, back in the radio age.
She was writing for a TV soap — “Search for Tomorrow” — as early as 1951.
Then, in the late 1960s, while married, raising a family and serving as head writer for “The Guiding Light,” she created “AMC” (as she puts it) “in my free time.”
She wrote a “Bible” sourcebook for this prospective new series. But the show was turned down by CBS and the sponsor, Procter & Gamble.
Next she breathed new life into NBC’s flagging “Another World,” then was approached by ABC to create a new serial. Believing there was something “wrong” with “AMC” — after all, CBS had rejected it — Nixon started over and created “OLTL.”
“It its first year, it had good ratings,” she recalls during a recent interview at her Manhattan pied-a-terre. “So ABC said to me, ‘How about creating another for us?’
“I said to my husband, ‘I can’t think of another one.’ He said, ‘How about “All My Children”?’ So I opened the desk drawer and took out the Bible and sent it to ABC. They said, ‘Boy, that was fast work!'”
Maybe not THAT fast, but Nixon did work swiftly, often voicing dialogue straight into her Dictaphone.
“I would just empty my mind,” she says, “and hear them talking. That’s the good thing about being a writer: You get to play all the parts.”
Nixon doesn’t write these days, but she’s been involved on a daily basis as the series resume life. And she’s heading up what’s become a grand reunion.
Says “AMC” exec producer Smith, “With every former member of the cast, staff and crew, when I called them they said, ‘We want to get in the trenches with you.’ When I called Cady McClain, she said, ‘Where do you want me and what time do you want me there?'”
The 43-year-old McClain first played the role of Dixie Clooney in 1988 and has since had a stormy history with villainous Pine Valley tycoon Adam Chandler (played by David Canary).
When Chandler’s wife, Brooke, couldn’t present him with a male heir, he had an affair with Dixie, which produced his son, “then he got rid of me. He put me in an insane asylum.”
“The baby,” McClain adds, “was this guy here.”
Seated beside her in this rehearsal room is Ryan Bittle, newly cast as Dixie’s all-grown-up, soap-opera-handsome son JR Chandler. And as McClain spins out more history of her character and his, Bittle listens with great interest: Much of it is news to him.
“I’m not familiar with the show at all,” he confesses, “and I’m still trying to piece everything together.”
What can Bittle look forward to? More history unfolding, soaked in plenty of emotion.
“I was crying all day yesterday,” says McClain. “Crying again today.”
But undergirding the essential turmoil, hope springs eternal on daytime dramas — and for the people reviving two venerable soaps.
“This is a second chance,” says Jennifer Pepperman as a new day dawns. “It is a wonderful gift.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier.