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Reviving canceled ABC soap operas becomes a real-life drama

The entertainment firm that turned canceled ABC soap operas 'All My Children' and 'One Life To Live' into Internet shows has faced an array of challenges.

September 03, 2013|By Meg James
  • During the revival of canceled ABC soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life To Live,” entertainment company Prospect Park had to find financing, battle labor unions, trade legal salvos with Walt Disney Co., and fight zealous soap opera fans who were supposed to be ardent supporters. Above, crew members for the online version of "All My Children" Brian Lydell (music director), left, Michael Allen (sound mixer) and Ginger Smith (executive producer) at their office in Sanford, Conn., last week.
During the revival of canceled ABC soap operas “All My Children”… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

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."

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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 laptop computer crowd.

Still, Kwatinetz figured the venture would succeed if one-fifth of the more than 3 million viewers who watched "All My Children" in its final season on ABC would log in for the online episodes.

To help with the transition, Kwatinetz, 48, enlisted Agnes Nixon, the 84-year-old creator of the two soaps. Their mission was to transform the daytime staples into shorter, snazzier affairs.

He hired executive producers for the two shows, including Ginger Smith, who started working on "All My Children" as an unpaid intern 25 years ago before working up the ranks. She was put in charge of day-to-day production of the online version.

Kwatinetz's team reassembled for the Internet shows nearly three dozen actors who performed on the ABC programs, including "One Life to Live" patriarch Robert S. Woods, who came out of real-life retirement for the gig, and the Emmy-winning Erika Slezak, a fixture on the show for 40 years.

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The producers also created a part for 27-year-old Jennifer "J-Woww" Farley, one of the party girls from MTV's "Jersey Shore."

"I wanted to see the shows continue," Nixon said from her home in Pennsylvania. "There were literally millions of fans who wanted to keep watching these shows."

After struggling for more than a year to secure financing, Kwatinetz had funding in place at the end of December. The group toasted their good fortune but the pressure was on. They had less than eight weeks to lease a sound stage in Connecticut, build nearly 30 sets, hire writers and begin shooting by a Feb. 25 deadline established in the licensing agreement with Disney.

"It was a bit nerve-racking," Smith said. "We had to start writing parts for actors that we hadn't even signed. We were still writing the first episodes when we started shooting."

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.

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"ABC inexplicably killed off two 'One Life to Live' characters on loan to 'General Hospital' by having their car forced off a cliff," Prospect Park said in its April lawsuit.

ABC countered that it did nothing wrong, saying in a court filing 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 of the soaps that would be 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, which represents crew members. A union official said some crew members had been working seven days a week.

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