Thorsten Kaye is a soap-opera actor who looks like a soap-opera actor: bedroom eyes, dimpled chin, brown hair long enough to tuck behind his ears, the shoulders of a linebacker. He was sitting with me in the bustling Stamford, Conn., offices from which the longtime ABC soaps All My Children and One Life to Live are attempting to resurrect themselves as Web series and setting me straight about the daytime soap-opera business model. Soap operas are in the midst of a mass extinction event, one that has seen the five series canceled in as many years, leaving just four on the air. In 2011, ABC announced the end of AMC and OLTL, which had both been broadcast for more than 40 years but were regularly attracting between 2 million and 3 million viewers—about 5 million less than they had two decades earlier. So when I asked Kaye why he thought the shows, both of which he has appeared on, were cut loose, I was expecting to hear something about audience fragmentation, more and better alternate options for viewers, and fewer women staying at home during the day.
Instead, I got a defense, in the form of a brutal comparison with the networks’ prime-time business model. “I was on a show last season that cost between $6 [million] and $9 million an episode, and they had about a million people watching,” Kaye said in his British accent. “A show like this cost the network about $45,000 an episode, and they had over 2 million people watching. This wasn’t broken when these guys got it.”
The show that Kaye is referring to is Smash, NBC’s high-profile musical theater catastrophe, in which he played Anjelica Huston’s younger bartender love interest, who briefly wound up in jail for financing Marilyn: The Musical with tainted funds. On AMC he plays Zach Slater, a brooding casino owner, who briefly wound up dead, only to be resurrected by something called the “Orpheus Project” and is now trying to extract the daughter of a close friend from a sex-trafficking ring. “These guys” are Jeff Kwatinetz and Rich Frank, a former talent agent and a president at Disney, respectively, whose Prospect Park productions scooped up AMC and OLTL because they saw a potential profit where ABC saw series more expensive than the talk shows they could air in their stead. (The Chew, which replaced AMC on ABC affiliates now has, like AMC did, about 2.5 million viewers.) The new model was simple: They told the New York Times that if they could get 500,000 of the two shows’ devoted fans to watch and pay for their stories on Hulu and iTunes, they would break even. The company hired veteran producers and cast members—though AMC’s most famous alumna, Susan Lucci, opted out—and beginning late this past April started releasing 30-minute episodes of both AMC and OLTL on the Internet.
Simply put, Kwatinetz and Frank are attempting to remake a once mass product as a niche one. It’s a little bit like watching an Australopithecus hitch a ride on a rocket ship, hoping to find the one colony in the galaxy where he can still thrive. Daytime soap operas may be a punch line, but they are the ancestors of modern television, and not just the schlocky stuff. From the ’60s through the early ’90s, soap operas were doing things that other shows would and could not: regularly exploring controversial issues from abortion—AMC aired TV’s first legal abortion in 1973—to homosexuality, showcasing women’s narratives, not saving any plot for later, and demanding their audience have an encyclopedic grasp of past events that would shame the most devoted Lost-head. In the fluidity of their villains and heroes, who were constantly switching places so that inevitably even the nicest characters did something unethical, soaps rudimentarily presaged the anti-hero, the figure at the heart of the modern TV renaissance. Still, you don’t expect to find the soap opera on a cutting-edge distribution platform.
In the decades following soaps’ heyday, other shows have taken the relevant DNA and evolved. In 1980, when 30 million people watched Luke and Laura get married on General Hospital, soap operas didn’t look that different from everything else on TV: sitcoms with laugh tracks, dramas with mediocre lighting, prime-time soaps with huge shoulder pads. That is no longer the case. Viewers now have thousands of choices about what to watch, and show ranging from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Mad Men and Scandal can provide a more polished fix for viewers’ serialized story jones.
And yet in Stamford this past April, hundreds of people—writers, actors, producers, and crew members—were working at a frenzied pace to give new life to a genre generally thought to be antiquated, cheesy, shrinking, aging, and expensive. Why? Why save the soap opera? Why put the Australopithecus on the rocket ship?
The hangar housing the soundstage for AMC and OLTL is vast but packed with about 25 different sets, a bedroom sharing a wall with a coffee shop that shares floor space with a police station that leads into a high school corridor and on and on, a hall not of mirrors but anodyne furniture. Even the stairs leading down from the production offices serve double duty as part of OLTL’s nightclub, Shelter. In one corner of the soundstage, a score of actors were filming scenes from a black-tie gala—black tie is the only kind of party soaps throw—champagne flutes in hand. A red-headed, middle-aged actress wearing a long-sleeved sequined dress admired a diamond necklace up for silent auction. A man, an old friend in a tuxedo, stood behind her and chivalrously helped her try it on. She picked up a mirror to look at herself—and then someone yelled “Cut!” The mirror was at the wrong angle. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker made a correction, and within minutes, the actors went again, quickly nailing the shot and moving on to the next.
Soap operas famously shoot at breakneck speed. Network showrunners often complain about having to do 22 episodes a year, but soaps run on a schedule similar to the post office’s: Come rain or shine or snow or sleet, only Christmas, Thanksgiving, and breaking news events will keep them from their appointed time slots. Despite no longer having time slots, AMC and OLTL remain labor-intensive. On ABC, both shows aired for an hour, but only 36 minutes of that was content. (The rest was commercials.) In their new form, episodes are 30 minutes long, and all of it is content. The series also have staggered shooting schedules: AMC gets the studio for five weeks, followed by OLTL, so episodes need to be banked to run even when the show isn’t shooting.