"All My Children," "One Life to
Brian Finke

The Bold and the Digital: Production and distribution getting a radical rethink

On his 48th birthday earlier this month, Jeff Kwatinetz spent seven hours meeting with Agnes Nixon, the grande dame of modern soaps, in Manhattan. The octogenarian served him a cupcake with a candle.

The duo discussed the imminent rebirth of two of Nixon’s creations, “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” which ABC canceled in 2011 after 40-plus years as daytime staples. Kwatinetz, topper of production and talent-management firm Prospect Park, parsed storyline arcs and went over production notes with her that Saturday at her hotel and then over dinner. It was three weeks before the April 29 premiere of the shows’ new incarnations, which include many of the same characters and actors. But at least in the States, they won’t be on regular TV — they’re coming exclusively to the Internet.

If Kwatinetz made any kind of birthday wish, it was surely that the two weekday serials will have long and fruitful lives ahead of them as digital natives. In the TV biz, there’s never a sure thing. But Prospect Park is making a particularly uncertain gamble: It wants to create an online “network” of shows on par with the quality and viewer reach of traditional television, but for less coin.

The challenge is tantamount to producing an Olympics-class athlete with a small-college athletic budget. That said, while Prospect Park has taken pains to maintain a lower-than-TV cost profile, these shows aren’t being shot by a guy with a Handycam in his buddy’s apartment. The firm and its backers are sinking tens of millions of dollars into the venture to hire professional cast and crew and build the infrastructure necessary to be a studio, producer and network all in one.

“Make no mistake — we need these shows to succeed,” Kwatinetz said, sitting in his cluttered corner office in Prospect Park’s Stamford, Conn., studio space.

Kwatinetz wouldn’t talk specific production costs. But he estimated that a full season of a traditional hourlong TV soap like “The Young and the Restless” is around $45 million. “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” combined are “not far off from that,” he said.

In a last-minute legal twist, ABC — which cut a licensing pact with Prospect Park for both shows — was sued for breach of contract last Thursday by the production firm after loaning some of the “OLTL” characters back to the network for usage on “General Hospital,” only to see three of them killed off. ABC has called the suit “baseless.”

The Connecticut Film Center is the new home of the soap’s fictional suburban Pennsylvania locales, “All My Children’s” Pine Valley and “One Life to Live’s” Llanview. Prospect Park moved into the facility just after the New Year, and shooting commenced Feb. 25.

(Pictured Above: The dorm room of “All My Children’s” Celia Fitzgerald.)

Prospect Park occupies 65,000 square feet at the center, which includes a 27,500-sq.-ft. main soundstage. The building’s other tenants are Ralph Edwards Prods.’ syndie “The People’s Court” and medical device manufacturer Gyrus ACMI.

The Nutmeg State studio space is a linchpin for Prospect Park’s business model. The company looked for facilities in Brooklyn, where it shoots primetime drama “Royal Pains” for USA. But it couldn’t find any place in New York that had enough space to accommodate the soaps, said Prospect Park partner Rich Frank, former Walt Disney Studios prexy.

“One of the biggest costs on soaps is the constant changing of sets,” Frank said. “We wanted both shows in one location. The idea is to share the same area and the same crew.”

At ABC, each show had amassed upwards of 100 sets over the years on both coasts (“One Life to Live” in NYC, “All My Children” in L.A.). Prospect Park uses only about a dozen sets for each series, built in a large shop adjacent to the soundstage, which remain in place during filming. Lights stay rigged where they are, too, which also saves time and money.

Walking onto the jam-packed soundstage, with 20-foot ceiling-height high-bay space, requires descending the staircase for “One Life to Live’s” nightclub, Shelter. No floor area is left unused. You’re surreally transported to the bedrooms, offices and shops of Llanview and Pine Valley, all in the space of about half a football field. The soaps share a few sets, including a coffee shop and hospital room, that are dressed differently for each show — another cost-saving measure. The new sets sit in four aisles, facing two “camera alleys” that let three-camera teams quickly shift between scenes.

A soundproof control room is located on the side. On a recent “OLTL” shoot of the coffee-shop exterior, exec producer Jennifer Pepperman wasn’t completely happy with one of the lead’s emotional responses, and the scene was reshot. That represents a closer attention to detail than traditional broadcast soaps, Frank said, and has led some production days to stretch until 3 a.m. “We are lower cost, but we are spending, don’t get me wrong,” he said.

The Connecticut Film Center is on the outskirts of downtown Stamford, a 34-minute express train from Grand Central Terminal. The neighborhood, as they say euphemistically, is “in transition.” New condos sit next to boarded-up houses. Down the street from the Prospect Park lot is an old-time upscale Italian eatery and a bodega where you can buy fresh cow feet (pata de vaca) for 99¢ a pound.

Yes, production costs are cheaper north of Gotham, but only slightly: Connecticut Film Center’s Stamford facility rents for about 10% less per square foot than comparable New York studio spaces, according to CFC managing director Bruce Heller.

The real Connecticut attraction is the tax break, Frank said. The state offers a 30% tax credit for production costs, above and below the line. New York, by contrast, extends a 30% credit for below-the-line costs only.

Prospect Park’s Stamford office has the bustling feel of a hastily assembled tech startup — which, in fact, it is. Boxes of supplies sit next to desks, and signs are computer printouts Scotch-taped to the walls and doors.

Over a 52-week span, the studio is skedded to shoot 210 episodes for each skein, about 25 minutes apiece, leaving five minutes of ad time in a half-hour block. The pace is much faster than a traditional soap, because Prospect Park is alternating production of the shows in five-week cycles.

The average weekly payroll for the soaps, including extras, is around 350 people. But the lower pricetag for the shows won’t be the deciding factor in whether they turn a profit, Kwatinetz said: “It’s whether we are placing the right bet in terms of distribution,” he explained.

To the Prospect Parkers, the Internet is where it’s at. The shows will stream free, with ads, on Hulu and the Hulu Plus subscription service — which allows viewing on connected TVs and other devices — as well as on Prospect’s website, TheOnlineNetwork.com. Hulu’s sales team is handling ad buys on behalf of the studio. On Apple’s iTunes, ad-free versions of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” will be 99¢ per episode (or $10 for a month of shows), for playback on computers, iPads, iPhones and Apple TV.

To capture social-media chatter about the shows, Prospect Park is releasing episodes every weekday. At the same time, the entire run will be available on-demand for catch-up viewing. Advertisers like the shows’ relatively light ad load relative to broadcast TV, Frank said, and the online ads can’t be skipped — making them DVR-proof.

With the right content, it’s now possible to build a mass-market audience via the Internet. Kwatinetz pointed to the buzz surrounding Netflix’s “House of Cards” as a tipping point for broadband-distributed content, by proving it could achieve cultural currency. “We got a big break that Netflix came out with ‘House of Cards,’” he said. It was, according to Kwatinetz, like Apple rolling out its “1984” Super Bowl ad, which sparked a change in consumer attitudes about home computers.

TV’s Internet migratory patterns remind Kwatinetz, previously founder and CEO of L.A. music percentery the Firm, of a time when record labels failed to embrace the digital future. “They said, ‘Who would ever listen to music on a phone?’ ” he said.

The ad-supported Internet TV network idea could hit paydirt. But two years ago, there was far more skepticism in the industry — and Prospect Park’s great digital soap revival almost died on the vine.

After ABC yanked “AMC” and “OLTL” in mid-2011 to replace them with more profitable lifestyle and talkshow fare, Kwatinetz and Frank swung into action. They had already sketched plans for the Online Network, envisioned as a broadband outlet that would cut out TV’s traditional gatekeepers by streaming directly to viewers.

Soaps seemed a perfect fit. The shows had four decades of passionate followers and advertiser relationships. Plus, the sudser format is already cheaper to produce than primetime programming — 20% or even less the cost on a per-hour basis, according to industry execs.

But after Kwatinetz and Frank inked a licensing deal with ABC for “AMC” and “OLTL,” Prospect Park was stonewalled by showbiz unions, which resisted changes to terms they enjoyed under contracts with Alphabet net.

Another big problem: Investors doubted that online soaps could work. Hollywood has an institutional bias against the genre, Kwatinetz said. Sudser thesps are deemed somehow bush-league players, and the genre’s scripts are considered tedious and repetitive. Storylines get rapped as being hokey and overwrought.

“We heard the word ‘no’ from a million people,” Kwatinetz said. He admitted he was also guilty of anti-soap snobbery, particularly with talent. “I was part of that bias. … I’ll say now, that was wrong. These actors can stand cheek-to-cheek with any actors on network television.”

With the pushback, the project had stalled by the fall of 2011 — and Prospect Park even announced it was giving up. But it quietly persevered, and after another year of shopping the idea, the company had four interested parties that wanted in. The studio ultimately landed funding from Beantown-based private equity firm ABRY Partners, giving it the capital to put the soaps in production. Kwatinetz declined to disclose ABRY’s grubstake, but said it’s a “solid eight-figure investment.”

The recurring question from prospective financiers, Kwatinetz said, was: “ABC has smart people. What do you think you can do better?”

The answer: Not only work faster and cheaper than traditional nets on the production side, but keep more ad and distribution dollars for themselves on the backend.

(Pictured Above: Jill Larson, as Opal Cortlandt, waits for a cue.)

While it’s digital-only (for now) in the U.S., Kwatinetz and Frank see plenty of revenue upside in international TV distribution. Prospect Park last week cut a deal with FX Canada, which has exclusive Canuck broadcast rights to the sudsers. The net is majority owned by Rogers Media, in partnership with News Corp.’s FX Networks. Others deals are in the pipeline.

Stateside, Prospect Park has rights to sell “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” to U.S. cable or broadcast networks, as well as local stations, starting in September 2013. Under those pacts, the shows would air on a one-week delay after their debut on Hulu and iTunes.

Critically, Prospect Park worked out deals last December with the unions — SAG-AFTRA, DGA and WGA. Terms of those agreements aren’t public. In general, they give the producers more flexibility. For example, actors are paid per day, rather than per episode under previous guild contracts. With the accelerated production sked, that means if, say, an actor works on five episodes in one day, net pay is much less.

Kwatinetz acknowledged Prospect Park is paying somewhat less to the soaps’ cast and crew. But, he said, “It’s not like we’re paying people one-third what they’d get in New York.”

The company is also providing perks not typical on a soap shoot, including fully catered meals in a cantina off the soundstage floor. “I think in some ways it’s barbaric to not feed your cast and crew,” Kwatinetz said. In addition to spacious private dressing rooms and showers, Prospect Park foots the bill for a tour bus that picks up as many as 40 extras from midtown Manhattan for the trip up to Stamford.

Shenaz Treasury, the Mumbai-born Bollywood actress who plays Rama Patel on OLTL, said one of the upsides of the changes under Prospect Park is the five-week rotating production sked. That gives her freedom to pursue other film and TV projects, including a travel show in India.

The new “One Life to Live” production — cut loose from old TV ties — has a “feel like it’s new and fresh,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve cut back on anything.” As for the occasional long days’ shooting into night, the 31-year-old is used to hard work. “A 16-hour day feels like a luxury for me,” she said.

It’s not news that soap auds aren’t what they once were. Viewership has steadily declined since the genre’s 1960s salad days, as millions of women entered the workforce.

“All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are still based on classic sexual frissons, loves lost and gained, and dysfunctional relationships. But Prospect Park has worked diligently to freshen them up to appeal to a younger demo. Dialogue is dotted with profanities that are verboten under broadcast rules. “For me, it’s about being more honest,” said thesp Josh Kelly (“OLTL’s” Cutter Wentworth). “Nobody really says, ‘Aw, shucks.’”

And producers promise to ratchet up sex scenes, short of explicit nudity. Beyond that, storylines will strive to be lively, contemporary and realistic: “We won’t have any alien abductions,” Kwatinetz said.

In another nod to younger auds, the studio enlisted Snoop Lion — the born-again Rasta rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg — to write and produce “OLTL’s” theme song (“Brand New Start”). Snoop will guest on three segs, appearing as himself.

Other crowdpleasers may be in the offing. Susan Lucci, who played “AMC” schemestress Erica Kane for four decades and is one of the few soap stars with broad name recognition, is in talks with Prospect Park about reprising the role.

The soaps community has been tracking Prospect Park’s project closely and observers have high expectations. “These iconic soaps have built-in audiences of over 3 million apiece who have missed their favorite characters — it will be like coming home for them,” said Soap Opera Digest columnist Carolyn Hinsey.

Many soap fans are already used to watching their shows on computers, because daytime TV gets preempted more often than primetime, she added. “As long as the new younger characters are properly integrated with our recognizable faves, ‘AMC’ and ‘OLTL’ should be able to retain all those eyeballs and have a nice long second run,” Hinsey said.

As stewards of two storied soap franchises, Prospect Park understands the importance of maintaining credibility with its diehard followers.

Hence its work with Nixon, 85, who’s on retainer as a story consultant. She’s thrilled to have a hand in continuing to build her suburban fantasy worlds. “Sending heartfelt thanks to all the fans who refused to let our stories go and a deep appreciation to Prospect Park for the wonderful collaboration in bringing back ‘All My Children’ and ‘One Life to Live,’” Nixon wrote in an email. She and Kwatinetz, incidentally, are both alums of Northwestern U., albeit a generation apart.

On the Internet, the soaps will face a different kind of battle for viewers. Kwatinetz is emphasizing story and production values — within budget — because he knows his shows will be competing among thousands of selections available at a mouse click or finger-tap.

“Our competition isn’t ‘General Hospital,’” he maintained. “It’s the primetime soaps on Hulu. It’s, ‘Do I want to watch this, or Jon Stewart?’ ”

For the time being, Prospect Park is operating under a one-year lease on the Stamford studio and office space. But the company has options to extend that agreement, and Kwatinetz only half-jokingly said he hoped the shows will continue for another 40 years.

“We know we’re making great shows,” he said. And, he added, Prospect Park’s delays in raising money and settling with the unions were a blessing in disguise: “Two years ago, if we’d tried to do this, it would have been too soon.”

On the Set: “All My Children”:

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