If you thought NBC's inept mishandling of the Tonight Show franchise was the mother of all network debacles, take a look at this recent story about ABC from the Los Angeles Times:
On Thursday, production company Prospect Park Networks filed a $25-million breach of contract lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co-owned broadcast network. The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleged that ABC backstabbed the production firm by carrying out a devious plot to destroy Prospect's efforts to bring the beloved daytime dramas back to life as online productions.
Prospect Park in July 2011 licensed the rights to the two ABC soaps shortly after ABC announced its budget-cutting plans to cancel them. "All My Children" went off the air in September 2011, and "One Life to Live" ended its television run in January 2012...
The suit said that ABC agreed to consult with Prospect on story lines involving the characters — but that apparently didn't happen.
In the name of full disclosure, I should add that I have never watched a soap opera episode in my life. My interest in this is not based on familiarity with the genre.
No, it is based on my general desire for quality television programming, and if you feel the same way about your entertainment, I would strongly suggest that you pull for Prospect Park on this occasion.
Plenty has been written about how cyberspace has revolutionized how we watch movies and television shows, listen to music, play video games, and even simply read. Just look at Netflix, Hulu, e-books, and MMORPGs, to say nothing of the epidemic in piracy and illegal file sharing. I even wrote a piece last year that discussed internet review shows like Obscurus Lupa Presents, The Cinema Snob, Phelous, and Welshy, during which I pointed out that these new programs were not only venues for insightful cultural analysis, but also distinct works of art that owed their very existence to the unique opportunities offered by the internet.
Yet the vast majority of these articles that have discussed this entertainment phenomenon (including my own) have tended to divide it into two categories: The trend of it becoming increasingly common for traditional creative products — i.e., material that originated externally — to be distributed online (whether intentionally or otherwise); and the explosive growth of content created specifically for the worldwide web, both professionally and on user-sharing sites like YouTube.
There is a third category, however, one that I believe is destined to grow despite receiving little attention at the moment — that of traditional creative products moving from their homes in other media to the world of cyberspace. It is here that Prospect Park and a pair of soap operas, All My Children and One Life To Live, enter the picture.
As Prospect Park co-founder Rich Frank explained in an interview for a recent Variety article, he and his business partner Jeff Kwatinetz feel TV shows are destined to gradually evolve beyond actual network television.
"Almost 20% of college graduates don’t buy television sets," he pointed out. "Today, there’s the ability to feed anything to anybody’s screen — TV, iPad, or telephone — and give them programming that they want."
After All My Children and One Life To Live were canceled by ABC in 2011, Frank and Kwatinetz decided those programs could serve as the backbone of a pioneering new business model. Instead of reviving those shows by pitching them to another network, they could instead air them on their company's new online network, aptly dubbed Online Network, as well as presenting them on Hulu Plus and iTunes.
Naturally television executives are trying to downplay the potential threat to their industry. While conceding that we are experiencing "an evolution of the viewing mechanism," Sony Pictures Television senior executive programming vice president Steve Kent insisted to Variety that "people have long predicted the demise of network television, but it still exists and will for the foreseeable future."
According to Greg Meng, one of the executive producers for Days of Our Lives (which is produced by Sony Pictures Television), while network insiders had nothing but the best wishes for this project, they were confident that "these shows won't be competitive with us."
It seems like there is more fear among network suits than they initially let on.
Should Prospect Park's bold experiment succeed, we could be entering a new phase in the history of TV shows, one in which the medium of television itself is gradually phased out. Up until now, online broadcasts have encountered a seemingly insurmountable difficulty, at least insofar as creating a viable business model was concerned. Appropriately enough, one of the more astute insights into this dilemma came from "South Park," the hit Comedy Central sitcom that broke ground as one of the first hit television shows to create a website for legal streaming. In the words of fictional fourth-grader Kyle Broflovski:
We thought we could make money on the internet. But while the Internet is new and exciting for creative people, it hasn't matured as a distribution mechanism to the extent that one should trade real and immediate opportunities for income for the promise of future online revenue. It will be a few years before digital distribution of media on the Internet can be monetized to an extent that necessitates content producers to forgo their fair value in more traditional media.
That was in 2008. Now that have a few years have passed, Prospect Park and the creators of All My Children and One Life To Live are preparing to test that thesis. Until more information comes out, it will be hard to say whether ABC acted as it did out of NBC-esque bungling or as a deliberate attempt to sabotage what it fears might ultimately pose a serious market threat. Even if the latter possibility proves to have been the case, however, I suspect that Prospect Park represents the vanguard of the future. If they succeed with their programs, the online broadcasting of All My Children and One Life To Live will be remembered as one of a watershed moment, one in which the lines between old media and new media not only blurred, but started losing their separate identities altogether. Should it not work out on this occasion, there is little reason to doubt that either Kwatinetz and Frank themselves or other similarly-minded producers will see the potential in this business model and attempt to replicate it in another scenario.
Personally, I'm rooting for Prospect Park to pull this one off. Between the internet reaching its maturity as an entertainment medium and television networks showing their increasing immaturity, I can't think of any better time to start this era than right now.
The future began Monday, when All My Children and One Life To Live premiered on Hulu, Hulu Plus, and iTunes, with the former show being the top download on Hulu and iTunes and the latter taking the number two spot.