By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The biggest drama in soap operas these days isn't who's cheating, fighting amnesia, or waking up from a coma. It's whether the backstabbing and love triangles that hooked afternoon TV viewers will work on the Internet.
In a bold wager to revive cancelled ABC soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," a pair of Hollywood veterans are taking the 40-year-old dramas online, remaking them for lifelong fans and a younger, Internet-savvy audience.
Starting Monday, new 30-minute episodes will appear each Monday through Thursday on the free Hulu.com website and the paid monthly subscription service Hulu Plus. Fans can also buy episodes in Apple Inc's iTunes store.
The producers, former Walt Disney Co TV chairman Rich Frank and talent management veteran Jeff Kwatinetz, hope to ride a wave of interest in first-run series online, highlighted by the recent buzz for Netflix original drama "House of Cards" and its coming revival of one-time Fox comedy "Arrested Development."
The trick will be to entice the soaps' older and not always Internet-savvy viewers while luring a younger crowd with faster-paced storylines, modern music and contemporary actors next to the shows' longtime stars.
"The challenge and opportunity for them," says Stephanie Stopulos, digital director for media buying firm Starcom USA, "is how to continue to engage the people that are so passionate about it, and also use it as an opportunity to grow."
To beckon new viewers, the producers cast "Jersey Shore" star Jenni "Jwoww" Farley as a bartender on "One Life to Live." Paula Garces from the wacky "Harold & Kumar" movie franchise has joined "All My Children." Snoop Lion, previously known as rapper Snoop Dogg, wrote and sings on the theme song for "One Life to Live," and will play himself in some episodes. He made cameo appearances when the show was on ABC.
The soaps' rebirth will test whether older-skewing audiences will migrate online, and reverse a trend that has seen viewership decline by more than one-third since 2000. When it ended its TV run, "All My Children" attracted an average audience of 2.5 million viewers with a median age of 57, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media.
To appeal to both older and younger viewers, the online soaps will have the same suspense, heartbreak and betrayal, though plots will move quickly and avoid the more outlandish storylines from the soap operas of the past, Kwatinetz says.
The shows "won't be bringing people back from the dead," he says. "There won't be people rescued from aliens. The stories are grounded, the storytelling is quicker paced. It's more relevant."
The online soaps need to attract new generations to survive long term, says syndicated columnist Lynda Hirsch, who has written about soaps for more than 30 years. "You can't have your base die off," she says. "You've got to get younger people."
"All My Children" and "One Life to Live," once hour-long afternoon dramas, were stalwarts in what Time magazine once called "TV's richest market." The big advertising dollars from the daytime soaps supported prime time schedules during their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when Luke and Laura's 1981 wedding on "General Hospital" attracted a massive 30 million viewers on ABC.
Soaps thrived because they had a lock on one of TV's most sought-after demographics, stay-at-home moms, who couldn't get enough of the hunky doctors, evil twins and juicy cliffhangers. As the numbers of women in the workforce increased, soap operas' popularity faded, the audience aged, and network executives had trouble making the economics work.
In April 2011, Disney-owned ABC announced it was cancelling "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." At the time, producers Frank and Kwatinetz were building a studio called Prospect Park with cable TV hits "Royal Pains" and "Wilfred," and taking note of online video's growing popularity.
Internet distribution offered a direct route to younger viewers in the 18-to-34 demographic, a group that watches video whenever they choose on cell phones and tablets. Having episodes on demand also meant viewers didn't need to be home during the day, or to even be near a television, to catch up.
Prospect Park is backed by funding from private equity firm ABRY Partners. The studio will receive a majority of the ad revenue collected from episodes on Hulu, a person familiar with the arrangement said, and a percentage of the sales from iTunes. Content providers typically keep 70 percent of iTunes sales.
Each soap has its own Facebook page splashed with glitzy, Vanity Fair-style cast photos, and they have already registered more than 1 million "likes" combined. Stars tweet and field questions via video chats. The studio is also running print, television and radio promotions, including an ad in Parade magazine, a weekly that draws readers over age 50.
Soap expert Hirsch believes fans will embrace the shows, if they understand the new platform. Some longtime viewers don't realize they can watch for free on Hulu.com, she said. "There is so much confusion. No matter how many times you write this, they are not getting it."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Claudia Parsons)