For years, Patti Werynski has kept the flame alive for soap opera fans from her Largo home, organizing meet-ups with stars, even as TV networks canceled several of the daytime programs and critics proclaimed the genre all but dead.
That's why today should be a time of triumph for fans like her. After years of wrangling, the classic soaps One Live to Live and All My Children debut online today at noon, saved from cancellation in a bold experiment with new technology.
But Werynski, 60, is wary. She has heard how the new shows are just 30 minutes long, a little spicier and available for download on iTunes or streaming at Hulu.com. She worries the older fans who watched for decades might feel left out.
"Some older people, like my mom, who have watched the soaps for years, I don't know how they're going to feel about watching it on the computer," said the super fan, who, ironically, is organizing a May 18 luncheon with five soap stars in Warren, Ohio, via her own website, SoapThis.com. "My opinion was they should have had one of the cable stations pick up the soaps and show them at night like they used to be."
Such talk might surprise the folks at Prospect Park, a production company that has spent millions of dollars and years in negotiations to reach this moment. When ABC canceled One Life to Live and All My Children in 2011, the company swooped in and reportedly paid more than $4 million for the rights.
Plans to bring the shows back in 2011 fizzled. But every good soap always has a return-from-the-dead twist.
So it made a certain kind of sense that Prospect Park would resurrect its plans this year. (And it couldn't hurt that Netflix and Amazon on Demand both have their own high-profile deals this year for streaming original TV online.)
Each new episode bows at 5 a.m. eastern Monday to Thursday, with Friday reserved for a recap episode. "There's no constraints anymore. You feel like a kid in the playground," said Ginger Smith, executive producer of All My Children, noting the lack of a nervous network to pull back on controversial story lines or keep the occasional burst of profanity from an episode's final cut.
On All My Children, the action will jump forward five years without one of the show's biggest stars, perennial daytime Emmy bridesmaid Susan Lucci, who won't be reprising her role as headstrong, self-centered Erica Kane. Smith also promises fans will learn the answer to a puzzling cliffhanger written into the final episode, where maladjusted son J.R. Chandler shot an unknown someone just as the program ended.
Some of the show's kids will have aged a bit — allowing for story lines that might appeal to the college-age youth already watching a lot of TV online. And each episode's story lines will be more self-contained, with less need to reprise previous episodes for fans who may not have seen the previous day's show, breaking a long-standing soap opera tradition.
One Life to Live faces its own challenges. Prospect Park filed a $25 million lawsuit against ABC on April 18, alleging the network borrowed several characters from the show for General Hospital, then killed some off and gave others absurd story lines in an effort to forestall the online version. (ABC has denied the claims.)
Jennifer Pepperman, executive producer for One Life to Live, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she acknowledged two characters would be recast with new actors as the show tries to carry on in the same time frame, as if their characters had kept cheating, backstabbing and confronting each other over the two years the show has been off the air.
"Watching entertainment online, this is the future," Pepperman said. "It's not that hard to figure out. (Older viewers) will talk to their daughters or granddaughters and they'll say, 'Grandma, this is how you do it.' "
A glance at review episodes provided to critics shows All My Children offering a slightly saucier recipe, with lots of sex scenes and a teenager who drops a curse word. Both shows seem likely to appeal to longtime fans, though their faster pace and lack of explanatory scenes make it tough for new viewers to catch up. (Fortunately, there are brief videos with a crash course on each show's history.)
Barbara Irwin, a professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., said she expects soaps to successfully transition to the online world in the same way they transitioned from radio to television 60 years earlier.
"There's a huge, active group of people using the Web to follow their favorite shows … and it might be a way to build a new audience, which is something the soaps have struggled with," Irwin said. "What we've lost over the years is the generational passing down of soap operas; daughters watching shows with their mothers and grandmothers. Perhaps this can bring it back."
Reviving one of the oldest genres in broadcasting with the newest online technology? Could be a plot outlandish enough for a good soap opera.
"I really hope it works," said Werynski, sounding like a fan trying hard not to get her own hopes up too high. "But I don't know if it will."