When Will the Age of Internet Entertainment Arrive?

Not with soap operas, at least, not yet. It seemed logical that soaps, which have adjusted to every major change in broadcasting, would be the first shows to make the jump to creating full-length, full-scale episodes for the internet. But the plans to do All My Children and One Life To Live online have been canceled.

What made the deal fall through is going to be a matter of some dispute for some time to come, but the term “unions” turns up a lot, rightly or wrongly. Prospect Park, the company that was going to produce the shows online, wanted all the guilds involved to take a much-reduced rate of pay, because it’s the internet. Now, the dispute (so far) seems to be over whether this was the real sticking point: Prospect Park would naturally want to claim that it was, but there are other stories out there to the effect that they were “close to a deal.” Besides, no matter how much they slashed the budget, they would have to get a lot of revenue to cover the cost of producing the episodes, and reports indicate that it wasn’t clear where the money was going to come from. That’s probably a bigger factor than the negotiations over cost.

Soaps may be at a special disadvantage here because their core audience mostly hasn’t migrated online: soaps appeal to an older audience that might not watch them on the internet, meaning the new viewers they pick up online won’t outweigh the viewers they leave behind. And more generally, though everyone is looking for the big breakthrough in internet programming, no one has yet found a way to transfer broadcast TV’s model – produce the shows, pay for them through sponsorship, and deliver them for free to people with the necessary devices – to the internet.

It’s possible that the model is broken; in some ways, it was broken for a long time on regular TV, given how many shows operated at a deficit, counting on something else (syndication, international sales, home video) to make up the difference. It’s possible that soaps weren’t the best test case for internet TV because they have very few other outlets, and (as their name implies) depend mostly on advertising. But since the internet makes some of those other outlets irrelevant – except maybe international sales, since we in Canada and elsewhere don’t get the shows – it still remains to be seen how the online model will work. Someday it’ll fall into place, I think, just because it has to; TV figured out how to pay for expensive shows and I think the internet will too, just because so many people are watching.

There’s always Netflix, of course, which is trying to establish a model similar to pay TV. Though Netflix has its own problems getting its customers to move to an online distribution model. And the Arrested Development episodes Netflix is planning, well, I think it’s hard to comment on that until we find out what form they take. If, as originally hinted, each episode will focus on whatever member of the cast who can clear his or her schedule, that’s not really a continuation; that’s a webisode, a supplement to the series rather than full-fledged episodes.

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