By Annette Hinkle
A generation ago, many a housewife wiled away her weekday afternoons in front of a television screen watching her favorite soaps. Soap operas, so named for the commercials that peppered the breaks between the endless dramatic moments, were a way of life in those long gone days of one-income households. Tales of love, betrayal, murder and back stabbing took years to resolve — and over time, the characters became familiar friends to many viewers.
Times have certainly changed. Very few people today have the luxury of dedicating each afternoon to watching television and most of those old reliable soap operas have gone the way of rotary phones (NPR just ran a story about the changing face of soap operas on its website this past Tuesday).
But don’t count the soap opera out just yet. The genre is, in fact, alive and well — and it’s living on the Internet.
“Empire” is an on-line series created by Brian Hewson and Greg Turner — two NYU grads who met at college and were inspired to try their hand at producing their own soap opera.
“Soaps were always on in my house,” says Hewson. “My relatives all watched them and as a teenager, I began watching ‘General Hospital.’ That was my show and that’s what inspired me to want to do this.”
“We both always wanted to write for soap operas, but it’s kind of hard with them disappearing,” he adds. “There’s not a lot of openings, so we thought, ‘Why not try it ourselves?’ We started in ’09 and right around the time we did it, it blew up.”
He means in a good way.
While today, there are just four soap operas left on the big three networks — NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” ABC’s “General Hospital” and CBS’ “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless ” — Hewson notes that online soap operas are finding a solid audience. He feels it’s the wave of the future for the genre.
“I like to think the network shows still on will stick around. But there’s definitely a growing market for this on-line soap community,” he says. “There are a lot of fantastic ones out there that are well produced and well written.”
One advantage to an online soap is that viewers can watch anytime they choose. There are also things that can be done online that wouldn’t get passed the censors at traditional networks.
“We can use more profanity and push the boundaries of nudity,” says Hewson. “We want to be careful though and you don’t want it to go towards what you don’t want it to be. It has to be in there for the sake of the story. You don’t say the f word just to say it.”
Besides its own website, “Empire” (which has won two Indy Soap Awards) is available on multiple platforms including Blip (an online web series host), iTunes or Roku player. The first three seasons are available online, and beginning this Sunday, the cast and crew of “Empire” will be at two private homes in Wainscott for seven days to shoot season four.
That’s an entire season — 11 episodes — in just one week. It sounds like a crazy schedule, and for a traditional soap, it would be. But in the world of online soaps, the universe is far more compact.
“Our goal is to try to make all our episodes 10 minutes or less,” explains Hewson. “These are about being concise and trying to make it a really fantastic 10 minutes. You can say, ‘Look at every thing that just happened.’”
It’s quite a contrast to the old philosophy where soap storylines dragged out for months, but one that reflects today’s quick paced society and the new generation of soap fans.
“We do have a younger segment watching it,” says Hewson. “We also have traditional viewers watching who are Internet savvy. We have a nice balance of people discovering it. Everyone I know who loves soaps doesn’t fit the traditional mold. There are more soap lovers out there than you think.”
There are also a lot of veteran soap actors, actresses and directors out there as well — many of them looking for new outlets as network shows are pulled off the air after 50 years or more.
One of them is Ellen Dolan, who played Margo Hughes on “As The World Turns” for 21 years. The World stopped turning in 2010, and Dolan, a former Wainscott resident, is now part of the “Empire” cast. Hewson explains that in addition to her ability as an actress, she also has producing skills and was instrumental in bringing the production to the East End to shoot season four.
“Ellen said, ‘I have a lot of friends out there — let me see what I can do,’” recalls Hewson. “She talked to people who had these amazing houses, and, thank goodness, it’s working out perfectly for us.”
“Ellen is really wearing all hats so seamlessly. She’s spot on as an actress, gives you everything you want and is super confident,” he adds. “As you go to the other side, as a producer, she makes these things happen. We’re independent producers. We can offer gratitude and sponsorship and an ad on our website. But for her to get people to give us their house is amazing. She believes in the project and knows to make it happen.”
And now, the backstory. “Empire,” which is set “somewhere on Long Island,” is the tale of the Havens clan and the family run business — a tabloid newspaper named, naturally, Empire.
“A lot of what goes on is not only interpersonal relationships in the context of family and romance, but controlling this empire they’ve created – the tabloid,” says Hewson. “Within the family, there’s a constant power struggle over who will control the paper. They keep pitting one another against each other in the paper, airing the dirty laundry for all the world to see.”
The context of the newspaper gives Hewson and Turner a lot to work with, plot wise.
“Once we decided to create the show, Greg and I sat down one day to think what it would be about. We had the characters but not a setting,” recalls Hewson. “What would be an interesting world for them to exist in? We thought, a newspaper, specifically a tabloid. It’s of the time and we could do a lot with it visually.
“We really focused on their shenanigans, but current events could be worked into it,” adds Hewson who describes season four as a classic “whodunit.”
In season four, all the “Empire” characters will be in one place, and viewers will see what happens when they’re under a microscope over the course of one day.
“What we’re shooting is 90 percent of what we have planned for the season,” says Hewson who admits to watching Agatha Christie movies in advance of writing the script. “We do have some surprises in store.”
In terms of dramatic deaths, “Empire” has just killed off one major character so far — Alex, season two.
“It sounds a cliché, but you think about what’s best for the story and how do you propel it to the best possible ends,” says Hewson. “We had known from the get go Alex would go. We had written it that way. The actor who played him was popular, but we had the idea of where the story wanted to go.”
So Alex went …. shot by one of the other characters.
But “Empire” the series goes on, and Hewson can only see it getting bigger.
“We really have an audience that spans the world,” he says.
While the model for making a profit with online soaps has not yet been worked out (Hewson is pursuing sponsorships for the series), he finds there are more important reasons to stick with it.
“In terms of where we started and where we are now, its a whole new level,” says Hewson. “It’s a labor of love for a lot of people. I believe in this and hopefully one day we’ll be financially and creatively successful.”
In the meantime, Hewson has a show to shoot and he is hoping that a few local restaurants or caterers might be willing to step up to the plate by sponsoring the production’s craft service needs for the week they are here — either in the form of meals, drinks or snacks for 25 hungry cast and crew members. In exchange, the producers can offer advertising on the website and product placement within the episodes themselves. For more information, contact Greg Turner via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (646) 327-6801.