and the law firm of Lavely & Singer for distracting me with some much needed levity at the end of a difficult and frightening week ...
I live just outside Boston, and as I passed last Friday "sheltered in place" (my town wasn't one of those officially shut down, but since there was no public transit running and I don't have a car...), I laughed out loud as I read through the lawsuit Prospect Park filed against ABC, along with Sara Bibel's and Kevin Mulcahy's rollicking commentary.
As for why PP is suing ABC, here's the short version (deep breath): After PP suspended plans for online reboots of canceled ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, they agreed to lend seven OLTL characters to General Hospital, who proceeded to sign three of the actors to long-term contracts, then create story lines that had permanent (well, at least theoretically:) impacts on all of the borrowed characters. Several months later, PP announced that the online reboots were a go, and wanted their characters back. But the actors were under contract to ABC. After a lot of online back-and-forth (including suggestions by some fans that the two shows "share" the characters), and intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, an agreement of sorts was reached: PP would retain ownership of the OLTL characters and GH would create new characters for the former OLTL actors.
So, the lawsuit came as something as a surprise. Even more surprising: the breathless prose of PP's attorneys. Consider the first paragraph of the complaint:
On April 14, 2011, to the astonishment and dismay of millions of soap fans, ABC publicly announced its ill conceived decision to cancel two of the most beloved and iconic soap operas ever produced… The national media was quick to dub this day the Soapocalypse.
And the self-aggrandizing hyperbole of the second:
Fortunately, however, for those disheartened soap fans, entertainment veterans, Jeffrey Kwatinetz and Rich Frank, founders and principals of Plaintiff Prospect Park, saw value where ABC did not. Kwatinetz (a famed talent manager and producer) and Frank (former president of Walt Disney studios) seized upon this opportunity to launch their web-based network, The Online Network, and in the process put hundreds of people back to work. In July 2011, Prospect signed an exclusive licensing deal with ABC ensuring the continuation and survival of these epic soaps on the new network, and that ABC would make a hefty profit for doing virtually nothing on shows it cancelled! (original emphasis)
According to the complaint, PP claims they agreed to lend the characters as "as a gesture of good will to ABC, and more importantly to the actors playing these roles who would otherwise be unemployed as Prospect was ramping up for production." But, as Bibel points out, what the lawsuit does not include is any mention of Prospect Park's initial failure to bring the two shows online. Yes, the November 2011 press release stated, "we are suspending (emphasis added) our aspirations to revive 'One Life to Live' and 'All My Children' via online distribution. But the overall tone suggested that Frank and Kwatinetz had resigned themselves to the reboot's failure, and there was no indication in the soap or entertainment media to suggest otherwise until rumors began circulating in December 2012, more than a year later. So, whatever "ramping up" PP was doing in January 2012 was happening far behind the scenes. (It's a real tribute to Prospect Park that they were able to stay so far below the radar as they finalized collective bargaining agreements and secured their financing.) The question is, did ABC know PP was "ramping up," or did they, like the rest of us, assume the deal was dead?
This could be a crucial point should the suit move forward. According to the complaint, "Prospect insisted, and ABC agreed, that ABC would consult Prospect on General Hospital story lines. More importantly, ABC also agreed that Prospect would have express 'approval' rights over ABC's use of the OLTL characters," which clearly did not happen, since had they known, PP would have been unlikely to approve the killing off of three characters, including a newborn, and the alternation of relationships central to OLTL. There's no question that PP has the right to fully utilize characters they owned. And there's no doubt the liberties ABC took without characters created challenges for PP. That said, the $25-milllion in damages PP is seeking seems just a tad excessive. Particularly since there are a number of soap opera tropes PP can use to deal with the changes GH inflicted on the OLTL characters. The simplest: ignore them. What happened in Port Charles stays in Port Charles; life in Llanview continues.
As to why: Setting the legalities aside, if ABC believed the reboot was never going to happened, and considered PP's approval rights a mere formality, were they simply underestimating PP? Or, as the complaint suggests, trying to sabotage the reboot efforts? PP claims that at least one ABC executive, "has openly expressed his desire to see Prospect fail." Motive? According to PP, either a "hidden desire to regain control of OLTL," or, "a basic fear of embarrassment if Prospect succeeds." But, would either motive justify jeopardizing the millions of dollars in licensing fees ABC stands to lose if PP fails? Where's the logic? Truth be told, it seems as though logic has little to do with this dispute, so maybe someone could just find a tape measure.
The thrust of PP's case for damages is summarized in the first sentence of paragraph 14:
At the time, Prospect had no reason to anticipate that ABC would kill off characters it paid for and/or otherwise portray these characters in a way that would alienate OLTL fans or otherwise jeopardize the success of the re-launch.
And paragraph 18:
In other instances, ABC damaged OLTL characters (including characters to which they did not have any rights) by, among other things, creating absurd story lines, having characters do things they would never do (and of which Prospect Park would never have approved), and destroying critical character relationships popular with soap fans
It's easy to dismiss the lawsuit as so much well-timed grandstanding on the part of PP (the complaint was filed 11 days before OLTL's April 29th launch). And who could disagree with Sara Bibel, who finds the lawsuit "hilarious because it attempts to put basic tenets of soap writing on trial?" Granted, what soap fan would not "want to see two lawyers arguing about what constitutes an absurd soap storyline" (a tantalizing possibility should PP's demand for a jury trial be granted)? Lord knows, OLTL has created more than its fair share of absurd stories. Here are Bibel's picks:
OLTL had Eterna, time travel, a woman who got plastic surgery so she would look identical to her sister with the intention of taking over her life, and a man who was held hostage for eight years in an undisclosed location so his twin, who no longer looked like him, could assume his identity.
When it comes to suspending disbelief, the very nature of daytime soaps demands more of viewers than other dramatic media, and as the genre’s scope expanded over the years, and traditional elements — intimate relationships between family, friends and lovers — began to share space with the kinds of stories Bibel lists, many fans came to feel that soap writers were taking advantage of them, even insulting their intelligence. For some fans (who knows how many in the coveted 18-49 female demo), one of the basic tenets of soap opera writing had become, "It's a soap opera; no one gives a shit if it makes sense," and they just stopped watching. So maybe putting a few of those basic tenets on trial isn't such a bad idea. And while proving legal damages is unlikely, maybe what PP is actually more concerned about is the damage "absurd story lines, having characters do things they never would, and destroying critical character relationships popular with fans" could inflict on OLTL.
Earlier this month, I wrote about what I see as soap's unique nature:
A narrative structure that emphasizes storytelling’s vertical axis, revealing characters’ interiority, their emotional and psychological back stories, and providing time for viewers to fully absorb that information. All of which creates the opportunity for viewers find meaning and resonance through a deeper connection to characters.
then wondered if perhaps, "PP (will) recognize the opportunity it has to exploit the shorter format and recapture the unique nature of soaps that has been lost over the years?" So, it was gratifying to read what Jeff Kwatinetz told Variety about what to expect from the rebooted OLTL and AMC: "story lines will strive to be lively, contemporary and realistic: We won’t have any alien abductions.”
Music to this weary soap fan's ears. Can't wait for Monday.
© 2013 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only.
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