Even as the big broadcast networks continue killing off or otherwise compromising their daily daytime dramas -- the only genre of television programming they can still call their own -- a basic cable network has stepped up to prove that soap operas don't have to die. They simply need to adapt to changing times. If that means migrating from broadcast to cable, so be it.
The network at the forefront of what could become just such a shift for soaps is Nick at Nite, which two weeks ago premiered a one-hour weeknight serial titled Hollywood Heights. Based on a Mexican telenovela titled Alcanzar una Estrella, Heights will play out until sometime in October with a total of eighty episodes.
Now, eighty episodes is a long way from the approximately 250 per year that are produced for network soaps, but it's a good deal more than the episode order for the dominant teen- and young-adult targeted primetime serials that are hot at the moment, including ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars and The Secret Life of the American Teenager and MTV's monstrously good Teen Wolf (which in its second season has become the most entertaining drama with werewolves on television). Amazingly, despite the demands of so much larger an episode order, Heights is as well-produced and professionally packaged as those shows. The credit for this efficient excellence goes to executive producer Jill Farren Phelps, a broadcast soap veteran whose most recent credit is a ten-year run on General Hospital, and head writer Josh Griffith, an alumnus of the late and lamented One Life to Live. They are both doing terrific work here as they blaze what may be a new trail of daily soap storytelling in the creatively fertile world of basic cable.
To date, Heights has revolved around a pretty young high school student with a crush on a successful rock star. It is no secret to anyone familiar with Alcanzar una Estrella that over time she will break into the music business herself and become involved in a rocky romance with the current object of her affections. That's about as basic and sturdy a foundation for a soap opera as any other: girl likes boy she thinks she can't have, boy takes an interest in girl, girl and boy become a star-crossed couple, romance and heartbreak ensue. During the glory days of afternoon soaps -- that would be the late '70s and the '80s -- that simple narrative structure was a proven formula for unprecedented success, no matter how outrageous or outlandish the over-arching plot lines. A good love story laced with occasional pleasing pay-offs was all it took to keep millions of viewers enthralled -- that and a back drop of multi-generational family drama, something that has been all but eradicated from network soap operas, but which has been carefully constructed in Hollywood Heights. This might be a series which focuses on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of kids and young adults, but their parents and other grown-ups are very much a part of the action.
This column continues over at MediaPost.