Binge-watching forces “One Life to Live,” “All My Children” to cut back on new episodes

The original idea behind soap operas was that daily episodes would keep viewers hooked and advertisers happy. But few people have time to devote to mid-day TV any more, and as TV viewing shifts online, the model is changing.

It’s been just two and a half weeks weeks since popular soap operas One Life to Live and All My Children were reborn as online-only shows — but production company Prospect Park has already decided to cut back on the number of new episodes released online each week. The change in schedule, the company claims, is due to the fact that viewers are “binge-watching” instead of watching one episode a day, and this makes it too hard for them to keep up.

Starting on April 29, Prospect Park — which licensed the soaps from ABC — ran new, 30-minute episodes of each show every Monday through Thursday, followed by a recap on Friday. The shows are available on Hulu and Hulu Plus, or can be downloaded from iTunes (s AAPL). They’ve received “millions” of views, Prospect Park cofounders Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz wrote in a letter to fans (PDF) this week, and have “consistently been in the top ten shows viewed on Hulu.”

But most viewers aren’t watching these shows the way they traditionally watched soap operas on TV. Instead, as with other TV shows online, “our shows are primarily consumed on different days than when they originally air,” Frank and Kwatinetz wrote:

“Primarily, fans have been binge viewing or watching on demand, and as a result, we feel we have been expecting our audience to dedicate what has turned out to be an excessive amount of time to viewing these shows. (As an example, for the substantial audience only watching on the weekends, we are currently asking them to watch five hours of programming to keep pace with our release schedule).”

In addition, viewers aren’t adhering to traditional soap-watching habits. When the shows were on ABC, “viewers watched only 2-3 episodes on average a week and picked up with whichever day’s episode it was.” By contrast, online viewers “seem to primarily start with the first episode and then continue forward episode by episode…yet starting from the beginning with the amount of episodes we are releasing is asking too much for viewers who need to catch up.”

Prospect Park is also concerned by the fact that, when the shows aired on ABC, viewers often watched both — but online things are different:

“The majority of our viewers are watching one show or the other, not both, and they aren’t viewing the shows when they did before. Part of the reason for choosing between the shows may be that the largest viewing takes place either between 12 PM and 1 PM (when people generally can only fit one episode during lunch time) or between 5 PM and 7 PM (when the vast majority of competing shows are a half hour long). We are finding that asking most people to regularly watch more than a half hour per day online seems to be too much.”

Overall, Frank and Kwatinetz conclude that “When it comes to online viewing, most of us are just trying to find time to watch series comprised of 13 to 22 episodes a season — so asking viewers to assign time for over 100 episodes per show is a daunting task.”

So starting Monday, May 20, the schedules will change. Each soap will now air just two new episodes a week: New episodes of All My Children will air online on Mondays and Wednesdays, and new episodes of One Life to Live will air on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a recap episode on Friday. “Because Hulu agrees with our findings,” the founders wrote, “for the meantime they will keep all of our episodes on for free to give viewers the opportunity to find us and catch up.”

Frank and Kwatinetz acknowledge that “our most dedicated viewers will be upset,” but “we need to devise a model that works for all viewers and follows how they want, and are actually watching, online” in order to ensure that the shows “not meet the fate they experienced previously.” The