A lot can happen in 30 years.

When ABC’s most enduring soap opera, “General Hospital,” went on the air on April 1, 1963, the women’s movement was in its earliest stages. There were stirrings that one of the industrial world’s most significant social changes would soon take place–the massive shift of women into the workforce–but vast numbers of females remained at home. AndMadison Avenue knew where to reach them: Daytime TV serials. Early on, women tuned in to the then half-hour “General Hospital” to catch up on long-suffering nurse Jessie Brewer as she endured the chronic philanderings of her handsome younger husband, Dr. Phil Brewer. As it does today, the program reflected traditional values. But it included women characters who were competent professionals.

Major advertisers, such as Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb), Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Bros. were shut out of some daytime dramas because they were owned by competitor Procter & Gamble. So they were happy for the opportunity to hawk their wares on “General Hospital.” Early shows featured a who’s who of major national spenders, such as Campbell Soup Co., General Mills and S.C. Johnson, to name a few.

Flash forward to 1993. Women have come a long way, right? So you might expect that the advertising base of the show would have changed along with the changing pursuits of American womanhood.

Wrong. The demographic of “General Hospital” remains the same today as it was then, women, ages 18-49, with ABC’s soaps delivering a higher percentage of more urban and affluent 18-to-34-year-olds than the daytime dramas of the other two major webs.

And while the names of the top advertisers may have changed, the companies that today shell out an estimated $ 17,000 per 30-second spot on the show have a remarkably similar profile to those who bought time in the earliest days of “General Hospital.”

In the first quarter 1993, detergent giant Procter & Gamble rested as the top “General Hospital” ad spender, followed by other purveyors of cleaning products, processed foods and personal care products.

Alongside P&G in the now hour-long show’s 15 minutes of non-program time are commercials from Johnson & Johnson, General Mills and Kraft General Foods, among others.

Occasionally, there’s a commercial for a Hollywood movie, but that’s when the picture has a decidedly female angle. The major auto makers are rarely, if ever, seen in this dayparter. And that’s despite the networks’ long efforts to convince Detroit that soap operas are a worthy repository for their ad dollars.

Media First International principal Richard Kostyra, a New York-based media services company, says these advertisers feel they are reaching the female population through advertising in general media, and have no need to spend more dollars in the soaps.

Despite the sameness of the nature of the “General Hospital” advertiser over time, the drama itself has undergone dramatic changes. Along the way,”General Hospital” acquired more contemporary characters and themes, with storylines touching on social issues, such as teen alcoholism, single motherhood and sexual responsibility. A romantically inclined pair recently reached for a condom before consummating their union; other would-be lovers trekked to a clinic to get a blood test.

The creative content of commercials running on the program have changed along with the times. A recent spot for McDonald’s Corp. running on “General Hospital” features a modern mom lamenting that she’s not the super homemaker her mother was. Her children reassure her that they appreciate her, as the group toddles off to the fast-food outlet for dinner.

As this daytime drama enters its fourth decade, advertising industry exex describe the saga of the residents of Port Charles, New York, as “steady” and “dependable.” It is the third highest-rated daytime soap, tied with ABC’s “One Life to Live,” but behind CBS’ “The Young and the Restless” (number two) and ABC’s “All My Children” (number one).

Paul Kagan Associates analyst Bishop Sheen describes daytime soap operas as “the workhorses of television.” Production costs re-main low relative to prime time–anywhere from 25% to 50%–with soaps still spewing out the cash, even though they aren’t quite the money makers they once were, he says.

At least one longtime “General Hospital” advertiser, the California Milk Advisory Board, describes the program as a worthy advertising vehicle because it remains “an efficient way to reach women 18-49 on a cost-per-thousand basis.”

That’s despite the overall shrinkage of the daytime audience with the rise of working women, says director of advertising Michael Freeman.

In contrast to ad-spending patterns of the past, says Freeman, advertisers must supplement daytime commercial buys with ads in other media–outdoor and targeted print, for example–to meet the now-diverse female target.

During its history, “General Hospital” has been one of the most attractive outlets for advertising bucks. During that near 10-year span 1978-1987, it reigned as the highest-rated daytime drama. From 1979 to 1981, the Luke-and-Laura storyline sizzled. Their marriage, on Nov. 15 and 16, 1981, grabbed the largest daytime viewing audience–12 million homes and about 17 million viewers–and rated a Newsweek cover.

“General Hospital” achieved these heights after pulling itself out of a close call with cancellation. In 1976, then-ABC programming-head Fred Silverman made a last-ditch effort to prop up its ratings by expanding the serial to 45 minutes. It was a gimmick that had helped other soaps. But this time, no dice.

Two years later, Silverman enlisted producer Gloria Monty to update it, expanding it to the now one-hour format. Monty placed the drama, lambasted as “slow and old-fashioned,” in a precise location (Port Charles, said to be in upstate New York) and hired Doug Marland as head writer. She enlivened the sets, gave major characters new conflicts in plot twists she describes as “a mixture of Capra and Hitchcock.” This introduction of action/adventure storylines hadn’t been done in daytime soaps before. The result: The ratings picked up and the show achieved near-cult status with young viewers.

While the ABC soap opera block has always skewed younger than CBS or ABC’s daytime dramas, the changes Monty implemented began the period of ABC-soap opera dominance.

Francine Purcell, formerly director of program research for daytime and fringe programming at ABC, now recently shifted to a similar position for prime time, says the changes at “General Hospital” had an effect on daytime viewing overall.

Suddenly, the news was full of tales of colleges switching class schedules to accommodate the soap-watching habits of student bodies. “It made it hip to watch soaps,” said Purcell.

“General Hospital” still retains a vigorous following with younger viewers, but its ratings aren’t what they used to be.

According to Nielsen Media Research, in February 1981, “General Hospital” had a season-to-date rating of 11.4/36 share. By February 1983, it had dropped to a 9.7 rating/32 share; by February 1989, a 7.6 rating/25 share. Last February, the rating was 5.8/19 share.

In addition to the decline in the numbers because of more working women, all the networks have seen an erosion in their base because of mounting competition overall.

Still, there are a solid number of “GH” viewers who watch their favorite soap at school, at work, in hospitals, etc., a portion of the audience that is by-and-large unmeasured.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters recently documented this out-of-home viewing phenomenon and concluded that with mobile American lifestyles, at least 4% of TV viewing is not reported in standard ratings. Soaps and sports make up the large portion of programming viewed in this way, it said.

Missing numbers

Gerry Hartshorn, NAB’s director of audience measurement and policy research, estimates that as much as 6% of the audience for daytime dramas isn’t counted in the numbers. Soap Opera Digest’s Lynn Leahey believes it’s higher, perhaps as much as 10%.

In recent years, ABC has tried out some innovative new businesses providing a new place to snare ad revenues and a way to promote the daytime block, including “General Hospital.” In 1989, the entertainment division launched Episodes, a slick glossy magazine its publisher describes as the “Us and People of the daytime soaps.”

ABC plugs the six-times-a-year publication on the air on “General Hospital,” urging potential readers to receive a free copy of the magazine offering an inside look at the shows’ celebs with a call to an 800-number. That gives ABC a nice database of its daytime soap opera audience. It hasn’t yet done any direct marketing to the group, but it’s rented the list to others, such as cooking book clubs, other magazines aimed at young women, zoos and hospitals.

Episodes’ publisher Amy Kopelan has an arsenal of research on the spending power of the publication’s audience–the very same people who are tuning in to “General Hospital.”

The young mothers ad base has a median household income of $ 36,800. Thirty-seven percent are employed full-time, with another 15.3% engaged in part-time employment. While 43.8% of the total U.S. 18-plus female population have children at home, 61.7% of Episodes readers have kids.

This pitch has worked on packaged goods advertisers, such as P&G, Lake Pharmaceutical, and some entertainment companies, which have signed on as advertisers. McDonald’s is coming into Episodes for the first time in the May/June issue.

As with daytime TV, automakers have so far shunned buying space in Episodes, a practice Kopelan attributes to Motor City’s “preconceived idea about the daytime audience.”

So the beat goes on. Episodes and ABC’s daytime advertising sales staff will press on, trying to convince new categories of advertisers that the soaps are where they should be.

In the meantime, it looks like “General Hospital” will probably be able to count on the marketers of cleaning supplies, diapers and food to pay the bills for years to come.

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