Just as there have been advances in the field of medicine over the past 55 years that have resulted in people living longer, so, too, have there been changes and improvements at “General Hospital” that have kept the long-running soap opera thriving in today’s crowded TV landscape.
“Soap operas are an original American art form that’s been copied into other forms of television, but our show is a drama that also has elements of comedy and action-adventure,” says executive producer Frank Valentini. “It’s rare for a show to encompass all of that, while at the core being a show about love, family and relationships. We tell stories from all perspectives. We’ve held onto all these elements and that is how we maintain our place in the television landscape.”
Valentini notes that the most significant differences between television in 1963 when “General Hospital” first debuted and today is the “increased competition” and tightening budget.
While in years past, soap operas would generally tape one show a day, occasionally adding daily scenes throughout the year in order to take a holiday break, today “General Hospital” shoots seven to eight episodes per week in order to save on production costs.
In years past, crew members would come in nightly and change out the sets after a daily episode wrapped. “Six or eight sets would come out and then, six or eight would go in,” says Dominick Nuzzi, vice president of production and administration at ABC Daytime. “That was very labor-intensive. Now, the model is doing seven to eight episodes a week, and we shoot 110 to 140 pages per day instead of 80 pages. We’re in production roughly 35 weeks a year as opposed to 50. Our budget is down 30% of what it was back in 2009. That’s a big factor of why the show is still financially viable. We’re really blessed because we have a crew that’s dedicated.”
“The pace isn’t rushed,” adds Valentini. “It’s just efficient.”
And just as the production pace has increased, so, too, has the rate at which stories get told. But one staple that hasn’t changed over the course of “General Hospital’s” run is the idea of a young woman who is searching for a better life.
Paramount to the show’s success in the late 1970s was the addition of hooker-turned-nursing student Barbara Jean “Bobbie” Spencer (Jacklyn Zeman), who was determined to wed law student Scotty Baldwin (Kin Shriner). Bobbie became a character viewers loved to hate. After her redemption, viewers were introduced to her volatile daughter, Carly (originally played by Sarah Joy Brown, but now by Laura Wright). Today, Nelle (Chloe Lanier) is the show’s scrappy go-getter, pregnant, hoping to secure a future with Bobbie’s grandson.
“Bobbie, Carly and Nelle are similar in that they’ve all fought or are fighting for their lives, their families and their futures,” says Zeman, a four-time Emmy nominee for her role as Bobbie. “People relate to that.”
The ABC serial, created by Frank and Doris Hursley, premiered as a black-and-white half-hour program on April 1, 1963. The entire episode took place at the hospital as Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino) and Jessie Brewer, R.N. (Emily McLaughlin), tended to a young woman whose face was scarred after a night of joy-riding took a dangerous turn.
“Our show is a drama that also has elements of comedy and action-adventure.”
There were two notable periods in “General Hospital’s” history when the show faced cancellation, but creative showrunners came in and performed life-saving surgery each time. In the late 1970s, producer Gloria Monty and head writer Douglas Marland quickened the show’s pace, updated production values and created compelling tales for the show’s multi-generational cast.
In 1981, Anthony Geary and Genie Francis — supercouple Luke and Laura — were featured on the covers of both People and Newsweek magazines. In the years that followed, the soap opera genre took some ratings hits as more women entered the workforce, cable offerings expanded and episodes saw preemptions during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, though.
After ABC serials “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” went off the air in 2011 and 2012, respectively, there was concern that “General Hospital” would, too. Fortunately, executive producer Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati arrived in “General Hospital’s” fictional setting of Port Charles. And their creativity made all of the difference.
Today, “General Hospital,” is still helmed by Valentini, although Shelly Altman and Chris Van Etten serve as head writers.
The show, one of only four soap operas left, is seeing approximately 2.4 million live+same day viewers, earning a 0.6 in the women 18-49 demo. Earlier this month “General Hospital” was ranking as the No.1 program in daytime among women 18-49. And it just earned 26 Daytime Emmy nominations — the most for the year.
Over the years, the soap temporarily shifted away from the seventh floor nurses station as mobsters, mad scientists, secret agents, and even an alien from the fictional planet Lumina became part of the storytelling. But now they are back to their medical setting.
“The hospital comes up organically,” says Valentini. “That’s why it’s important to populate the hospital with characters we know and love.”
Soap operas have often been ahead of primetime dramas with depictions of social issues. In the 1990s, “General Hospital,” helmed by Wendy Riche, executive producer, and Claire Labine, head writer, addressed breast cancer, organ donation and HIV/AIDS, earning the show three consecutive Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series from 1995-1997. The show has won this award 13 times in all, more than any other soap.
“When I came on board it seemed liked there’d been a bit of a pause in terms of social relevance,” says Nathan Varni, senior manager of current series, scripted, at ABC. “There’d been spurts here and there, but no long arcs. When our writers are very passionate about something, we encourage them to bring it to the screen.”
Last year, “General Hospital” had the character of Kristina Corinthos (Lexi Ainsworth) questioning her sexuality as she fell in love with her former college professor. Currently, Dr. Lucas Jones (Ryan Carnes) and his phlebotomist husband, Brad Cooper (Parry Shen), are planning to have a baby via surrogate.
|“General Hospital” has adapted its storytelling and its pace through the years to better serve the modern TV viewer.
“You can feature Lucas and Brad — two gay men — but [being gay] isn’t their story,” says Altman. “That’s when you have real evolution. Their story doesn’t have to be about becoming who they are or facing prejudices.”
The show is also telling a topical tale of Sonny (Maurice Benard) dealing with his father being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This storyline features heavily in the show’s 55th anniversary episode, airing March 30.
Mark Teschner, who has been “GH’s” casting director for 28 years and earned eight Daytime Emmys for his work on the show, notes that any stigma that once may have been around soap opera acting is no more — due in great part to the emotional work in modern scripts.
“I have noticed a shift where now there are more and more actors approaching us to work on the show,” says Teschner. “The lines have been so blurred between film, primetime and daytime that actors work fluidly in all mediums.”
Sonny’s dad, Mike, in the aforementioned Alzheimer’s story is played by Max Gail, best known to TV viewers from his run on “Barney Miller.”
“It wasn’t as if we were looking for a name actor for that role,” Teschner adds. “We were just looking for the best actor. Max happened to be both.”
The addition of social media has also helped “General Hospital” stay on top in an ever-evolving television landscape. Angry fans didn’t have an outlet when Dr. Lesley Webber (Denise Alexander) was killed off the show in 1984, so they picketed the studio and mailed letters of protest. Now, viewers discuss and dissect storylines online and an on-site producer pushes out platform-specific content in that digital space.
“As with any technology, you have to figure out a way to make it work for good,” says Valentini.
Steve Burton, who first joined “General Hospital in 1991 and recently returned to play Jason Morgan after a five-year break, adds that while there can be “a lot of bad” that comes with the good of social media, “you have to keep up to tell the fans you’re engaged and grateful.”
Soap fans have long memories, but fortunately so do the writers of “General Hospital,” many of whom grew up watching the show years before working on it. As much as flexibility to adjust with the times in storytelling and scheduling has been important to the show’s continued success, Varni believes that love of the show that starts from within the production team is the key.
“We don’t want people to tune into a ‘General Hospital’ that is unfamiliar. It should be that comfort food,” Varni says.
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