A Sudsy Revolution

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Millions of people remember where they were when Luke raped Laura on General Hospital, Viki first became her wild alter ego Niki on One Life to Live and Erica began marrying men with only-in-a-soap frequency on All My Children. They recall the galvanizing performance by Judith Light as a hooker savagely grilled during a murder trial on One Life to Live. They still talk about the summer when Luke and Laura went on the run from the mob and the time they saved the world from a madman with a weather-controlling machine. Even people unfamiliar with soaps know that all activity stopped on two November afternoons in 1981 when Laura married Luke. Elizabeth Taylor crashed the nuptials and General Hospital enjoyed the highest ratings of any soap opera in history.
This collective memory is all the more remarkable given that these soap milestones occurred before the VCR became a ubiquitous feature in American households-and they happened during the afternoon, when most people were at school or work. Such has been the impact of ABC Daytime on popular culture, especially since the ’70s, when its block of network-owned soap operas changed the perception of daytime drama from programming for moms and grandmothers to essential viewing for high school and college students of both sexes.
Long before the Federal Communications Commission relaxed the financial interest-syndication rules, allowing broadcast networks to own an ever-increasing percentage of their prime-time programming, ABC cannily assembled its own roster of homegrown, fully owned daytime serials, including the long-running General Hospital, One Life to Live and All My Children, two soaps that have since been canceled (Loving and The City) and 7-year-old Port Charles. (ABC Daytime isn’t limited to soap operas. It is also counts the Barbara Walters talk series The View as one of its signature programs.)
For ABC, ownership of its soaps eliminated much of the tension that can exist between outside suppliers of daytime dramas and the networks that schedule them. It also provided ABC with a unique, undiluted revenue stream that veteran network employees say funded a good deal of the network’s prime-time development during less successful years. When the Walt Disney Co. acquired ABC in 1995 ABC Daytime was able to fully maximize available synergies with its new parent, first by launching a series of annual promotional events at Disney’s theme parks (known as Super Soap Weekends) and later providing 31/2 hours of fresh programming five days a week directly to the fast-growing Disney Cable network SoapNet.
Beginning in the late ’60s with the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (see sidebar), which ABC aired but did not own, the network pursued kids and teenagers, who, historically, had not been interested in the format. After the cancellation of Dark Shadows in 1971 there were few daytime dramas in place that significantly nurtured valuable future generations of soap viewers. Eventually, two serials on ABC, Ryan’s Hope (which the network did not own) and All My Children, began to develop cult followings on college campuses.
But the entire genre was rocked in the late ’70s by the sudden ratings and demographic surge that General Hospital enjoyed under the auspices of legendary executive producer Gloria Monty, who was brought in to save the show after it sank to the bottom of the ratings and hovered on the brink of cancellation. Fueled by the stories of anti-hero Luke and his teenage sweetheart Laura, General Hospital broke new ground in storytelling on a number of creative and technical levels. Ms. Monty often indulged in location shoots, effectively freeing soaps from the rigid confines of studio sets. The traditional soap elements of romance, marriage and infidelity, though still included in the General Hospital narrative, were frequently incorporated into action-adventure and science-fiction stories. Virtually every soap opera on ABC and the other networks tried to mimic the new General Hospital model by adding younger players and wild story lines, with varying results.
The General Hospital phenomenon was no accident. Genie Francis, the actress who played Laura, said in a 1996 interview with this writer that when she was added to the show’s cast in 1977 at age 14, “Gloria Monty told my parents, `I’m going after the young audience for the first time, and I’m using your daughter to do it.”’
Like all soaps on every network, ABC Daytime’s dramas went through dramatic changes in the ’90s. They suffered precipitous ratings declines brought on by competition from the proliferation of cable channels, the growth of confrontational daytime talk shows that siphoned away younger viewers and perpetual pre-emptions due to marathon news coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. There were also key creative shifts. Most soap operas infused their narratives with issue-oriented story lines in response to criticism that their larger-than-life melodrama had become irrelevant. General Hospital was once again at the forefront, with riveting, award-winning stories about organ donation, a woman battling breast cancer and a young man dying of AIDS. One Life to Live tackled homophobia, gang rape and mental illness. All My Children” added gay characters to its canvas.
The pro-social thrust of the ’90s softened a bit in the new millennium. Currently, General Hospital spins around the personal and professional turmoil of murderous mobsters and the women who love them. One Life to Live is once again taking on a darker, gothic tone. All My Children is incorporating elements of a real-life reality television project into its narrative.
Interestingly, recent changes on Port Charles evoke memories of an earlier ABC success. Like Dark Shadows before it, Port Charles was originally conceived as a more traditional serial. But when ratings for Port Charles floundered, ABC responded by adding vampires to its narrative, just as a once-struggling Dark Shadows added the character of the bloodsucking Barnabas Collins. The undead haven’t transformed Port Charles into the phenomenon Shadows was, but they have brought new young viewers to the show.
In the world of ABC Daytime, that’s the gift of life.