General Hospital: Television's Hottest Show


By Harry F. Waters with Janet Huck in Los Angeles, George Hackett and Eric Gelman in New York and bureau reports.

I tell you, Doctor, this "General Hospital" is making my head sick. It's bad enough that my wife has shelled out $1,000 for a video-tape-recorder so we'll never miss a single episode. But now my brilliant 14-year old daughter whom I figured to become another Susan Sontag, is off organizing a fan club for the guy who plays, Luke. And my college boy, the one who won a scholarship to Harvard ... know what his last team paper was titled? "Inter-Generational Alienation and Social-Networking Modes on "General Hospital'." When I call him a dummy, he tells me that everyone in the Ivy League is wearing an "I Love Luke and Linda." T-shirt. What's that, Doctor? You say her name is Laura? Oh, no, Doc, not you too! I feel so utterly alone. This is beginning to sound like (gasp, moan, sob) ... a soap opera.

Take heart, you miserably unplugged-in wretch. General Hospitalitis really hasn't afflicted the entire nation; it just seems that way. With a daily following of more than 14 million viewers, "GH" (as connoisseurs call it) has become not simply the highest-rated daytime show in the history of television, but a genuine pop-cultural phenomenon. No other soap-not even the legendary "Oxydol's Own Ma Perkins," which dominated radio in the 1930s--has inspired a devotion as widespread or as passionate.

When "GH" starts lathering ABC's airwaves each afternoon, airport waiting lounges suddenly clog with crowds around the pay TV's. At department stores, fans of the show inundate the TV-appliance sections for a free fix. Radio stations and newspapers provide recaps of the previous day's episode. Bars stage "General Hospital Happy Hours," passing out stethoscopes and surgical scrub suits to their patrons. The audience includes celebrities ranging from Lady Bird Johnson to Sammy Davis Jr. to baseball's Kansas City Royals, who made a mass pilgrimage to the serial's Hollywood set. Elizabeth Taylor likes the show so much that she plans to appear on it. And yes, there's a hit-record spin-off. It's called, "General Hospi-Tale" ("Don't call me crazy/No I'm not lazy... I just can't cope/ Without my soap").

It's not just the viewers who need their soap. With advertising rates that average $26,000 for a 30-second spot--and production costs that are a fraction of prime-time levels--"GH" earns something on the order of $1 million a week in profit for ABC. By comparison, even as big a prime-time hit as "Dallas" brings the network only about half as much in weekly profit. Indeed, for all the networks, no other single programing arena is more important than the afternoon serials. The thirteen regular soaps broadcast daily by ABC, CBS and NBC bring in upwards of $700 million a year in advertising revenue--roughly one-sixth the networks' total ad income.

The soaps have also attracted the serious attention of sociologists and psychologists, who argue that one can learn more about what moves mainstream America by monitoring them for a week than by plugging into an entire season's worth of prime-time sitcoms and shoot-'em-ups. The soaps' obsessive concern with human relationships, a distinguishing characteristic that goes back to their radio days, has made them pioneers in dealing with the human frailties that are the essence of domestic drama: infidelity, illegitimacy, drug abuse, wife beating-each made its television debut on the soaps. "With their realistic characters, daytime serials provide a more accurate representation of the real world than prime-time shows," says George Gerbner, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. "Prime time is a world of action, power and danger. Daytime is a world of interior turbulence that hits much closer to home."

Hysteria: Whatever the reason, there is little question that "General Hospital" gives viewers what they want. It has been particularly successful in attracting younger viewers, who have traditionally regarded soap addiction as a sure sign of senility. A.C. Nielsen estimates that nearly three-quarters of the show's audience falls into the 18-to-34 group so prized by TV advertisers. College students seem particularly susceptible to its appeal. When several of the show's stars appeared at Harvard University for a "General Hospital Weekend" last May, the staid campus erupted with groupie hysteria reminiscent of a '60s Beatles concert. And as the nation's campuses spring back to life this month, overflow audiences of "GH" scholars are again surrounding giant-screen sets in student unions and dormitory lounges. "I've made more friends from "GH' than from almost anything else," says Angela Himsel, a junior at Indiana University. "You walk into the TV lounge and everyone is willing to talk to you and fill you in on what's going on."

One need spend only a few seconds in the presence of a "GH" junkie to discover exactly what it is that turns them on--Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) and Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis), the Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara of Soapland. No two lovers in small-screen history have cast such a spell over the daytime audience--or served as such dubious role models for the T-shirt set.

Luke is a former front man and errand boy for the Mafia. He first showed up on "GH" three years ago as the manager of a local disco. When an epidemic of the dreaded Lassa fever struck Port Charles, the fictional site of the hospital, Luke ordered the disco's deathly ill cook to keep working--thereby spreading the fever to his customers. Nineteen-year-old Laura is no budding Mary Noble, either. Three years ago she bumped off an older lover when he confessed to lusting after her mother; she later let her mom take the rap. Laura wound up marrying her first love-only to drive him out of town (and into the cast of an NBC soap) when she fell in love with a man who had raped her.

Frenzy: It goes without saying, of course, that Laura's rapist was Luke. The assault took place two years ago on the dance floor of Luke's deserted disco as the sound track throbbed with Herb Alpert's "Rise." And how the ratings did rise! From that moment on, new viewers began playing hooky from jobs, schools and laundry to follow the couple's sweet-and-sour relationship. Would Laura name her rapist? (No.) Would Luke come to love his victim? (Yes.) Would Laura accept and return that love? (Yes, but only after months of inner conflict.) Would they ever have sex again? (Yes, this time in a motel, on a real bed.) Will they ever marry? (Tune in around mid-November.) Meanwhile, feminist groups worked themselves into a frenzy over what they perceived as the glorification of a rapist. As the denunciations rained down, the serial's creators came up with an ingenious--if disingenuous--justification for Luke's assault. It was, they blithely explained, merely an "acquaintance rape."

Steam and sleaze, however, only partly account for the immense appeal of "GH's" star attractions. Geary, a 34-year-old former TV bit player, has defied the soap genre's plastic, leading-man stereotype by bringing a flip wit and a scruffy, streetwise charm to the character of Luke (page 63). Like some ectomorphic John Garfield, he is at once menacing and vulnerable, the classic up-from-the-sewer scam artist with a marshmallow heart. "Luke's a guy with bad qualities, but he's also sensitive and romantic," says Geary. "People root for him. They want him to make it."

Though Genie Francis is a performer with less experience, her thoroughly messed-up Laura seems to inspire both empathy and envy among real-life teens. "We can relate to her," says 18-year-old fan Polly Maneley of Atlanta. "The whole thing ofjealousy between a mother and a daughter is believable." A high-school girl in New Jersey adds: "I like Laura because she's only 18 and she gets to live the life of a 28-year-old."

In one sense, soaps on the tube are much like those on the supermarket shelf. When one manufacturer designs a successful new package, the other brands scramble to copy it. In the case of "GH," the competition has concluded that the serial's magic formula can be reduced to two words: skew young. All across the daytime dial, the Jill Clayburgh Housewife-Facing-Midlife Look has suddenly become passe. Coming on strong are legions of Brooke Shields clones splitting their designer jeans in lustful pursuit of a horde of John Travolta look-alikes. A few of the soaps' new nymphs:

Kimberly Beaulac (Kell Maroney) of ABC's "Ryan's Hope." Manipulative and oversexed, Kimberly is a 19-year-old unwed mother who recently shot her lover because he was sleeping with her mother. To protect her daughter from prosecution, Mom has confessed to the deed. (If "General Hospital" weren't also owned by ABC, its writers might be suing "Ryan's Hope" for theft of plot.)

Greta Aldrich (Lori-Nan Engler) of NBC's "The Doctors." The angelic young daughter of longtime character Dr. Matt Powers, Greta got pregnant on a highschool date. The man responsible, a womanizing newspaper reporter named Billy, skipped town. But he hastened back to Greta's side after learning that she stands to inherit millions.

*Wendy Wilkens (Lisa Peluso) of CBS's "Search for Tomorrow." Against her mother's advice, 18-year-old Wendy surrendered her virginity to law student Spence Langley. Now she's taken up with Zack Anders, a mixed-up songwriter who may be an accessory to murder.

*Jody Travis (Lori Loughlin) of ABC's "The Edge of Night." Innocent rather than sultry, Jody is an 18-year-old dancer with long brown hair and deep brown eyes. She is on the run with her lover, a dance instructor who is being framed by his boss for murder.

*Morgan Nelson (Kristen Vagard) of CBS's "Guiding Light." Just turned 18, redheaded Morgan has already survived imprisonment by a band of pimps as well as condemnations from viewers for popping birth-control pills. Her recent marriage to a medical student was followed by one of TV's most passion-filled honeymoons. Between skinny dips with her new husband, Morgan was given to exclaiming: "Take me back to the cottage and make love to me.... Puleeeeese. "

Daytime TV's fervid courtship of the young stems from a dramatic shift in its balance of power. Six years ago CBS owned four of the top five soaps on the Nielsen totem pole. Since then, ABC has emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant force. The secret of its success: it managed to capture more young female viewers than the other two networks combined. ABC's "General Hospital," "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" now finish win, place and show in the ratings, while NBC's most popular soap ("Days of Our Lives") stands no higher than a dismal ninth.

Thanks largely to the infusion of highschool and college viewers, the daytime serials are currently drawing record crowds. Nielsen reports soap-watching has become a daily habit for nearly 30 million Americans--more than twice the combined populations of Sweden and Switzerland. What's behind their burgeoning appeal? No one can be sure, but Kenneth Haun, who teaches a course on soaps at New Jersey's Monmouth College, suggests a reasonable theory. "College students usually get the habit during their freshman year," he says. "When they're homesick and lonely, they turn on a soap--and there are the old familiar faces to make them feel secure. As for the high-schoolers, kids between the ages of 13 and 16 usually suffer a communications breakdown with their parents. So they rely on the soaps as models of ways they can cope."

Affliction: As Haun suggests, the sense of continuity that soaps offer is at the heart of their appeal. Thus, though soap stories rarely advance at more than a snail's pace, confirmed addicts hate to miss even a single episode. When they do miss one, they can get a surrogate fix from a growing number of specialty magazines that cater to their particular affliction. Periodicals like Soap Opera Digest and Daytime TV provide upward of 1 million fans with detailed synopses of the latest plot twists--as well as adoring portraits of their favorite soap actors.

To the extent that some viewers look to soaps to tell them what real life is like, today's younger generation may enter adulthood with some very odd notions about what to expect. A recent survey of soap addicts at the University of Kentucky discovered that most of them grossly overestimated the proportion of doctors and lawyers in the real world, as well as the incidence of emotional illness and divorce, Heavy exposure to soaps may also warp adolescent sexual attitudes. According to a study conducted by a team at Michigan State, teen-age soap viewers are likely to conclude that married couples virtually never engage in sex, while singles do almost nothing else. After watching 65 hours of serials, the researchers found that nearly 80 percent of the scenes in which intercourse was suggested occurred between unmarried lovers--and only 6 percent involved marital partners. (Not surprisingly, the soap found to contain the most sexual activity was top-rated "General Hospital.")

A less clinical examination of the genre reveals other distortions of reality that, though harmless enough by themselves, add up to a bizarre portrait of ordinary life. With few exceptions, the inhabitants of Soapland are all upper-middle-class Wasps with homes straight out of House Beautiful. Almost all the characters are related by either marriage or blood. No one has a plain name like Jim or Jane. These people carry such monikers as Sky and Raven ("The Edge of Night"), Sebastian and Althea ("The Doctors"), Lance and Nikki ("The Young and the Restless") and Justin and Ashley ("Texas"). No one ever washes dishes, vacuums a rug, makes the beds--or watches television. No one ever swears or tells a joke. Everyone converses in Soapspeak, a language stuffed with pregnant pauses and filtered through a Cuisinart of cliches. At least once in every episode, someone is bound to blurt: "There's something I have to tell you." Answering a question with a question is a favorite device, as illustrated by a recent exchange between a divorced couple on "General Hospital":

HE: Is there a future for us?
SHE: What are you asking?
HE: I'm asking, is it too late for us?
SHE: What do you think?

That's not to suggest that the soaps of 1981 look and sound exactly like those of a decade ago. Over the past six years nine of TV's thirteen serials have gone to a onehour format, an expansion that has made possible far more convoluted plot permutations as well as casts as large as Army platoons. As prime time increasingly apes daytime with soaps of its own like "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Flamingo Road," afternoon dramas are retaliating by taking on the high-gloss production values of their evening cousins. Not only have their costumes and sets become more opulent, but some soaps are breaking out of their traditional four-walled confines for location shooting in foreign climes. "Ryan's Hope" has traveled to Ireland, "One Life to Live" to Paris and "Guiding Light" to three islands in the Caribbean. This fall "Search for Tomorrow" will celebrate its 31st year on CBS by filming in Hong Kong.

The stories are still the thing, of course, and most seem to be finally catching up with the times. Extramarital sex is no longer invariably punished by pregnancy. Abortion has emerged as at least a debatable option. A few black characters now drop by on occasion, though so far none has been permitted to play musical beds like--much less with--the randy white folks. Women characters have at last been freed to have careers as well as marriages. Of the eighteen major female characters on "General Hospital," fifteen work outside the home. (Naturally, all of them are miserable.)

Before Luke and Laura showed up, "General Hospital" generally confined itself to what went on in the hospital. When launched in 1963, its male-and-female "tentpoles"--trade jargon for the central characters upon whom most plots are hung--were Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino), the hospital's fatherly chief of staff, and Jessie Brewer (Emily McLaughlin), its saintly head nurse. Story themes pivoted around such medical traumas as alcoholism, obesity, mental disorders and even cancer. The formula kept the show popular for more than a decade. But as hordes of housewife viewers began surging into the work force during the 1970s, "GH" took on the pallor of the terminally ill. By 1977 it had plunged to twelfth place among all daytime programs and appeared to be on the brink of cancellation.

"Heartbreak': Enter Gloria Monty, a feisty, former movie-of-the-week producer whom ABC commissioned to resuscitate the show at any expense. Monty's first move was to throw out dozens of scripts; her second was to hire a team of new writers. She also brought in younger, more imaginative cameramen as well as a Broadway set designer to modernize the hospital's 1950s-style nurses' station. She zipped up the show's pace by increasing the number of scenes in an episode from a handful to two dozen and by introducing primetime editing techniques that keep the actors constantly in motion.

Once she finished sprucing up the cosmetics, Monty turned her eye to the cast. "She wanted to attract a new teen-age audience," recalls Genie Francis, who was all of 14 when shejoined the show. "The best way to do that was to give them one of their peers--and that was me." Within a few months Francis's role as Laura mushroomed from two brief appearances a week to 50 script pages each day. With that, the ratings curve reversed direction. "We did a first-love story with real-life sex, romance and heartbreak," explains Francis. "It's every teen-ager's story." After hooking the kids with the right kid, Monty began transforming the older male characters from harridan-ridden weaklings into tough, standup guys. Observes longtime "GH" actor Stuart Damon: "The male population started watching us because we no longer were wimps. When a woman was wrong, we'd slap her down."

Monty's shrewdest innovation was her creation of daytime TV's first bitch god. Anthony Geary hardly looks like an actor who could raise female temperatures. His thin lips, weak chin and sallow complexion seem instantly forgettable; his receding blond hair is so thin that he must rely on permanents to keep it tightly curled. Indeed, Geary's Luke was originally scheduled to be killed off early. But it quickly became apparent that Geary's edgy volatility was just the stuff of teen-age fantasy. Luke was given a reprieve and set loose after Laura.

To keep things percolating, producer Monty shamelessly pilfered plots from old movies. Two summers ago Luke and Laura (disguised in a black wig) went on a cross-country run from some Mafia hit men. Every evening they would engage in endlessly titillating, shall-we-sleep-together blather. Invariably, they would wind up collapsing into separate beds after Luke discreetly hung up blankets between them. Fans of "It Happened One Night," the classic 1934 comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, must have been mouthing the lines before they were uttered. This summer the couple again got involved in high adventure while pursuing a secret diamond-making formula hidden in an ugly black statue. Monty concedes that, yes, she has seen "The Maltese Falcon. "

The lovers' current escapade is equally derivative, suggesting a hybrid of "Tarzan" and "Doctor No." Luke and Laura find themselves stranded on a tropical island ruled by a maniacal scientist named Mikkos who operates out of an underground laboratory. As Luke copes with a mischievous Cheetalike chimp who keeps swiping Laura's wig, Mikkos reveals his dastardly plan to become "Supreme Commander of All Nations" by starting a new ice age. James Bond would feel right at home.

Fan Mail: Sophisticates may look at a story line like that and see a trashy, electronic comic strip. But to "GH" cultists, it smacks of nothing less than Tolstoy adapted by Fellini, with Redford and Streisand in the leads. Since the mad-scientist caper began, fan mail to the show has jumped from four bags a week to nine, while ratings have shot to record heights. Monty's competitors are at their wits' end. When she lunched recently at a TV-industry watering hole, a CBS daytime executive sitting across the room shouted at her: "Why don't you take a vacation and give the rest of us a chance?"

Rather than obliging, the fiercely competitive Monty continues to scheme about how to addict even more pubescent viewers. Young male characters with David Cassidy looks seem to be dropping anchor in Port Charles almost every week. The newest heartthrob: Rick Springfield, a real-life pop-rock singer with a hit record ("Jessie's Girl"), who is currently mesmerizing "GH" fans as the insufferably smooth Dr. Noah Drake.

Unconventional Twists: Monty appears equally determined to make the show's grownups behave like their teeny-bopper relations. In one recent episode, Dr. Monica Quartermaine invited her friend Dr. Gail Baldwin out to dinner for a heart-to-heart chat. That's a standard soap-opera convention, but Monica gave it an unconventional twist. "Let's eat at the campus disco," she chirped to Gail. "All the kids are going to be there." Older characters who aren't suited to such second-childhood antics have been gradually consigned to oblivion. These days, head nurse Jessie spends most of her time manning the phones in the hospital's reception area, while square old Dr. Hardy has been reduced to walking on occasionally to announce: "I'm going up to the tenth floor, Jessie.... You can reach me there."

Predictably, the greening of "General Hospital" has produced grumblings from the veterans. "I wish we had a story line for the older actors," complains Susan Brown; who plays Dr. Baldwin. "We still have an older audience, and they buy more products than the kids. Life doesn't stop after 30, but if you tuned in the soaps, you'd conclude that everyone died at that age."

Less partial observers voice a more serious concern. As the other soaps increasingly cast themselves in "GH's" adolescent image, they may cease to perform an important social service. Amid their daily litanies of Anger , the sudsers have always imparted useful information about all manner of contemporary problems. They have pioneered detailed TV exploration of wife and child abuse, divorce, single parenthood, venereal disease, impotency, prostitution and drug addiction. However melodramatic the treatments, audiences came away with clues about how to cope with similar traumas in their o wn lives--or at the very least, a reassurance that they were not alone.

Serious students of the form also fret about the effects of the youth-oriented soaps on adolescent psyches. Arthur Asa Berger, a respected social scientist at San Francisco State University, regards shows like "GH" as "one more sign that society is rapidly bent on destroying latency in youth. Once it was possible for youngsters to exist without concerning themselves with sex. But that is changing because advertisers and others have found they can exploit it. Youth is easily manipulable, so that can be very destructive."

The fact is, of course, that the primary objectives of network soaps are entertainment and escapism; if a few moral lessons are added to the mix, that's so much icing on the cake. What TV's afternoon sagas are selling is as old as the tales of the medieval jongleurs: what will happen next? Can "General Hospital's" Noah fill the void in Bobbie's life left by the death of Roy? Will Alan ever get to see his illegitimate son? Was Heather's amnesia a cover-up for the murder of Diana? Can Lesley ever forgive Rick for dallying with Monica, the ex-wife of his half brother Jeff?

Only time will tell, of course. Or as poor, underemployed Dr. Hardy might advise overwrought viewers: "Take two Valiums and call Nurse Jessie in the morning. Now excuse me, I'm afraid I have to disappear. Those damn money boys who run this hospital are turning over the rest of my shift to Luke and Laura."

Cover Photo, TV's Hottest Shows, by Julian Wasser     

Copyright 1981 Newsweek


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