As of early 2019, the daytime soap opera, General Hospital, is the longest-running American scripted television series still on-air, approaching 56 years of daily weekday broadcasting, without repeats. While this longevity is remarkable in its own right, General Hospital has long been a television pioneer, a site of key developments in the genre of daytime drama, in the history of the ABC network, and in the television business as a whole.
The debut of General Hospital in April 1963 marked a significant shift in the American television landscape. It departed from a number of the ownership, production, and storytelling practices that had shaped daytime drama to this point. Since the days of radio, daytime soap operas were nearly exclusively owned by their sponsors. Major consumer goods manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive created daytime serials as vehicles for advertising their household brands, most notably the laundry and dish soaps that helped to give the genre its name. The advertising agencies that produced the commercials for these companies’ products were also tasked with producing the programs themselves, although the sponsor-owners often contracted directly with the writers who were the creative visionaries behind the programs. General Hospital was the first successful attempt to shift away from this system of ownership and production. Instead of being owned and controlled by a single sponsor, the program was owned and created by a subsidiary production company of ABC. Instead of the network selling a program timeslot to a sponsor, ABC sold time in individual commercial spots to a variety of advertisers. This kind of “participation” advertising had been a growing practice of the TV business since the late 1950s, but General Hospital was the first successful effort to pair this model of financial support with network ownership in the world of daytime serials.
The soap was also an innovator upon its debut because it was produced in Los Angeles, rather than in New York, where TV soaps had always been produced, apart from a few brief experiments on the West Coast. This location allowed for slightly more expansive sets than were possible in the cramped studios of New York City. And the time zone encouraged the launch of videotape production, rather than the live broadcasts that had always marked daytime serials. While the modes of daytime soap opera ownership and production would vary from this point on, General Hospital broke the ground to make these alternates to the original structure possible.
The program was an innovator in one more key way: it was set in a workplace – a hospital – and its main characters were therefore the men and women who worked in that hospital. While, initially, most of the doctor characters were men and the nurses were women, identifying women characters as professionals rather than only as housewives or mothers was a marked shift in gender representation for a genre that understood its audience to be women in the home. The characters remained primarily absorbed by their personal travails, romance and marriage and family life were their concerns, much as with the other programs in the genre, but on General Hospital those struggles often took place against the backdrop of the hospital workplace, one that men and women both occupied.
General Hospital was also crucial to the initiation of ABC’s daytime schedule, which was nearly non-existent before the 1960s. From that point, the network would add to its daytime roster, and would become an equal competitor to NBC and CBS by the early 1970s. Even with this late start, the success of General Hospital, along with the other soaps of the ABC schedule, would help the network rise to the number one daytime ratings position by the late 1970s. ABC’s soaps and especially General Hospital were crucial to the growing popularity and profitability of the broadcast networks across the 1970s and into the 1980s. Indeed, in the early 1980s, General Hospital became a mass pop cultural sensation.
In this era, executive producer Gloria Monty brought to the soap a generic mix that included action-adventure, comedy, even science fiction. These variations on traditional soap storytelling also included location shooting and a narrative emphasis on young love in the form of “supercouples” who faced adventures with the support of their communities. Most notable were Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) and Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis), a young couple whose adventures “on the run” beginning in the summer of 1980 helped bring a broadened audience to the soap—it was clear that not only housewives but also college students and teens, men, and working women were big fans. Luke and Laura’s story began when he raped her on the floor of the disco where they both worked. The soap spent many months exploring the implications of the rape, but eventually allowed the characters to seemingly forget it as their popularity grew. The episode that featured their lavish wedding, in November 1981, drew the largest audience in daytime television history.
By the later 1980s, General Hospital’s ratings, popularity, and profitability began to dip, as was true of the genre as a whole. These declines would continue over the next few decades. But the soap also took some of its riskiest chances in the initial years of decline. Most notably, in the 1990s, General Hospital grappled with a number of social issues, including organ donation, breast cancer, interracial families, and AIDS. Ingenue Robin Scorpio was infected with HIV, lost her boyfriend to AIDS, and became a symbol of hope as her treatment coincided with real-world advances in treatment, allowing the character to continue to be a significant figure on the program’s story canvas across the 2010s.
Upon the cancelation of a number of daytime soaps between 2009 and 2012, General Hospital was left as the sole remaining daytime soap opera on ABC. In the 2010s, the program has pursued numerous cost-cutting measures to keep it a financially viable endeavor for its network. It continues to benefit from some of the very innovations it established across its history, from its significant studio space (ABC built the soap its own building during its 1980s heyday, where it continues to be produced), its network-ownership, and its investments in its hospital setting and genre diversity (including mafia stories). The path of General Hospital across so much of American television history makes it a crucial case for understanding how the business, production, and storytelling practices of television have developed over time.
-Elana Levine, May 2019
Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Raleigh, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Levine, Elana. “Love in the Afternoon: The Supercouples of 1980s Daytime Soap Opera.” Critical Studies in Television 9:2 (Summer 2014), 20-38.
Levine, Elana. Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.