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Virus trips up US soap opera 'General Hospital', 57 years on

Thomas Urbain

Agence France-Presse

New York, United States  /  Thu, May 21, 2020  /  01:34 pm
Virus trips up US soap opera 'General Hospital', 57 years on

In this file photo cast and crew of 'General Hospital' pay tribute to 55th Anniversary onstage during the 45th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on April 29, 2018 in Pasadena, California. (AFP/Kevork Djansezian)

Will Michael get full custody of his son Wiley? Will Sasha's romantic woes lead her down the road to addiction? Will Sonny and Julian battle it out once again?

Fans of General Hospital are awaiting answers to these questions -- but they could end up waiting a long time, as the last new episode of the beloved US soap opera airs Thursday.

For the first time since its debut in 1963, and after more than 14,500 episodes, the ABC program will be on forced hiatus due to disruptions in production sparked by the coronavirus crisis.

"I've been watching this show since like I was maybe eight or nine years old," says Tiana Jones, a 29-year-old who lives in New York's Queens neighborhood.

"So not having that key part of my everyday life is hard."

Filming on General Hospital came to a screeching halt in March, as it did for the vast majority of TV shows and films in progress, when businesses moved into lockdown mode.

Social distancing on a soap set? Impossible.

The team behind the show re-edited episodes, adding lengthy flashbacks to make their new material last longer, and aired reruns of classic episodes on Fridays -- but the well has run dry.

GH is not alone. The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless -- which air on CBS -- ran out of shows last month. 

That leaves NBC's Days of Our Lives -- which shoots episodes months in advance -- as the last soap standing through the summer and into the fall.

Read also: California to reopen filming, but virus hub Los Angeles 'weeks behind'

'Me time'

Soap operas began as radio shows before migrating to television.

Storylines -- which once focused largely on romantic hijinks and family drama -- have expanded to include everything from the AIDS crisis to transgender acceptance to #MeToo harassment.

"It's a daily habit... an hour of me time," says 65-year-old Donna Walsh Costello, who had been watching the show more or less since the beginning.

General Hospital regularly draws slightly more than two million viewers a day. But with more people stuck at home, its ratings soared -- nearly to the top of the daytime charts.

ABC did not respond to requests for comment about when production could resume on General Hospital, which boasts famous alumni like Demi Moore and Ricky Martin.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday he would soon unveil plans for the entertainment industry, but noted there were likely to be delays in Los Angeles.

Tradition

For Mary Sue Price, who worked as a writer on General Hospital from the late 1990s to 2012, the show's enduring popularity stems from its "tradition of telling really strong stories" and the longevity of its characters.

Show stalwarts include Kin Shriner and Genie Francis, who arrived in Port Charles -- the fictitious New York city where the show takes place -- in 1977 as Scott and Laura.

"There's a sort of continuity to it that people find really comforting and really reassuring," Price said.

Michael Maloney, who writes for the Soap Hub website, says soaps "offer consistency in a world that doesn't always have consistency."

Read also: No kissing, no fighting as TV soap 'Neighbours' resumes filming

How to stay relevant

Since 2009, several major soaps have left the canvas -- All My ChildrenGuiding LightAs the World Turns among them -- leaving just four to soldier on in a saturated content market where traditional broadcast networks are losing ground.

General Hospital reduced its costs by 30 percent over a decade, ABC Daytime vice president for production Dominick Nuzzi told Variety in 2018 -- mainly by cutting back on production time from 50 weeks a year to 35 for the same number of episodes.

"Everyone has been stepping up to do what they need to do in order to keep things viable," he said at the time.

Now, with the coronavirus crisis presenting the soap industry with a new challenge, what happens next? 

Walsh Costello said she fears that the audience could fade as the weeks of reruns drag on, and hopes new episodes will come back quickly -- even if it's only one or two a week at the start.

"That would keep the anticipation going!" she said.

But Jones says the fans -- largely women, many of whom started watching with a mother or grandmother -- are loyal. She often talks to her mom in Georgia about the show's plot twists.

And while new shows are always better, a few golden oldies -- perhaps the 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura, which drew 30 million viewers at the time -- will be fun to see, Jones says.

"It'll be cool to watch and see what they used to look like," she said.

Maloney says he doesn't believe the coronavirus crisis will be the death of soaps.

"The networks have tried alternative programming to take the place of the cancelled soap operas. And nothing really seems to perform as well," he said.

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