January 27, 2007
General Hospital Borrows from 24 in Real-Time Storyline During Sweeps Month

While on the subject of soap operas, I thought I would point out a really interesting development on the soap opera General Hospital that shows just the kind of interesting television genre crossings (of sorts, in this case) that we've written about before. Michael Newman, who teaches film and media studies at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, recently directed my attention toward a post on the Entertainment Weekly Popwatch Blog by Abby West, following up on a story they wrote last year with the head writer of GH and the producer of the primetime series 24 giving their version of the other's show. Now, apparently, General Hospital is going to turn that fun exercise into action.

The plan is for General Hospital, during sweeps month, to enter into a 24-like plot, showing an explosion at a well-known hotel in town and then making the next 16 episodes the 16 hours before the explosion, so viewers can slowly learned what happened leading up to this event. In other words, more than two weeks of the show's programming is going to focus on telling the story of the events leading up to this explosion in real time, a la 24.

There is certainly a connection between these two shows. Although the connections aren't made often enough, the seriality of primetime shows bear a strong ancestry with the construction of daytime television narratives, as I've written about several times before. Yet, with all the hype about seriality in primetime, very few articles in tthe popular press or even in academic circles link this type of plot back to the long lineage of seriality on daytime.

Back in December, I wrote:

The problem is that, despite still having many million viewers, daytime television is considered on the periphery and almost seems like it doesn't even warrant discussion. How has daytime managed to thrive for more than 50 years with complexity as central to its development? Does the low production values and the stereotypes, the sheer volume of content and the fact that these shows often jump the shark and back several times, cause people to dismiss them?

Several of you interested in daytime have followed my previous two pieces about General Hospital's short-term storyline to bring back Laura and do a reuniting of Luke and Laura. My argument then was that the importance of legacy characters and remembering a show's history is that soaps should bring back their former viewers because they are the greatest chance in recruiting new viewers. I wrote back in November that "the only way soaps are going to build their audience back up is first to get a great number of those people who have watched at some point in their lives back into the fold. And, gasp, the majority of those people need not be in the target demographic. I'm talking about getting grandmas and middle-aged mothers and fathers back into the show, so they can get back to work as your grassroots marketers to the younger generations." And my followup post in December urged the creative forces marketing and writing these shows to think of soaps more as long-term plans than worrying about increasing the ratings from week to week or stealing viewers from another show.

I don't find this genre mixing idea, borrowing from a show like 24, to be a problem at all, but I don't think it's a cure-all, either. No short-term plan is. I think this story could be told really well, as long as General Hospital does this real-time storyline while still emphasizing what soaps do best. The important thing to remember when crossing over these two forms of content is, as I wrote about earlier this month, that seriality is a format more than it is a genre. I wrote:

I think the same issue is happening with daytime television, which I continue to have problems with the way in which all these discussions of seriality overlook the nine shows on daytime that have used this format for years or even many decades in some cases. For soap operas, the problem is again a confusion with form and content, so that people start believing that these shows, because they use a serial form, are all a part of the same genre of content, which is not necessarily true. The problem is that even the people in the industry believe it at this point, so that dramas that would supposedly be set in the workplace--General Hospital; dramas about the rich and famous--The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful; dramas about the spectacular and the supernatural, such as Passions and Days of Our Lives; and shows about the real lives of regular people, like As the World Turns and One Life to Live seem to suddenly become not that dissimilar from each other, as the writers of shows themselves confuse the shows they are writing with each other, falling into this genre trap.

Should we compare Heroes and Grey's Anatomy? Of course, it doesn't hurt to, but are they fundamentally the same type of show? What connects The OC and 24? Seriality, of course, but are they of the same genre, really? What are the traditional markers of genre?

Oh, and by the way, in the EW piece, Abby concludes:

And for all of you out there looking down on us soap heads, take a cue from ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who will be on the Feb. 2 episode of GH as a reporter covering the hostage situation. He's been a fan since he was five years old. "Let this be a lesson to all the ladies out there," he said. "There are men who love the soaps."

Smith and my husband are man enough to admit their serial love. How about you guys? Who'll admit they're stoked to see if GH can pull this off and keep the proper pacing?

I know I have no problem admitting my love for soaps, but I think fan reservations at this point are not directed toward the format but rather whether they think this storyline addresses the problems they see with the current GH storytelling. Fans comments include a lot of statements like the very first comment about whether the show can pull off the 24-inspired storyline, "This fan has serious reservations given what the last 5-6 months have been like!" Other fans guess that this will provide the show a chance to continue showcasing characters and storylines that they do not approve of, particularly in playing into the celebration of mob characters on the show, which has been a point of contention between various parts of the GH fan community for sometime.

Either way, I think the 24-like plot is just the type of things soaps could do well, real-time drama, but it all depends on the way it's told. Soaps should be able to do this with a character-driven emphasis that 24 lacks, if soaps play into the power of their own histories and their connection to the audience. If soaps could tell a much less plot-driven real-time buildup for an event like this, I think it would play both to the strengths of borrowing from primetime while also playing up the strengths of daytime serial drama. Guess we'll see.

For more interesting soap opera genre crossovers in the past year, look here, here, and here.



I'd like to see a count of the number of explosions there have been on General Hospital. It's amazing Port Charles is still on the map!

(Not a very intellectual response, sorry).


For all the potential innovation of this storyline, Nancy, I can't help but complain that, of all the things soaps are good at, they keep going back to explosions and gunfights and all the things that make soaps look hokey.

As a wise person once said, why can't soaps just concentrate on developing a relationship or managing family connections in a nuanced fashion? Instead, soaps are giving away all the things they are good at and trying to incorporate all the things from primetime that they CAN'T DO AS WELL.

And, to steal part of a quote from Bill O'Reilly, you have entered a no-intellectual zone here in the comments area, anyway. There's more winsdom in those two sentences than in many a university press book!

On January 30, 2007 at 12:10 AM, lynn liccardo said:

i read through some of the considerable comments on the ew piece. the bulk expressed genuine excitment and anticipation, and, of course, there was the jaded cynicism of viewers who've been disappointed so many times before.

speaking as a former soap opera weekly contributer, i wonder if this is one of those times where the soap opera media is contributing to the problem. would love to see a controlled experiment measuring viewer reaction/enjoyment where half the audience knew what was going to happen and half didn't. i sometimes wonder if so much anticipation, hype, and pre-game analysis contributes to viewer disappointment, whatever the show does. the soap media have made impossible for viewers to be surprised, which, i think has cotributed to audience erosion. i fear for a growing number of viewers, knowing what's going to happen can be as much of a reason not to watch as to watch.

i suppose the real question here is what happens after the 16 real time episodes: will what takes place open up new storyline possibilities, or will it be back to business as usual?

here's what one of the optimists who posted a comment to abby west had to say:

"I have watched GH since 1979 and I am looking forward to this sweeps because of the "24" style. Then hopefully they can fix the writing problem after sweeps."

maybe. but "hopefully" is the operative word here.


Lynn, I think we've discussed before the difference between spoilers and teasers. The fans want to try and figure out what's going to happen on a show and love teasers, where it feels like the creative team is playing with them, and part of the fun becomes guessing what will happen. Detailed spoilers takes all the fun out of it. People will read them, of course, because that's what curoisity does for you, but it takes a lot of the joy out of the "spoiling" activities.

Some shows have become really bad about basically just telling people exactly what's about to happen, which is a shame.

This real-time storyline could be fascinating, but it would require good storytelling, as no gimmick ever protects sloppy writing or a lack of character. As I alluded to above, soap operas' strengths are not the same as 24's, so a real-time story based on General Hospital has to be substantially different.

On February 4, 2007 at 2:23 PM, John Andersson said:

Soaps are dead. If I used simple past tense in my previous posting, now I won't after reading about February sweeps' storylines. Instead of returning to good old values, we saw several murders (again...), a plastic surgery gimmick on a soap that all these years stood for consistency and quality storytelling and the newest quick fix called la "24".

Yes, certainly it is an interesting narrative structure and form, but it plays so well in the famous primetime drama (a soap, I might add), that it's unlikely anyone will surpass it in quality without being silly and unappealing to prospective new viewers. This "non-appeal" might have been apparent to those who bothered to see the demographic picture of 24 -- it's unlikely the same "type of audience" watches both shows. What primarily draws viewers to 24 is not its serial format and all the narrative devices that go with it, but a heightened action drama.

It would have been different had the head writer Robert Guza Jr. known to use the potential the reunion of Luke and Laura showed -- we were supposed to see haunting, picaresque reminiscences of the iconic couple blended prodigiously and imaginatively with the present moment, stories of human love gone wrong, but that could still be mended... We could have finished this new General Hospital story not only with an appreciation of head writers' skills at orchestrating dramatic suspense sequences but also with a keen understanding of the emotional consequences of his characters' decisions.

But Guza's approach to soaps seems to have hardened, if not calcified, and most of his excursions to sweeps (and other) stories results in heavy-handed, stage-managed fictions -- it's pretty much always a work hobbled by simplistic, Manichean juxtapositions of good and evil, the noble past and the debased present his characters live. We should be thankful, though, that the self-important language of his stories doesn't extend to the story's dialogue as well -- General Hospital is perhaps the home of daytime's most talented dialogue writers such as the recent addition to the team Tracey Thomson and veterans such as Mary Sue Price and Michele Val Jean.

A head writer, it should be noted, is supposed to be a virtuosic fox in terms of themes and in terms of style, too. In a culture that now seems long ago and far, far away, General Hospital was a soap opera par excellence -- it made the cover of magazines and 30 million people turned to see its famous wedding episode. Quality was the ruling aesthetic inside and outside the industry and the shows were hailed not only for their "groundbreaking" stories but also for their literateness -- their density, allusiveness and recondite knowledge of the human condition. But, as I said it was long, long ago.


Well, John, depressing, but you make some good points. As I said, it was not the literal copying of 24 that is exciting, but soaps could do real-time very well. The key is that I think it's a mistake to do real-time coverage of an explosion or anything of the sort that traumatic.

However, if there were an umbrella story that impacted almost everyone on the show in some way, a real-time series of 16 hours or so that displays how the revelation of some big town secret or the discovery of an affair or something of this sort could play really well if the show were to move around and feature different characters on different days, etc.

I think real-time is something soaps should do well, but the content shouldn't come along with the format.

I know we've written back and forth about GH several times, but I think the key is the lack of confidence the industry itself is showing, and rhetoric really is an important part of this equation, both for the morale of the industry and in its relationship with its fans.