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General Hospital: Night Shift Could Be Fascinating Case Study in Cross-Show Storytelling

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This piece originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Web site on 10 March 2007.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Ivan Askwith made an appearance on the blog to announce a recent report that soap opera General Hospital would be spawning a primetime spinoff as part of the first original dramatic programming from cable network SOAPnet.

The partnership makes sense because ABC owns SOAPnet, and the network also owns its own soaps, as opposed to CBS Daytime, which gets programming from Procter & Gamble Productions and Bell.

In Ivan's report, from information he got from Cynthia Turner's Cynopsis, he pointed out that the show would be seralized, with 13 one-hour episodes that will focus on some current characters on the show. He wrote, "Not transmedia in the traditional sense -- no platforms being crossed just yet -- but it's an interesting experiment in creating television spin-offs that remain tightly linked to the narratives of their parent show."

As more news comes out about General Hospital: Night Shift, I wanted to add further information. Connie Phillips, who writes Making the Rounds at General Hospital over at Blogcritics.org, emphasizes that the show will be "centered around the hospital and will go a little deeper into the storylines originally run on the base show as well as dig a little deeper into the characters' lives and relationships."

Phillips writes, "One can only wonder if they will choose to use this platform as a showcase for veteran actors and characters that have not been receiving much screen time as of late. Long time fans of the show were broken-hearted over the recent decision to kill off Dr. Alan Quatermaine, a character who has graced the show for thirty years, and many fan-based boards have clamored for the soap to turn away from the mob-driven stories and bring focus back to the hospital the show was built on."

The show will be written by Robert Guza, Jr., who is the head writer of General Hospital as well. Apparently, the plan is for a storyline to start on the daytime show and be the driving force for beginning the SOAPnet series. The show will be starting on SOAPnet sometime this summer.

Jon Lafayette with TelevisionWeek points out that SOAPnet is one of the fastest-growing cable channels as far as clearing distributions. According to the statistics he listed, the show's availability has grown to about 58 million homes, 11 million of them in the past year alone.

Lafayette writes, "Mr. Frons said SoapNet will be able to use actors and characters that are already loved by million of viewers (sic). The sets are already built. And viewers can be told that a story line started on ABC will be continued on SoapNet."

This ties back into Phillips' question about getting back to the original focus of the show through SoapNet and a series centered on the hospital itself. Could this become a forum for veteran talent through a refocusing on the hospital? Probably primarily just a dream on the fans' part, since I'm sure the same demographic issues that plague cross-generational storytelling on most daytime soaps will suffer the same fate in primetime crossovers as well, but this ties into what I wrote surrounding the reuniting of Luke and Laura here and here.

In Lafayette's story, SOAPnet General Manager Deborah Blackwell indicated that the show would feature primarily grown children of longtime characters, not quite the haven for veterans Phillips was looking for.

What troubled me most, though, is the quote in Lafayette's story from Blackwell, who he paraphrased as saying that the show "would be hipper than most daytime soaps." Sounds like the problems that I highlighted in the links above still are not fully realized by many in the business, primarily that they don't know how to market their soaps as transgenerational storytelling and seem convinced that these shows are not hip because of the age spread.

That being said, I think there's nothing wrong with a youth-driven spinoff of GH and one that will have higher production budgets and more location shooting, as well as storylines that viewers can follow without necessarily watching GH, although I think the ties between the two shows must be substantial. My only trouble is with a network revealing that they still consider most soap operas inherently "un-hip." I know what they mean, for sure, but the phrasing sheds their programming in a negative light that is not only a poor rhetorical choice but also dangerous in subtly shaping the way the executives themselves look at their programming. If you believe soaps are not hip, are you really the best group of people to be marketing said soaps?

In this case, it was a paraphrase, so I'm not directing this at Deborah Blackwell, who may well be very enthusiastic about he soap opera content she oversees. But this gets back to the dangers of rhetoric creating self-fulfilling prophesies.

We know that ABC is willing to experiment and that they have been playing with the ties between daytime serials and primetime serials. As Lafayette points out, ABC is singular in the fact that it owns its own soaps, so its business model is quite different from that of CBS and NBC. That explains one of the reasons ABC Daytime head Brian Frons can be so much more openly optimistic about the future of daytime.

On the other hand, Linda Marshall-Smith with Soapdom points out that GH tried a daytime spinoff in the past as well, which did not last. Will Night Shift as a one-hour primetime series avoid the fate of daytime spinoff Port Charles?

One final note--this is not the first primetime spinoff for a soap opera. In 1965, As the World Turns had a spinoff for one summer that aired in primetime on CBS called Our Private World, starring the character Lisa and actress Eileen Fulton, who remains on As the World Turns to this day. In that show, Lisa moved to nearby Chicago and starred in her own drama before returning back home after the primetime summer series ended. The show aired twice a week from May until September.

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