Fifty-eight years ago this month the world discovered Port Charles, New York. Port Charles is the fictional upstate town where General Hospital is set, and the stalwart soap opera premiered on April 1, 1963. Today the ABC series is the longest-running American TV drama; last November, it broke the record previously held by Guiding Light, which debuted more than a decade earlier than General Hospital but was canceled by CBS in 2009. (A British soap, Coronation Street, which debuted in 1960, holds the Guinness World Record as the world's longest-running TV drama, a title it earned soon after Guiding Light was extinguished.)
Soap operas were imported to television from radio in the 1950s and '60s. Guiding Light, created by "Queen of the Soaps" Irna Phillips, was adapted from her radio series of the same name. The shows came to be known as soap operas because of their audiences and their sponsors: They aired during the daytime hours to an audience of postwar homemakers, and so companies like Colgate-Palmolive sponsored the shows and advertised their detergents and dish liquids.
The first episode of General Hospital is available on YouTube, and it looks nothing like the too-sharp, lingering-close-up style we expect from soaps today. In fact, the black-and-white broadcast, with its dramatic cinematography and careful use of shadow, looks almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Still, the soap followed the usual family dramas and romantic liaisons of the soap genre, with the added excitement of some adventure stories.
It was one of two medical-themed soap operas to launch on the same day, both capitalizing on the success of primetime medical series like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey. The other, NBC's The Doctors, ran until 1982, when it was canceled in the face of declining ratings.
In fact, the soap genre in general was losing viewers in the 1970s, as women entered the workforce. But in 1978, Gloria Monty took over General Hospital as executive producer, and she revitalized the show by attracting a younger audience. Last fall, a writer for a women's website recalled watching GH and other ABC soaps in her college student center every day "along with hundreds of other students."
Perhaps the peak of mass-culture and teen-culture interest in General Hospital came in 1981, when 30 million tuned in for the wedding of the so-called super couple Luke Spencer and Laura Webber. It also attracted GH fan Elizabeth Taylor to make a special appearance as a wedding guest. (In somewhat quintessential soap style, Taylor was portraying Helena Cassadine, the widow of a man Luke and Laura had killed.)
Taylor wasn't the only celebrity to appear on GH over the years. Demi Moore, John Stamos and Ricky Martin are veterans. Rick Springfield used the show as a springboard to pop stardom. And from 2009 to 2012, already a major movie star, James Franco joined the show to play an artist named Franco.
As far-fetched as soap opera plots could be — amnesia is much less prevalent in real life than they would have you believe — cultural critics have lately been reevaluating the shows, recognizing them as an area in which women had creative control and real influence in the midcentury television business, and as a template for our recent era of "prestige TV," with their open-ended plots and complicated antiheroes.
But even as the genre is being reconsidered, it isn't exactly thriving. Only four American soaps remain on the air. And General Hospital, which averaged 14 million daily viewers during that 1981 Luke and Laura season, averaged about 2.2 million last season.
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