Stop---don't click that mouse! You are in the right place...I know that you weren't expecting to find "Llanview" and "Luke and Laura" in the same title, but there really is a sane reason why Port Charles's most memorable super couple is being referenced in this week's Two Scoops column. So much hooplah has been made (and rightly so!) regarding the 25th Anniversary of "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura Spencer that I got to some serious thinking about how the state of Soapdom has significantly changed, and how so much fanfare over established veterans hasn't impacted the way that writers and producers are telling stories. November 16, 1981 is the day that 30 million viewers tuned in to see the nuptials of Luke & Laura (with a 52 ratings share, meaning that 1 out of every 2 televisions in America was tuned into the wedding that day!). This is definitely a monumental feat that will never be attained again by any daytime drama, but over the course of 25 years, look at how much soap viewership has declined. Twenty five years later, and GH can only muster just over 3 million viewers, and OLTL is even below that. Given these startling yet sobering statistics, I found it fascinating how ABC promoted Luke & Laura's Anniversary so heavily that USA Today gave it a front page story in its LIFE section, every broadcast media outlet covered it to varying degrees, and Anthony Geary and Genie Francis were once again thrust into the public spotlight like they were in the 80's. Here we have two VETERAN actors given a month-long story arc that was specifically designed to goose ratings (I haven't seen the GH ratings for November 16th, but I'm anxious to see the number of viewers tuning in for a wedding redux). So, my quandary, which brings me to my OLTL discussion (don't worry!), is this: why is ABC so inconsistent with its use of veteran performers? I just don't get it!
Just two weeks ago, seven actors appeared once again in Luke & Laura's wedding...but of those seven veteran actors, only Anthony Geary's "Luke" manages to find any storyline worth his time. Everyone else has been relegated to the soap opera abyss---heck, even a back-burner storyline would be better than showing up as infrequently as the rest do. So, let's compare that to OLTL. Back in 1981, Asa was involved in escapades involving a number of different women who thought they were the only loves of his life. Viki was involved in a triangle with Clint and Ted Clayton. Also, Dorian's daughter Cassie showed up in Llanview to give her mother and her then-husband Herb Callison some trouble, Karen Woleck got involved with Marco Dane, and Bo thought that Asa might not have been his father. These were the big stories of 25 years ago. How many of these characters are front and center? Only 4 actors still appear on the show: Phil Carey, Robin Strasser, Erika Slezak, and Robert S. Woods (and while Clint is still featured in Llanview, he is now played by Jerry verDorn rather than Clint Ritchie). Of these characters, who are the ones with the kind of blockbuster storytelling that garners them the attention of the media? Analyzing this proves for some somber reflection.
Erika Slezak, largely considered the "heart" of Llanview (and the show), barely gets 5 sentences in during a given week. Her love life has been non-existent since Ben died, and she is now merely a prop for the rest of her family. She's a shoulder to cry on, or the sage one who dishes out wisdom. She certainly is not the person who drives storylines like she once did. There was a time that every story somehow linked Viki to it. Not any more! And while she and Clint are managing to possibly reconcile (who knows?), neither one of them is on the show with any regularity. Robin Strasser has been developing more screen time with the revelation that she paid the stalker to go after her daughter Adriana, but even that plotline was minor compared to year-long Margaret debacle or the Spencer Truman Hour. Let's face it, the landscape of Llanview is completely different than it was 25 years ago! And, quite frankly, the ratings prove it!
Look, I've been with this show since 1984. I've seen my fair share of characters (and actors) come and go. I can say with confidence that the stories that didn't work had NOTHING to do with the age of the characters---it had to do with the writing, the character development, and the heart that an actor brought to the screen. If any of those were missing, often a story was in peril from the get-go. Producers and execs forget that viewers watch these shows 5 days a week for 52 weeks a year. For better or (many times) worse, we give up an hour (or less with fast forwarding!) of our lives every day to spend it with familiar faces and characters who we invest time in. When viewers suddenly see "newbies" taking enormous chunks away from those familiar faces and friends (no, I don't REALLY mean friends, I'm just trying to make a point---I'm not crazy!), what makes producers think we will care? So the advertising trend is to attract younger viewers? So what? Does that logically follow that younger viewers only want to see younger actors? Of course not! Even in the 80's, there was a balance between younger and established characters. That's how life is in the REAL world, so why would it be any different in Llanview? I miss seeing Viki, Nora, Lindsay, Asa, Dorian (and even long-gone characters like Cassie, Tina, Cord) in storylines of their OWN. These folks producing and managing the world of daytime have lost their focus. The trend says "younger" but those cries are being met with frustration, disappointment, and ratings failure. It's appalling at how low OLTL's ratings have plummeted in recent weeks. Doesn't this send a strong message that the writing just isn't working?
I would anticipate that one of the first excuses that network big-wigs would offer is that veteran stars cost more money. According to "The Llanview Banner" website, veteran actors, those who have been with a show 10 years or more, earn $286,000 (pre-tax) and up. Newbies, those who have been with the show for 1-3 years, earn $114,000 (pre-tax). So just look at how those in charge start doing the math and deducing that two new characters added to the canvas will cost as much as one veteran star. The problem is that you get what you pay for. Want a good actor who is able to carry a heavy story and bring a historical element to the show or two novice performers who viewers don't know or care about and eat up screen time?
I applaud "Days of Our Lives" for bringing back Patch and Kayla and actually USING them in a story! Why isn't that happening in Llanview? Look at Nora...those who adore the character and the actress realize that Hillary B. Smith's best work is done in the courtroom. So why has she been relegated to wall paper during Spencer's trial? Why couldn't the writers have Nora and Evangeline tag-team Spencer in the quest to prosecute him successfully? Instead, this Emmy-winner is forced to sit at a table and not say a single word. It's embarrassing and insulting to this talented actress. Most importantly, it's completely unacceptable. And the misuse of Erika Slezak is deplorable. Dena Higley should be ashamed of herself for not taking a more assertive role in finding a suitable story for the "heart of Llanview." I'm not talking about those occasional glimpses of Viki, but I'm talking about a high-caliber story that encompasses the rest of the cast as well.
I do give credit to the entire writing team for continuing to rely on one of the most compelling stories in the show's history---the gang rape of Marty Saybrooke over 10 years ago. This was a powerful tale with lingering repercussions, and those continue to resonate in Llanview to this day. Using Blair and Todd, two veteran CHARACTERS (Trevor St. John, of course, is a replacement of the original actor), with Marty Saybrooke (now played by Christina Chambers) is a great way to introduce a new young character in Cole Thornhart. He's played by a talented young man, and that is exactly the way that you should incorporate a new character---through the tried and true characters we already know! It's also an excellent use of history. Unfortunately, the loss of Susan Haskell and Roger Howarth loses some of the punch this story could have had with the original portrayers. Flashbacks are no longer viable since the two key players are now recasts, and the emotional impact is lost a bit with these new actors. Christina Chambers, in particular, is a good actress, but I'm not sure I completely accept her in the role of Marty. I still remember her from "Sunset Beach" and being less than enthralled by her character in those days, so I might be a little biased. But this story is the epitome of what other stories should also be. Using veterans can only help a story! And to be perfectly honest, this is the only story that is worth watching on the show right now. Everything else doesn't come close to the powerful drama that this tale brings to the show. Watching Cole come to grips with what Starr's father did to his mother while also grappling with his own incident resulting from the use of steroids has been a fantastic way to make the viewers like this new character. This is certainly a Romeo & Juliet story in the making with even more complications between the two families!
Thank you for bearing with me in my rant. Let me conclude with this---I'm such a fan of the new NBC show "Heroes." The catch-phrase slogan on that new show is "Save the cheerleader, save the world." I say, take that and make it apply to OLTL---"Use the veterans, save the show!"
Note: In the spirit of the holiday season, I have a special item to share with you. Those of you who are aware of the CHERI campaign (the one initiated by Denise, a.k.a. NoraDiva1 on the Soap Central messageboard) is one that supports Llanview's phenomenal veteran actresses (Catherine Hickland, Hillary B. Smith, Erika Slezak, Robin Strasser, and Ilene Kristen). The CHERI campaign has taken an active role in writing letters to Disney and ABC with concerns about this misuse of these actresses' characters and to ask for a change in regime. But the campaign also tries to find ways to support each actress individually and collectively in her professional and personal endeavors. CHERI supporters, including Denise and me, helped to raise money for Robin Strasser's "One Life/Many Voices Foundation" that will help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Now, in the spirit of the holiday season, CHERI is now promoting a new fundraiser to support a cause important to Catherine Hickland, the West End Intergenerational Shelter in New York City. This shelter offers housing and support to individuals of all ages, including families. It's a cause that is so important to Catherine, and CHERI wants to do everything in its power to help her raise money for this special group of people. If you go the the Soap Central message board, look for the thread entitled "HER initiative relaunch: including CHERI." The new fundraiser for Catherine is explained on some of the last pages. You can also check out NoraDiva's blog site which explains the endeavor as well. Go to www.norahanen.blogspot.com. You'll find the explanation at this location as well. Denise and I hope to present Catherine with our small donation to this shelter in mid-December.
Enjoy your week,