In the latest of the batches of changes, General Hospital executive producer Wendy Riche has decided to step down after nine years on the job. Her departure comes only several weeks after the departures of co-head writers Robert Guza, Jr. and Meg Bennett. Earlier this year, the show lost two of its top-billed male stars, Ingo Rademacher (Jax) and Steve Burton (Jason).
Riche will be replaced by another executive producer within the network: One Life to Live's Jill Farren Phelps. In addition to her current stint on One Life to Live, Phelps worked on Guiding Light, where she started her career in 1974. She also served as executive producer on Santa Barbara. Her work on the now-defunct soap earned three consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards. Phelps is no stranger to General Hospital. For a period of time, Phelps worked as music director for the show. Some One Life to Live fans are elated that Phelps is headed to the West Coast to work on General Hospital --- and not because they see this job as a promotion. "Phelps was event-driven rather than focusing on characters' histories with [One Life to Live]," complains a long-time viewer. The implication is that Phelps strived for sensationalism in storyline cliffhangers and developments without regard for whether or not the actions of characters involved in that storyline were typical of their past actions.
Some of these changes were out of ABC's control --- like the resignation of General Hospital's head writers. However, the other changes have some wondering if the network's daytime lineup is in trouble.
In a recent interview, Brad Maule (General Hospital's Tony Jones) may have let the cat out of the bag by speaking about one of the reasons for his downgrade to recurring status from a contract role. "It's just that times are hard," said Maule quoting executive producer Wendy Riche's reasoning for his status change.
In fact, times are hard - and not just as ABC. For the first week of the November Sweeps ratings period, the ratings have dropped by nearly three points across the board compared to a year ago. That means that when added up, the sum of all ten soap's ratings show that over 2.4 million viewers have disappeared. At ABC, General Hospital is down one-half of a ratings point from last year, All My Children has dropped four-tenths and One Life to Live and Port Charles are each down two-tenths. More importantly, Port Charles has fallen to the back of the pack --- tenth place --- this year.
As every television viewer probably knows, when a show's ratings take a plunge, the likelihood of that program remaining on the air grow slim. Sounding the alarm that ABC will cancel one or more of its soaps seems premature - but many fans are worried. Similarly, Guiding Light fans have been left traumatized by reports that CBS may decide to axe the long-time running show when its contract expires at the end of next year.
It needs to be noted, however, that ratings may not accurately reflect the total number of viewers watching a program. For example, many ABC soap fans can now catch their favorite soaps in primetime or over the weekend thanks to the new SoapNet cable channel. Don't forget that VCRs, devices like TiVo and the Internet also make it possible for soap fans to stay up-to-date when they are unable to catch a particular episode. Soap operas have been on television for many years and will probably remain on the air for years to come but like all aspects of television, there are bound to be some changes.