GREAT EXPECTATIONS: “THE WOMAN WHO WILL SAVE ABC DAYTIME”–
WHAT WENT WRONG?!
In August, 2010, theTVaddict declared that Vanessa Marcil was “The Woman Who’ll Save ABC Daytime” in the title of an interview on the ABC Soaps in Depth website. “Okay, sure, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the way ABC has been promoting the return of GENERAL HOSPITAL’s Vanessa Marcil-Giovinazzo — and her uber-popular alter ego, Brenda — it’s hard not to think that the network has put a whole lotta eggs in her basket” the interviewer stated. This was not the only person with that attitude either.
A month ago, Nelson Branco of TV Guide Canada said, “And, of course, last but certainly not least, the eight-time Emmy winner [Guza] is gearing up for the highly anticipated arrival of his secret weapon and beloved muse, soap opera superstar and ratings queen, Vanessa Marcil Giovinazzo next month. The last time Marcil appeared in Port Charles, the Emmy winner significantly boosted the soap’s ratings. She is expected to have the same impact this year…”
Many long-time viewers had the same high expectations and hopes for the return of their beloved Brenda Barrett. “Vanessa Marcil is a part of ‘GH’ at its best” says Marisa Sarnoff of Los Angeles in an Associated Press article in August 2010. “I will be watching all the time now that Brenda is back!” says Lisa Lewis, of Barrington, Ill. Many couldn’t wait for the once bratty boarding school drop-out, emotional girl turned feisty, yet still drama-attracting model to return to Port Charles. Fans wanted to see how her storyline would connect her to the characters that were most important to her past and to new characters on-screen.
However, since Vanessa Marcil Giovinazzo’s return to GH in August as Brenda Barrett, ratings analyzed from her first full week on-screen (August 16-20, 2010) through the present show the key 18-49 female demographic has gone down 22%. Likewise, throughout the important November 2010 sweeps period, GH hit new lows in total audience and in the 18-49 demographic, despite aggressive and continuous promotion of the character and actress.
Becca Thomas and Mallory Harlen of Serial Drama, in an article entitled “Our Take” in the December 28, 2010 issue of Soap Opera Digest, labeled Vanessa’s return as “Worst Return on Daytime” and Brenda as “a serious run for the money” and “Most Irritating Alleged Heroine”.
This should come as no surprise to ABC Daytime management. Marcil-Giovinazzo’s return, a great idea in theory, has been handled horrendously. There has been no real focus on the strong and intricate history of her character’s past. There have been cursory visits with the Quartermaines, barely mentionable conversations with her best-friend Robin Scorpio-Drake, and definitely not enough time spent addressing her romantic relationships with different male characters, whether from her past or not. It’s almost as if they brought Vanessa back as a new character, like they did Sarah Joy Brown as mob queen Claudia Zacchara Corinthos, since Brenda barely resembles the character that many grew to love years ago.
It is very unfair for ABC to place such high expectations on one actress or one character. ABC Daytime put an enormous amount of pressure on Marcil-Giovinazzo right from the beginning. Not only was there an overwhelming amount of press, but there were Brenda marathons run on SoapNet before her return and a mini-marathon the day prior to her debut where all of ABC’s soap operas were pre-empted to re-run past, Brenda-centric episodes. In a statement announcing Marcil-Giovinazzo’s return to the network, ABC Daytime President Brian Frons, stated, “General Hospital has always been dedicated to the strong history of our characters. Fans and viewers alike will be thrilled with her storyline and will agree that her return was worth waiting for.”
Since viewers have been complaining for the past two years that GH has been rewriting and ignoring the history of the show and characters, this type of exaggerated hype and promotion has only served to alienate or make skeptics of many viewers.
To put this in perspective, GH once again dropped in the ratings when looking at the most recent ratings week of Dec. 6 -10, 2010. There was a loss of 129,000 viewers in total viewers and 81,000 viewers in the Women 18-49 demographic, the worst performance of any soap. Earlier in the year, GH had over 1.0 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic with the reveal that Dante was Sonny’s son. During the recent ratings week, GH highlighted Sonny & Brenda, and the Balkan story, but only drew 688,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic, down over 35% from the Dante reveal week.
When one looks at the ratings from August until the present, one has to wonder, “What went wrong and why?”
For the return to have been successful, ABC Daytime would have to have shown they learned from past mistakes by not making viewers feel that one character/actor was more important than the others on the canvas and by not over-promoting the return or over-exaggerating the importance of the character. By running Brenda marathons on SoapNet and pre-empting all three ABC soaps for a day to run Brenda-related episodes, ABC management showed the lesson was not learned. It is noteworthy that, in the more recent past, the heavy promotions of the returns of Sarah Joy Brown as Claudia Zacchara (GH) and Rebecca Budig as “the real Greenlee” (AMC) made no significant positive change in the ratings.
Many at first attributed the slump in the ratings to the fact that the character’s on-screen return developed very slowly, which, in reality, would not be an issue for fans who truly wanted to see the character. Unfortunately, her storyline had her starting out in Rome, with unknown or newbie characters in which viewers were not invested. Many felt that once she became a presence in Port Charles, viewership would pick up. Instead, viewership continued to decline. In fact, viewership in the 18-49 demographic has declined 200,000 viewers since her return to Port Charles on October 1, 2010.
Also, this newly-returned Brenda is no longer the independent, strong, feisty character whom many grew to love years ago. She is now whiny, annoying and immature. Many complain that she not only carries herself like a teenager, she acts and dresses like a teenager as well. She is involved in almost every storyline, causing many other fan-favorite characters to get little to no screen-time. Her storyline, which also ties in with many secondary stories, involves the Balkan, a character in whom many have little or no emotional investment. Viewers are left to wonder why she represents exploited children since she does not seem to have a passion for the cause. For example, when Suzanne needed Brenda to get ready for a previously scheduled cocktail party where investors would be awaiting her arrival, Brenda, who had forgotten the commitment, made a point to say this was more important to Suzanne than to herself and was prepared to leave a room full of people awaiting her arrival hanging so she could leave and have sex with Sonny. Interestingly, the real Sonny would not be impressed with this type of childish behavior, yet this appears to be the big “romance” the GH writers seem to be counting on to bring in more viewers.
Richard Simms, ABC Soaps in Depth executive editor, had stated in the August interview by theTVaddict, “It’s safe to say that pretty much everybody is hoping GH will be able to recreate the magic that was Brenda and Sonny…Or Brenda and Jax. Or Brenda and Jason. The common denominator is Brenda, who was one of those rare soap characters whose very presence was somehow exciting.”
A study of the ratings, along with online comments, shows that not all viewers are excited about the reunion of the once iconic pairing of Sonny & Brenda. Many now feel that the two are not emotionally believable and are lackluster. Brenda has been gone from the canvas for 7 years, a long time for a soap character to be gone. Many, many things have happened to both Sonny and Brenda during those years. Not only are both characters are very different, but the audience is as well; there has been no story development or time taken to get the characters re-acquainted with each other. The last time Brenda was part of the canvas, she was emotionally tied to and in love with Jax, but as her story resumes, viewers are now to believe she has pined for Sonny all along. When she came to town, she told everyone who would listen how bad Sonny had been for her, but on a dime, she changed her mind and decided to reunite with him, telling everyone she feels safe with him. How could this possibly make sense to the viewership?
It is also totally unbelievable that no one, not even Carly, who everyone knows would love to rub it in Brenda’s face, has mentioned that Sonny was to be married to his teenage first love, Kate Howard, who was then shot in his arms at their wedding just two years ago. Sonny’s guard should be up after Brenda left him emotionally for Jax, yet he acts like that never happened. At this point, Sonny should also have unresolved feelings for Kate (who incidentally still lives next door to him and, though rarely seen, is still part of the canvas), since he left her because he did not believe he deserved love and felt she deserved better. Now Sonny, who has been behaving erratically at best for the past two years, suddenly feels he deserves love and wants to be with Brenda without getting to know her again. The scenario is unrealistic, even on soap opera terms, and not emotionally believable for either character.
The writers seem to be writing “events” that are independent of one another rather than developing a real story with any emotional beats, much like creating a series of cymbal crashes without any connective music in between to heighten the climactic hits or moments. Rather than being written like a symphony, the “story” is being written like just a lot of clanging noise. Instead of being atypical, this has sadly become the norm for GH‘s writing over the past two years.
What was once a show that was the flagship of ABC Daytime and had viewers rushing home to watch has now become just another hour on daytime television for many. GH simply lacks the “Tune in Tomorrow” feeling that one used to get from watching a well-written soap opera. One can tune in days, or even weeks, later and catch another small or isolated event or read spoilers, or “warnings”, as one viewer calls them, to know when to watch and when not to watch.
What was once an hour of escape with characters viewers felt they knew as “friends” they were in same room with is now a show where the audience is separated by the TV screen from characters that viewers don’t feel they recognize anymore. Viewers feel like they are on the outside looking in rather being “part of the show”. Isn’t this alienation counter-intuitive to how a soap opera is supposed to make its audience feel? It is this alienation that has caused many to turn off the TV or change the channel.
While many would acknowledge that management has made an effort to try to bring back former viewers by bringing back a formerly popular actor/character, members of management must realize they cannot do so by placing the entire show’s success on the returning actor’s/character’s shoulders. Management seems to have forgotten that what truly draws viewers is simply good, interconnecting storylines. In this case, instead of creating stories that develop while allowing for a balanced use of members of the cast, ABC management has made the decision to cater to and focus on the returning character and a handful of characters surrounding her. It’s simply not fair to Vanessa Marcil-Giovinazzo or to the audience that wants to ‘want to’ watch the show. This is not, by any means, good business.
Weekly, more fans of GH are joining together with fans of Sonny & Kate (Skate), Jason & Elizabeth (Liason), Patrick & Robin (Scrubs), and Jax & Carly (CarJax), along with fans of Luke & Laura (L&L), as part of the “SOS/Save Our Soap!” General Hospital Campaign. All share a common goal of asking ABC/Disney to save General Hospital by making changes in an effort to save the show by not placing the focus on one actor or character, but rather using a balanced cast and focusing on telling great storylines.
For more information or to comment on the campaign, contact Dana L. Meyer or Kecia K. Picard at [email protected], visit the “SOS/Save Our Soap!” General Hospital page on Facebook, follow on Twitter @SOS_GH or visit the “SOS/Save Our Soap!” General Hospital website at www.saveoursoapgh.com