Taken from the Feb 25, 2006 New York times, link: NY Times
Welcome Back, Alumni By KATE AURTHUR Published: February 25, 2006 This month on "General Hospital," Luke Spencer — a leading character in the soap opera, played as always by Anthony Geary, who joined the cast in 1978 — was lying in a hospital bed with a mysterious illness. A man approached him, and Luke's eyes widened with recognition. "I'm dead," Luke said. "I'm dead and gone to hell." "No," the man replied affectionately. "But they're looking for you." Luke's long-lost friend was Robert Scorpio, a dashing ex-spy and ex-resident of Port Charles, N.Y., the fictional city in which ABC's "General Hospital" is set. Tristan Rogers created the part in 1981 and was a heartthrob mainstay of the show during its ratings zenith in the years that followed. When Mr. Rogers, now 59, left the show in 1992, Robert died a typically extravagant death: he blew up on a boat off South America. But now he is back from the dead, and his mission for this February ratings sweeps period is to appeal to lapsed viewers. The term, used often in daytime television, describes once-loyal fans who, because of either dissatisfaction with the show itself or a lifestyle change, have slipped away from the network and its advertisers. So far, the strategy appears to be working. For the second week of Robert's stay, "General Hospital" was the No. 1 daytime drama among women 18 to 49 and drew larger audiences than its average this season. Brian Frons, the president of ABC Daytime, said a 42-year-old series like "General Hospital" must simultaneously appeal to new, young viewers, who care primarily about current characters, and what he called "the historical audience." Meaning, Mr. Frons said, "that soap fan that knows a tremendous amount of history because they viewed through that time." Those viewers, in the older part of the 18-to-49 female demographic that soap operas covet, may not be watching anymore. In the last 10 years, " General Hospital" and the other eight soaps currently on the networks have experienced steep declines. Compared with the 1995-96 season, "General Hospital" has lost nearly 40 percent of its audience, dropping to an average of 3.43 million viewers each day this season, from 5.71 million. That decline is typical: "The Young and the Restless" on CBS, which has been the most-watched daytime drama for 17 years, is down 42 percent in the same period. To that end, the return of a popular actor like Mr. Rogers is an instance in television strategy — nearly unheard of these days — in which a show is looking to lure older viewers back rather than chasing young ones. In recent months, "General Hospital" has brought back several characters from past decades. Rick Springfield, the 56-year-old pop singer who played Dr. Noah Drake from 1981 to 1983, came back in December for a four-episode stint that has been extended indefinitely. Kimberly McCullough regularly resumed the role of Robin Scorpio, Robert's daughter, in October, for the fist time since 1997; she began playing the part in 1985 at age 7. And on Monday, for the 11,000th episode of "General Hospital," Emma Samms returned as Holly Scorpio. Ms. Samms, 45, played Holly — a repentant grifter who had an affair with Luke before marrying his best friend, Robert, creating a stormy love triangle — from 1982 until 1985, when she left to be on ABC's nighttime soap phenomenon "Dynasty." She returned in 1992 but left soon after. Ms. Samms, on the telephone from her home in the Cotswolds region of her native England, said she had been surprised when she received the offer to revisit the show for eight episodes. "My agent called up and said, 'Guess what?' " Ms. Samms recalled. "I thought, Oh my God. I basically said yes right away." "One hopes that there's the audience out there that remembers you," she added. Mr. Rogers was not worried. "I think this character will follow me to my grave," he said. For years he had been hearing unfounded rumors that he would be returning to "General Hospital," he said, but what finally precipitated his character's comeback was Mr. Springfield's successful return. "It just happened with a phone call prior to Christmas," Mr. Rogers said. So why him? "I think I'm this relic of the 80's, and they liked those years," he said with a laugh. Asked the same question, Robert Guza Jr., one of the show's two head writers, also cited the ratings bump after Mr. Springfield's arrival, as well as Ms. McCullough's. "I expected that the older viewers — the viewers who had been with us for quite a while — would respond to Kimberly and to Rick," Mr. Guza said. "But what I never expected was that new viewers and younger ones would respond. I thought, This is great!" Bringing in four characters who got their starts in the 1980's signaled that the show might be veering from its plots about organized crime, which have dominated in recent years, and shifting back to the hospital and adventure stories that drove it in its heyday. "We've been doing very successful mob stories," said Mr. Frons, who works closely with the writers and producers of ABC's three soap operas. (The others are "All My Children" and "One Life to Live.") "But we felt like we were only — to put it in boxing terms — hitting with one hand." Ed Martin, the programming editor for Jack Myers Entertainment Report, a newsletter, said, "I think this begins to address the complaints from older fans — and by 'older,' I would say fans 35 and up." "There doesn't seem to be a downside to trying this," he continued. "Any audience is better than no audience for any of the nine soaps. They're all in such a struggle to survive that anything that can be done to grow the audience in any way should have value." Mr. Frons pointed out that ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Company, produces its three soap operas outright, as opposed to buying them from a studio, and is therefore agnostic about whether viewers watch them during the day or at various times on Soapnet, a Disney cable channel. For "General Hospital," Soapnet's five replays of each episode bring an additional 746,000 viewers. "For me, it's not just 'How do we keep the ABC network numbers up?' " Mr. Frons said. "It's also 'What other homes can the shows find?' " Mr. Guza, who has written for "General Hospital" on and off since 1981, said the downturn did affect the marketing and promotion of the show's attention-getting casting. "There are limited funds; that's one of the places you see it starting to hurt you," he said. "When we bring back a Robin or a Robert, its influence spreads beyond daytime and we get publicity that way. But yeah, it is frustrating that we can't get the world to see this." Mr. Guza said he tried to focus on the show itself and excitedly described an adventure story he was planning for Luke, Robert and Holly. Like Mr. Springfield and Mr. Rogers, Ms. Samms has signed on for more episodes beyond her initial limited run, making her a new addition to the show's growing roster of veterans. What will the story be? "I'm going to put Luke, Robert and Holly all in a sleeping bag on a mountain. One sleeping bag!" Mr. Guza said, sounding gleeful. And when will it happen? "Not coincidentally," he said, "May sweeps."