There has been a lot of change over the last several weeks at ABC’s General Hospital. Fans watched legacy star Anthony Geary (Luke) take his final bow and exit the series. Next, head writer Ron Carlivati was let-go after saving the series from cancellation, and shaping the Port Charles canvas for almost four years.
Carlivati’s replacements were named in the form of former Y&R co-head writers, Shelly Altman and Jean Passanante, who also have deep-history writing for the 52-year staple that is General Hospital. And still there was more! The audience learned that fan favorite Michael Easton was killed-off as Dr. Silas Clay in order to facilitate a major murder mystery whodunit.
With these major shake-ups, and more changes expected in the coming months, On-Air On-Soaps caught up with Vicki Dummer, (ABC’s Executive Vice-President Current Series Programming, who oversees General Hospital) at the Disney/ABC Television Group’s TCA 2015 All-Star Cocktail Reception to get some network insight. From discussing the decision to implement the change in the writing regime, what this means for GH current executive producer Frank Valentini’s future, to what Shelly and Jean bring to the table in terms of story focus, Vicki shares her thoughts. She also weigh-ins on why ultimately Michael Easton’s character of Silas Clay met his demise, and who really played a part on the decision on how Tony Geary’s exit scenes were crafted and would play out on-air. On making all those impactful and important decisions for her show, here’s what Vicki had to say.
What are your hopes with the decision on bringing in Shelly Altman and Jean Passanante to take over the reins as the new co-head writing regime of GH?
VICKI: First, I think Ron Carlivati did an amazing job with General Hospital and with the transition of the show that he and Frank Valentini took on. I think the 52nd anniversary episode was one of the best episodes of GH that has ever been done. But, we wanted to dig into a little bit more of the romance. We want to dig a bit more into the adventure of the show. I think that is the DNA of General Hospital. It’s in the DNA of what I have loved about it since I was a viewer back in the 80’s, and really explore that with Shelly and Jean as co-head writers. They also know the DNA of this show, and I think they are the women to do that.
From a network level perspective – when you go with a major shift and change a writing regime, is that a difficult decision? The ratings in the key demo of women 18-49 have been down for quite awhile, and the show overall. Was that the major factor in making this move?
VICKI: I don’t think the ratings decline is a function of the storytelling, or a function of Ron’s work. I really don’t. That people are focusing on that for a motivation for a change is not really what the story was. For me, our entire daytime line-up is depressed right now, because I think we had a hole in it when Katie Couric’s talk show Katie left, which we are now looking at the FABLife to fill that gap in a big way. We have a lot of hopes pinned on that show, which will elevate our entire daytime line-up. That’s not under my purview, but I am very excited about it. I think that will bring more viewers to our daytime programming. And again, in regards to Ron Carlivati, I think he has done an amazing job for us. I think working in this genre in daytime is the hardest job ever, and it’s not given the respect that it should be given. You look at some of our primetime shows that are doing 24 episodes of television, and that almost kills them. General Hospital is on every day. It’s an hour of TV every day, and there is such a churn of stories. I think at a certain point you burn out a little bit. It’s just time to infuse a different energy into GH’s stories.
Why did you decide to bring in Shelly and Jean to be the next head writers at such a critical time in the show? What about them made ABC decide to go with them, instead of perhaps some other notable writers, or even some new blood?
VICKI: Jean has been on the GH writing staff, and I think Jean has been part of the whole process, and has a point of view of where we should be taking the show. And Shelly knows GH inside and out. Shelly has been over at Y&R and came in with a renewed perspective of the show. The two of them as a team is really interesting. I think the job is too big for one person, frankly. I think with the two of them and their history with the show, I think they are the two people to take us to the next level. We love Ron. We love his writing. He has a blind script with us in primetime that we are going to be focusing on for him. I think that’s important for people to know, and that we respect him so much. I just think at this juncture, and at this point in time, we just want to focus on some of the aspects that were so critical to the show over the years, and just put a little extra push towards that.
The very popular Michael Easton (Silas Clay) was just killed-off on General Hospital. That was another big decision that was handed down … that I assume, was difficult to make?
VICKI: Yes, that was a challenge. But what it did afford us was a really great opportunity to tell a murder mystery. That’s what we are really digging into now, and telling that story. So, we are excited to see how that all unfolds.
How did you feel about Tony Geary’s (Luke) exit, and his final moments in his last GH episode? Nathan Varni (Manager, Current Series ABC Entertainment) had revealed after fan’s questioning, that Tony did not want any retrospective montage. In addition, clearly there was no “goodbye” with longtime scene partner Genie Francis (Laura) on-screen. I think some in the audience may not understand it was not just about that the writing team’s creative decisions on how they wanted Tony to go out, but there seemed to be certain parameters, or guidelines from Tony given on how he wanted to go out.
VICKI: Here is the thing: Tony, of course, had thoughts on his exit, and there’s a certain plan that the writers have in mind for him. My feeling was … I didn’t want him to go ever! Oh, my God. It was heartbreaking. We had a very private goodbye for him that was amazing, and I was in tears. The editors had put together a video retrospective and Tony spoke so eloquently about what the character of Luke Spencer meant to him, and what his time on the show meant, and how the people on the show meant so much to him. It was very moving, and that was a very emotional goodbye. And his on-screen goodbye, personally, I really liked it. I liked how he walked off into the mist.
Many fans were trying to understand, and had commented, since ABC owns the character of Luke Spencer, how come from the network level you could not insist on a few things that may have played more to the viewers expectations who watched the character, and loved and invested in the character for thirty-seven years?
VICKI: We do own the character, but we love and respect Tony so much that we want to really honor his wishes, and really service him as the actor and as a person, and how he wants to say goodbye to the character. I do appreciate the fans, and welcome their input. They are welcome anytime to say what they like and don’t like about the show. That is part of what is so great about this fan base, as they are so engaged in the content, and everyday they have something to say. Sometimes they love it, and sometimes they hate it, but what they do is talk about it.
Has moving General Hospital in some key markets to the 3PMEST/2PMPST time slot, while it airs in other markets at 2PMEST/1PMPST, hurt the show rating wise?
VICKI: The thing is; if you look at how data is reported for the live same-day numbers, the following day; it’s really not an accurate picture of what the overall rating is. That is because there is so much delayed viewing on this show. A lot of people watch GH on their lunch hours, or the next day, or they watch it at night. The ratings have taken a dip this season, but I firmly believe it’s our overall daytime programming that’s taken a little bit of a hit, because up until now we had that hour that wasn’t replaced after Katie was cancelled. But as I said with FABLife coming in, I think it will elevate all of our ships, as it were.
Has your role in the ABC day-part shifted, giving you more emphasis on overseeing GH?
VICKI: Yes. Things got changed: ABC News is now overseeing The View. Lisa Hackner’s group is overseeing the development of the FABLife within syndication, as well as The Chew, and I am overseeing General Hospital. But Paul Lee (President, ABC Entertainment) really oversees it all. He’s not overseeing The View, as that is really news, but the rest of our daytime line-up is being overseen by Paul.
GH fans also were concerned that you may make a change at the top at the executive producer level and replace Frank Valentini. Can you address that?
VICKI: There are no plans to get rid of Frank. He has been terrific with the show as far as finding new ways to shoot the show, and being so conscious of the budget, and figuring out ways to do some pretty amazing things, economically. Those are things that you admire most in a producer … how you can really stretch the budget, and also create some pretty terrific shows.
So, what do you think of Vicki’s comments on the writing regime change, the exits of Tony Geary and Michael Easton, the ratings picture, and more? Share your thoughts below in the comment section!