Sunday, December 23, 2012

What RG3 has in common with Ron Carlivati and Frank Valentini

There were two things that I loved in high school that are making a comeback today: The Washington Redskins, and General Hospital. In the 80s, the Redskins went to two Superbowls in a row under ubercoach Joe Gibbs, and went to the playoffs in other years. And General Hospital reached his heyday with the Luke and Laura wedding; even after actress Genie Francis left the show and took a million viewers with her, it was still the top-rated soap for the rest of the decade.

Sports and soaps both produce insanely committed fans. And just like winning teams build on their fan bases and gain even more popularity, soaps that produce stories that fans want to watch gain in ratings and word-of-mouth. At the same time, losing teams shed fans – empty seats at Fedex were common, even though the team insisted the waiting list for season tickets was still long – and soaps that showcase stories and characters people don’t want to watch will lose fans, too.

It’s been a hard decade for both Skins fans and General Hospital viewers. The Redskins haven’t won the division since 1999, and reached the playoffs only a few times. And General Hospital allowed the show to be dominated by a misogynistic, bi-polar mob boss and his brain-damaged hit man. As mob stories took over and the tone of the show changed completely, long-time fans deserted en masse. The ratings fell precipitously, and several other soaps were canceled.

The Redskins are in no danger of being canceled (I guess the NFL equivalent would be being sold or moved), but owner Dan Snyder did go through more head coaches than General Hospital went through head writers. Even so, Redskins fans blamed Snyder for the team’s woes, citing his micro-managing, free-agent shopping and mercenary ways. And General Hospital fans blamed “The Idiots In Charge” – namely, ABC Daytime head Brian Frons, executive producer Jill Farren Phelps, and head writer Bob Guza. While Snyder was mostly silent , ABC fought back, blaming the fans for going to work, for watching the OJ Simpson trial, and for being unhappy no matter what stories played on screen.

Then, two miracles happened.

Robert Griffin the 3rd was drafted by the Redskins. And Ron Carlivati and Frank Valentini took over at General Hospital, as head writer and producer, respectively.

Football is not a game in which the fortunes of a team can usually be turned around due to just one player, and indeed the Redskins still have weaknesses, specifically defensively. But RG3 is one of the most gifted players ever under center, with amazing passing accuracy, lightning fast speed, executive-level decision-making capabilities, and incredible leadership skills. If he is able to stay healthy, he will have a Hall of Fame career.

I don’t know if Ron and Frank ever played football, but they are running General Hospital under a two-minute drill. They were hired after One Life to Live was canceled, even though that soap actually had higher ratings than General Hospital did at the time. Long-time fans themselves, they quickly set about making changes fans had cried for for years: bringing back show vets, de-emphasizing the mob, adding some lighter stories.

The ratings are up by 12% since last year. Instead of whispers of GH’s cancelation, eager plans are being made for the show’s 50th anniversary in April.

The show isn’t perfect; some storylines are downright annoying. But it feels right. Port Charles has become a cohesive town again, where everyone knows everyone. It’s an hour spent with cherished friends, rather than with bad guys trying to kill worse guys.

Best of all, in my opinion, is that they proved The Idiots In Charge wrong. For years, executives who hated soaps blamed the fans on the low ratings and refused to listen to complaints about story. They said nothing could stop the decline and inevitable cancelation of the shows because nothing they could do would bring the fans back. Unfortunately these idiots were allowed to destroy two long-cherished soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live. But Ron and Frank have proved that by being fans (many soap exes aren’t), listening to fans and delivering what fans want (on a macro level rather than specific storyline), fans will tune back in.

Currently the Redskins lead the NFC East, with only the Cowboys standing in their way. Even if the Redskins lose on the 30th, they will still make the play-offs this year. Considering they were 3-6 at one point, it’s a miracle. But even if the Redskins lose the first playoff game, with RG3 under central, the future is bright.

It feels like the 1980s again. Only without the big hair and bright blue eyeshadow.

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