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Focus : Guiding Lights : Two of daytime’s biggest competing soap operas welcome return of top creators

On Dec. 3, Gloria Monty returned, after a 4 1/2 year absence, as executive producer of “General Hospital,” the ABC soap opera that she had propelled to daytime’s No. 1 spot for most of the early 1980s.

Just four days later, Bridget and Jerome Dobson, the married team who created NBC’s “Santa Barbara,” came back to that soap as head writers and creative production executives; they had left 3 1/2 years earlier in a barrage of breach-of-contract lawsuits and cross-complaints between themselves, NBC and series co-owner New World Television.

The two shows have more in common than the concurrent return of their guiding forces. In most of the country they share the same time slot--in Los Angeles, weekdays at 2 p.m.--placing them in direct competition. And in a real-life twist that rivals soap plots, Bridget Dobson’s parents, Doris and Frank Hursley, created “General Hospital” in 1963. Bridget was the show’s sole writer from 1965 to 1970, and she and her husband were “GH” head writers when they departed in 1972.

It’s an interesting matchup. “General Hospital” was transformed by Monty when she arrived in 1978 to create a fast-paced, musically hip serial that three years later gave birth to soapdom’s first Super Couple, Luke and Laura Spencer (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis). The Dobsons created “Santa Barbara” in 1984 to be innovative and offbeat, with liberal doses of humor and its own Super Couple, Cruz and Eden Castillo (A Martinez and Marcy Walker).

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“GH” regularly outdraws “SB” in the national Neilsen ratings, usually ranking second among all soaps to CBS’ “The Young and the Restless” while “SB” rests near the bottom of the ratings. But “SB” has for three years in a row won the Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding drama series, the first serial ever to do so.

Monty’s new episodes began airing Feb. 13, the Dobsons’ on Feb. 22.

“You know,"said Jerome Dobson at the couple’s office at NBC’s Burbank studios, “this is pure speculation--no one here has said anything--but maybe it’s not just coincidence that (our legal) things were settled when it turned out Gloria was coming back to ‘General Hospital.’ Maybe NBC wanted to see about getting ‘Santa Barbara’s’ ratings up. The people we were suing are now the people we’re dancing with. Welcome to Hollywood.”

The Dobsons are legally forbidden to discuss details of their settlement, but say they came back to a warm reception, having kept in touch with many of the cast during their forced hiatus. Neither they nor Monty watched their respective shows while away, so the first order of business for all was catching up on characters and plot lines.

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“The vision of the show had gone a little askew,” Bridget said. “It had become much more ordinary. Emotionally, it was quite dark, and quite violent--there were rapes and murders. We were surprised to see our characters in that (mood), because we’ve always shied away from it. And the characters had stood still, they hadn’t grown. The show had become more plot-oriented, whereas it will now be more emotion-oriented.”

Accordingly, the Dobsons immediately set about putting back on track the character they felt had gone most astray, Mason Capwell (former “Dynasty” star Gordon Thomson). “He had lost what had driven him psychologically: his competition with his father, the love-hate he feels,” according to Bridget. In the Dobsons’ opening episodes, therefore, Mason put his mother and stepmother on trial over a family dinner, resulting in a vehement confrontation with his father.

At “GH,” Monty said that she had to create “a whole new dimension to the show. They didn’t have a story line strong enough to cover us. A lot of actors’ contracts were coming up for renewal and I had to make a clean sweep.”

When the dust settled, the blue-collar Eckert family--a rarity in the daytime world of glitz and glamour--had made its debut, with the much-heralded return of Anthony Geary as Luke Spencer’s look-alike cousin Bill Eckert. Other new cast members include actress-singer Carol Lawrence as Bill’s mother and, for a touch of humor, Arte Johnson of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and Garrett Morris of “Saturday Night Live.”

Monty also hired seven new writers, most of whom had credits in prime-time rather than daytime. Befitting a hospital show, coordinating writer John Whelpley was once executive story editor of “Trapper John, M.D.” and Deborah Zoe Dawson wrote and produced that medical drama. Another new recruit is Arthur Bernard Lewis, a “Dallas” producer for nine years.

“I’m integrating things I’ve learned in the past 4 1/2 years,” Monty said. “My own style has changed somewhat--I’ve had a chance to open my own vistas. I’m much closer to a film style now. I don’t like a camera moving unless there’s a reason for it--it offends my eye.” She also brought in a production designer and a set decorator with extensive feature credits; the latter, Brian Kasch, worked on “Twin Peaks” as well.

And how do the shows’ creative forces feel such metamorphoses will affect their ratings? Said Bridget Dobson: “We went out to dinner with Gloria and her husband just before she started the show. She said, ‘Darling, we’ll kill you.’ Now we’re out to prove her wrong.”

Monty remained unfazed. “No way,” she said, dismissing the notion with a wave of her hand.

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“General Hosptial” airs Monday-Friday at 2 p.m. on ABC; “Santa Barbara airs Monday-Friday at 2 p.m. on NBC.


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