04/02/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

General Hospital at 50: An Amazing Broadcast Milestone

This week ABC is celebrating an extraordinary broadcast milestone -- the 50th anniversary on April 1 of ABC's General Hospital. Given all the excitement surrounding this event, it is somewhat sobering to note that just last year the network seemed ready to cancel this still-vital series. Had either The Revolution or Good Afternoon, America succeeded, it is entirely possible that GH would have been unceremoniously terminated before reaching its history making golden anniversary.

Happily, GH survived a real-life cliffhanger that rivals those of classic serials on the radio and at the movies, not to mention primetime and daytime soap operas themselves, and now here we are, marking a significant broadcast accomplishment at a time when significant broadcast accomplishments are increasingly few and far between. Further, GH is celebrating this milestone just four weeks before All My Children and One Life to Live, the two long-running soaps ABC dumped in September 2011 and January 2012, respectively, are poised to be reborn as daily Web serials from The Online Network (available on Hulu, Hulu Plus and iTunes). If they succeed, broadcast will have lost claim to the one programming genre that it could still call its own.

Later in 2013 I'll be marking an anniversary of my own. It will be 35 years since I began watching GH. That was in 1978, several years before the arrival of the VCR. Like millions of similarly impressed young people at the time I somehow managed to adjust my schedule and visit the fictional town of Port Charles, New York several days a week without benefit of a recording device. I've stayed with the show through good times and bad, almost bailing on it during the last decade, when it became a poorly written mob drama that favored murder and gun violence over romance and escapist adventure. Happily, the mob mess seems finally to have been put to rest.

Hundreds of features about GH will likely appear this week across all media platforms. I'd like to mark the occasion by telling a simple story that illustrates not only my relationship to the show but the amazing connection it had with the television audience long before that audience was connected via the Internet and social media. It's also a reminder of the singular power and influence broadcast television had before cable spread across the landscape.

It was Memorial Day of 1980, about two years after I began watching GH, when I first realized how outrageously popular the show had become. The previous Friday's episode had ended with a cliffhanger that many long-time GH fans still consider the show's best ever: Tracy Quartermaine (played by Jane Elliott, who is still with the show and still commands the screen whenever she is on) had been arguing with her father, millionaire business tycoon Edward Quartermaine, who had seen fit to cut her out of his will. As their argument escalated, Edward suddenly grabbed his chest and collapsed, gasping for breath and begging Tracy for his heart medication. Tracy refused to help him unless he promised not to sign his new will. As the episode ended Edward lay on the floor, apparently dying, as Tracy gazed out of her penthouse doors, hauntingly telling her father that it was a "beautiful night."

This column continues here.