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Viewing Single Post From: ATWT: A Review of the Program for their 50th
Steve Frame
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The daytime drama (or “soap opera) has been a fixture of broadcasting since the early days of radio; when television came along, many of the radio serials were simply broadcast on the tube. Few radio-to-television soaps lasted longer than a decade; the notable exception was Guiding Light, which first aired on radio in 1937 and became part of CBS’ daytime TV lineup in 1952; it remains on the air to this day.

But back then, all daytime dramas were no longer than 15 minutes; producers and network executives (not to mention the sponsors) felt a quarter-hour was long enough to tell a basic story and keep audiences coming back for more. Pioneering drama producer Irma Phillips, who created many major hits for radio and television (including Guiding Light) felt the time was right to tell a story in 30 minutes. On April 2nd, 1956, CBS premiered Phillips’ newest creation, As The World Turns It was a radical departure for a genre that had seen little innovation. While most soaps focused on one or two main characters, Phillips used the extra time to tell the stories of an extended family–in this case, the Hughes family in the fictional town of Oakdale. The 30 minute format allowed two or three storylines per episode–but they dealt with the same topics most daytime dramas handled–love, marital problems, health issues and personal secrets.

“World” was one of two new half-hour soaps that premiered on CBS that day. The other was The Edge Of Night, which was originally designed to become the first televised version of Erle Stanley Garner’s fictional attorney Perry Mason. But Garner and CBS clashed over “creative differences” and Garner withdrew from the project. Of course, Garner went on to create a new version of Perry Mason for CBS’ prime time schedule in 1957; a writer from the Mason radio show, Irving Vendig, retooled the concept to create Edge Of Night; it ran until 1975 on CBS, then moved to ABC’s daytime schedule where it continued until 1984.

As The World Turns was a conservative programme to its core; wandering spouses would suffer for their adultery; mothers who abandoned their children paid dearly; and women who dared to consider an abortion faced retribution. (A large part of the conservative nature of the show was due to sponsor Proctor and Gamble; the soap and household products maker did not want to pay its advertising dollars to fund “immoral behavior” on the tube.)

Viewers used to 15 minutes of lather didn’t know what to make of the new half-hour format at first. But gradually, As The World Turns began building an audience of faithful fans; by 1957 it had doubled its ratings. A year later, “ATWT” became the top-rated series of any type on daytime drama. It would hold that ratings record for 20 straight years, before ABC’s General Hospital topped the charts for the next decade. (CBS’ The Young and the Restless became daytime television’s top-rated series in 1988, a position it still holds today.) In early 1967, it switched from black and white to colour; by 1975, “World” was expanded to an hour; it remains a 60 minute program minus commercials to this day.

The late 1970's and early 1980's were rough for “World;” not only did the show fall out of the number one position, it found itself losing younger viewers to ABC’s popular slate of dramas–especially General Hospital, which revived itself with younger characters and outrageous storylines, including the historic pairing of Luke and Laura. Proctor & Gamble (which produced “World” and several other soaps) was hesitant to make changes. But under pressure from CBS, the soap maker lathered up new characters and storylines, and included plenty of sexual tension. Much of the improvement came with the addition of Douglas Marland, who used the show’s long history and rich characters to create new and involving storylines that brought in new viewers while satisfying veteran “World” fans. (Marland also brought the show the first-ever gay male character in daytime drama, but introduced controversial storylines without moralistic preaching or obvious “relevance”–no “very special episodes”here.)

But in 1993, Marland died of an aneurysm; his expanded plots and cast were cut by a new writing team–the result was another decline in both critical acclaim and audience numbers. Three years later, the Proctor & Gamble folks cleaned house, bringing in new producers and writers from some of ABC’s successful daytime dramas. It didn’t help. When NBC cancelled the low-rated P&G-produced Another World in 1999, the soap company hired many of the executives and writers (and some of the actors) in yet another housecleaning effort. The result was a messy, disjointed drama that lost much of its history or a reason to stay on the air.

As the new century began, another housecleaning stabilized the show, but again at the expense of the remaining veteran characters. By this time, the daytime drama was hit by new viewing choices, the loss of older audiences and fewer young viewers picking up the soap habit. It’s a problem not only facing As The World Turns, but its competitors as well.

As with many daytime dramas, a number of now-famous actors and actresses got their start on As The World Turns. Among them: Meg Ryan; Dana Delany; Courtney Cox; Julianne Moore; Martin Sheen; Richard Thomas and Marisa Tomei.

But I remember a simpler time, when I would come home from school in the early 1960's and find my mother taking a break from her cleaning and laundry to sit in front of the old Packard Bell to watch “her stories.” As I ate my lunch in the dining room, I could hear the refrain of announcer Dan McCullough and the organ music rising (“And now, for the next 30 minutes, ‘As The World Turns.’ This portion today brought to you by....”)

It was during As The World Turns that television viewers first learned about the assassination in Dallas. As the actors were performing live on stage that afternoon of November, 22nd, 1963, a slide suddenly came onto the screen and the unseen voice of Walter Cronkite was heard to say “From CBS News, here is a bulletin....Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in Dallas...” Although CBS returned the air time to “World,” Cronkite soon interrupted once again. This time for good. As The World Turns would be the last entertainment programme to air for the next four days, as the nation went into mourning for the young, slain JFK.

As The World Turns also became the first (and so far only) daytime drama to spawn a nighttime version. Looking at the success of ABC’s Peyton Place in 1964, CBS ordered a prime time version of its most popular soap. Our Private World, which aired during the summer of 1965, spun off the Lisa Miller Hughes (Eileen Fulton) character from the daytime version into her own stories. But after a three month run with low ratings, Fulton returned to As The World Turns and Our Private World was no more.

With all that said, it’s still an achievement in the fickle world of television when an entertainment program remains on the air–especially one that airs five days a week. So hats off to As The World Turns on its 50th birthday. The next 50 years should be quite interesting.

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