‘World’ Turns 50: ‘Digital Comfort Food’

Mar 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

It began with a logo and an idea. The distinctive image of the planet Earth revolving in space, surrounded by stars, dissolving to reveal the “day-to-day story of the affections that bind and conflicts that threaten two closely related families in an American community.” Those are the words that described “As The World Turns” when it premiered, and ever since, the world has continued to turn and the stories have never stopped spinning.

CBS and Procter & Gamble Productions will be leading the cheers April 2, when “As The World Turns” celebrates its golden anniversary. That’s 50 years of broadcasting. Five decades of ongoing story lines, evolving characters and dramatic developments among the fictional families that inhabit a world created in 1956 by powerhouse head writer Irna Phillips.

“At 50 years, ‘As the World Turns’ is one of the longest stories ever told in human history,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. “The daytime soap opera remains the most legitimate use of the television medium. It does something that the movie, the opera, the novel or any other storytelling form cannot achieve: to tell an extended story, in real time, five days a week, with no reruns, year after year, decade after decade, and at the rate some of these are going, perhaps century after century.”

And there is every reason to believe that “ATWT” will go on thriving and flourishing in the years to come, that the globe will continue to turn and viewers will continue to watch.

There’s a strong core audience that keeps “As The World Turns” popular, with about 3 million viewers a day, according to Nielsen Media Research. Many are fans who have been watching the show since childhood. “Soap viewing is generational,” said Mary Ann Cooper, daytime television expert and editor of the syndicated column “Speaking of Soaps.” “People remember growing up with ‘As The World Turns,’ watching the show while Grandma was baking cookies or Mom was folding the laundry. Today, when they tune in, they’re reminded of those times at home with their loved ones. Watching ‘As The World Turns’ is digital comfort food.”

Ellen Dolan, who has played Margo Hughes on the show since 1990, understands that concept. She has experienced it herself.

“During the 40th anniversary party I was walking past a whole bank of monitors at the Rainbow Room [in New York] that were running old shows and I stopped dead in my tracks because I saw an episode that I remembered seeing from when I was a child with my Mom while doing the laundry,” Ms. Dolan said. “I saw young Lisa doing something with young Bob. It’s a really heartwarming, incredible thing how ‘ATWT’ has been part of my life, my entire life. People laugh about soap operas, but think about it-we are such a fabric of American life. We are the sound that’s in your house, the people that are in your house every day for 50 years.”

It’s not just comfort that “World” brings to those who watch it. For many the show is both familiar and familial. Actress Marie Masters, who plays Dr. Susan Stewart and has been with the show since 1968, explains: “The I Ching is a system of getting in touch with yourself, and one time I asked a question about ‘ATWT’ and I got a very surprising answer. The symbol that came up was for family. We always talk about it being a family.”

Mindi Schulman, president of the official ‘As The World Turns’ Fan Club, agrees. “The fans feel a deep connection to the families on the show-the Hugheses, Stewarts and Snyders,” she said. “The characters are very real; they’re like people you might really know in your life. And every day you tune in to catch up with Lily and Holden, Jack and Carly, Paul and Emily, to see what’s going on in their lives. You care about whether they’re happy or not. That’s the power of a soap like ‘As The World Turns’: You care about what you’re watching.”

Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication at Seton Hall University, sees it another way. “People come to expect certain elements from the form and they get them, with a few twists and turns here and there,” he said. “‘As The World Turns’ maintains its audience because it is conscious of that element. It’s a formula, and it’s crucial to most genre media.”

There has been a multitude of twists and turns in 50 years of storytelling, and more than anything else it’s the writing that is paramount to the success of the show. That was the mantra set forth by Irna Phillips, the woman responsible for getting “As The World Turns” on the air.

According to Christopher Schemering, author of “The Soap Opera Encyclopedia,” Ms. Phillips was “the single most important force in creating what we now call ‘soap opera.'” But in 1956, despite her track record as the creator of “Guiding Light”-which began as “The Guiding Light” on radio in 1937 and successfully transferred to television in 1952-Ms. Phillips had to lobby Procter & Gamble to convince the company to launch her newest project, “As The World Turns.”

Unlike “The Guiding Light” and the other soaps of that era, “As The World Turns” was completely original. It did not have roots in radio and therefore had no track record. Would viewers take to characters they had never met before? P&G had doubts. Furthermore, at 30 minutes per episode, P&G worried that “ATWT” was too long.

But Ms. Phillips, with talented writers in her bullpen such as Agnes Nixon (who later created “All My Children” and “One Life to Live”) and William J. Bell (who later created “The Young & the Restless” and “The Bold & the Beautiful), had a plan. The foundation of “As The World Turns” would be the compelling storytelling. The longer running time allowed for richer character development and slower plotting. A story could be built over time, and there would be an emphasis on the visual-not just what a character said but also the look in his face when he said it or what she was doing when she poured that cup of coffee.

Storytelling Breeds Success

The dynamic Ms. Phillips used all of her powers of persuasion, and finally, P&G relented and CBS gave the soap the green light. On April 2, 1956, “As The World Turns” debuted, and in just two short years, it was at the top of the daytime Nielsen ratings. “It became Ms. Phillips’ greatest triumph,” Mr. Schemering said.

Ms. Phillips’ vision for “As The World Turns” has endured to this day. When executive producer Christopher Goutman was asked recently what makes his show so special, his answer was simple: “Storytelling.” In 1986, then head writer Douglas Marland had the same response. “It’s all about the storytelling,” Mr. Marland said. “Nothing matters more than the characters and the lives they’re living. Everything else is window dressing.”

Over the years, comfort, family, familiarity and storytelling have made “ATWT” an ongoing success. The show has featured great romances, intense drama, gripping social issues and cunning mysteries. In the early years of the show, the on-and-off love story of Penny and Jeff so captivated the nation that CBS was deluged with protest letters when Jeff was killed in a car accident (so the actor could leave the show). The 1960s on “World” were dominated by the emergence of daytime television’s first true diva, actress Eileen Fulton as Lisa Miller. Her social-climbing shenanigans kept “As The World Turns” the most popular soap for the entire decade.

In the 1970s, newer soap operas such as “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives,” “All My Children” and “General Hospital” challenged “As The World Turns” in the ratings. These shows were perceived as more “with it” than “ATWT.”

“Basically, ‘ATWT’ continued being what it always had been: a conservative, classic soap opera,” Ms. Cooper said. “It was never about glamour and glitz. It was rooted in traditional American values and it always appealed to the heartland, if you will.” So even though “ATW
T” expanded to one hour in 1975 and remained the No. 1 soap in the Nielsens, there was a sense that the show needed to change with the times.

In the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, which included Mr. Marland’s tenure as head writer, “ATWT” found a way to become more contemporary and yet remain true to its root. He started by introducing new characters-in particular, the Snyders, another core family. Mr. Marland eschewed the kind of adventure tales popularized by “General Hospital’s” Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) in favor of character-driven, multigenerational stories. The addition of larger-than-life characters such as Lucinda Walsh (Elizabeth Hubbard) and James Stenbeck (Anthony Herrera) revitalized the Oakdale canvas. And life on the Snyder farm was anything but staid when Iva’s (Lisa Brown) secret pregnancy was exposed and Lily (Martha Byrne) discovered she couldn’t have a future with Lucinda’s stable boy, Holden (Jon Hensley), because his sister was Iva, who turned out to be Lily’s birth mother.

Beginning in 2000 another bold head writer, Hogan Sheffer, took over “As The World Turns” and had a strong hand in shaping the destiny of the show. During his tenure, “ATWT” won four Daytime Emmys for outstanding writing (in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005) and two for outstanding drama (in 2001 and 2003). Mr. Sheffer, who had no previous experience as a soap scribe, brought a fresh eye to the show. He developed new romances, even importing a few characters from “Another World” after it was canceled by NBC.

Like Ms. Phillips and Mr. Marland before him, Mr. Sheffer believed in character-driven storytelling. “The trick is to find [a character] who can serve you in many different story swings, and not just somebody who would only service you for one character or one family,” he said in a 2001 online interview with About.com.

In addition to dynamic writing, other factors have played key roles in the ongoing success of “World.” One of those factors is geography. Like the other East Coast-based soap operas, “As The World Turns” benefits from the wealth of theater-trained actors in New York. The Broadway (and off-Broadway) connection is apparent, whether in the show’s ability to entice Lea Salonga to play Lien Hughes after she starred as “Miss Saigon” on Broadway, or in the double duty put in by actor Michael Park, playing Jack on the soap by day and starring in the musical “Little Me” by night.

“New York soap actors are cast based on their experience and talent. You rarely see a beauty contest winner or aspiring model thrown into the acting pool at ‘As The World Turns.’ Their actors can act,” Ms. Cooper said. “There is a commitment to craft over looks.”

Mark Collier, who plays Mike on the show, acknowledges that fact. “I don’t look at our show and say there’s a bunch of pretty actors up on the screen,” he said. “‘As The World Turns’ has talented actors playing these real, dynamic characters. The characters are people our audience connects with-and has for the last five decades.”

A Cast With Experience

Longevity is another element in “ATWT’s” ongoing appeal. “Fans love the fact that they see the usual cast of characters year in and year out,” Ms. Schulman said. For example, Helen Wagner (Nancy) has been on the show for 50 years; Don Hastings has played Bob Hughes since 1960; and Kathryn Hays, who plays Bob’s wife, Kim, will celebrate her 34th year on “ATWT” this August. Scott Holmes, one of 13 actors who have played Tom Hughes, has the longest tenure of that group: 19 years. And Colleen Zenk Pinter has been Barbara Ryan since 1978.

Having that kind of experience in the cast is also a boon to newcomers like Trent Dawson. He began in 2001 as Henry, a short-term character. However, the role caught on with viewers and the writers responded by giving him more story line. The end result is that Mr. Dawson has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy for outstanding supporting actor this year, for which he credits his more experienced castmates: “I’ve learned from every actor on the show, directly or indirectly,” he said. “I came in with an itinerary of sorts regarding camera skills, and since I was surrounded by people who had more of these skills, every day was full of learning.”

“What has made ‘As the World Turns’ work is its ability to transform itself for changing times, changing audiences and change in the genre itself,” said Mr. Thompson, the Syracuse professor. “When I started watching ‘As The World Turns’ with my mother … it was a very different show than it would be when I started paying attention to it at the age of about 15, and [it] would be yet another show as we reached the turn of the century.”

Digital comfort food, compelling storytelling, talented actors in familiar settings-“As The World Turns” is all that and more. Fifty years on the air is a remarkable landmark for a soap opera-or any television show. Any network would proudly boast a show with such a legacy. This golden anniversary attests to the enduring appeal of “As The World Turns” among the thousands of shows that have come and gone while it has continued to flourish.