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'As the World Turns': Why the Sun Should Never Set on Soaps
September 16, 2010  | By Ed Martin  | 1 comment

Companies put so much time and money into their efforts to establish household names that it always amazes me when they turn around and destroy one. Not that it happens very often. But it's going to happen this Friday, when the final episode of the venerable CBS soap opera As the World Turns will be telecast.


Like many people reading this column, I wasn't around when ATWT debuted way back on April 2, 1956. But I remember my mother and my friends' mothers watching it when I was a kid. I think all people born anytime during the '50s, '60s and '70s can recall something about this show from their childhoods, perhaps because it was the highest rated daytime drama from 1958 to 1978.

Even if they never watched it they probably heard people talk about it. They might remember, as depicted last season on Mad Men, that it was famously interrupted on Nov. 22, 1963 for a devastating announcement by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Or they might recall the recurring sketch that it inspired on The Carol Burnett Show titled As the Stomach Turns, which itself became a commonly used comic phrase. They might also remember that ATWT in the summer of 1965 seeded a primetime spin-off titled Our Private World featuring vixen deluxe Lisa Miller Hughes. (Played by Eileen Fulton, Lisa -- now Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McCall Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn -- is still on the ATWT canvas and will be seen in the final episode.)


As the World Turns was the breakout serial that made soaps a driving force in American popular culture and set the stage for daytime dramas to enjoy a half-century of success. I can't help but wonder why CBS and Procter & Gamble, the two corporate giants that made it so vital for so long, would choose to eliminate a product that is so well known it is recognized even by those who don't use it (or in this case watch it). Actually, I do know why ATWT ended production in June and will never be seen again after Friday. For reasons both internal and external, daytime soap operas are a doomed entertainment format. (You can scroll down in this very blog to my Dec. 17, 2009 entry, the one with the headline Ed Martin Says We Need Our Soaps, to learn why all of their days are numbered.)

Like millions of other soap opera enthusiasts, I was all worked up one year ago when CBS and P&G killed Guiding Light, a legendary soap that started on radio in the '30s. I wondered why nobody in the television business could come up with a way to continue so historic a franchise -- as a weekly primetime show, a basic cable series, a groundbreaking Internet production, a series of made-for-television movies. But the Light went out, the world kept turning, and here it is a year later and another soap that can only be described as iconic is falling victim to the inability of current television executives to think outside the box.


There was a time not too long ago when I thought ATWT would revitalize daytime drama. In recent years, the show added to its canvas two gay characters -- Luke Snyder and Noah Mayer -- and suddenly enjoyed more online publicity than any other soap. (It was as if broadcast soaps were finally catching up with MTV's notably diverse reality serial The Real World.) Indeed, savvy young viewers who were drawn to this storyline lifted the Luke and Noah scenes (hundreds of them over the years) out of daily recordings of the show and posted them on YouTube, launching a new kind of character-specific soap opera watching. Meantime, CBS launched a reality series on its Web site titled InTurn in which aspiring young actors lived together and competed for a contract role on ATWT. InTurn ran online for three seasons.

No matter what the producers of ATWT tried, though, it seems it was never enough to save the show from the multiple corporate and creative forces that were coming together to destroy it -- and, in fact, all broadcast soap operas.

To anyone who gets them, to anyone who understands the deep emotional connection that comes with following well-crafted stories featuring multi-generational characters on a daily basis over a long period of time, there is nothing else in the media landscape that comes close. Consider the unforgettable drama last week on ATWT as the long-running Luke and Noah storyline was brought to a hugely emotional conclusion.

atwt heart transplant.jpg

Even the short version reads like the stuff of classic soap opera: Luke's new love interest, dashing but distant surgeon Reid Oliver, who restored Noah's eyesight a short while ago, tragically died from injuries sustained in a car accident while racing to another city to retrieve a donor heart for his ailing arch-rival Dr. Chris Hughes, with whom he was competing for the position of chief of staff at the city hospital. (Reid was speeding to Bay City, the setting for another unceremoniously axed P&G serial, Another World.) Reid insisted that Chris receive his heart just before he died. Everyone tried to comfort an utterly devastated Luke, including Chris' girlfriend Katie, but only Noah was able to get through to him. (Van Hansis, the actor who plays Luke, deserves an Emmy for his heartbreaking performance during the story of Reid's death. Of course, given the fiasco that the Daytime Emmys have become, maybe I shouldn't wish that embarrassment on him and should instead just encourage the networks to find this guy a primetime role he can run with.)


At the other end of the soap age range, and no less engrossing, the long absent Dr. John Dixon (Larry Bryggman), who has deep ties to a number of other characters, has been brought back for the show's final weeks, and it has been splendid watching him interact with the family members and friends he has ignored for years -- especially his bitter ex, ruthless businesswoman Lucinda Walsh (played by the mercurial Elizabeth Hubbard). In a grand display of soap storytelling at its best, John's return has reignited and partially resolved a number of old storylines while also advancing much current drama. (For example, John, a highly skilled surgeon, transplanted Reid's heart into Chris.)

I'll miss such marvelous moments from As the World Turns, as I do those from Guiding Light and so many other soaps, some long gone (like Another World), others still with us but no longer delivering the goods. The particular long-term viewing pleasure that daily dramas provide is still something that only television can offer, but as soaps continue to suffer and die, it's getting increasingly difficult to find. Soon, all we'll have left are endless variations on Bravo's Real Housewives franchise.




Sam Tomaino said:

Very well said. I was a big fan of AW & GL. I briefly watched ATWT when AW was axed. My mother was a devotee of the CBS soaps until the day she died, two years ago. When I watched the last GL, I felt that I had lost a part of her. The same will be true for ATWT.

At one time. I was watching 4 soaps a day (finger heavy on the VCR fast forward). Now, I am down to ALL MY CHILDREN. I'm guessing ONE LIFE TO LIVE will go next & New York City will lose the last of its soaps. Soon, we will no longer "tune in tomorrow."

Comment posted on September 17, 2010 3:31 PM

Ramsey said:

Thanks for this! It's been great to see how this wonderful show made an impact in so many lives -- mine included. I can't believe I'll never see the residents of Oakdale again.

Comment posted on September 17, 2010 4:22 PM
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Thank you, Van Hansis und Jake Silbermann for your brilliant portrayal of Luke Snyder AND Noah Mayer that has given (and is still giving - just have a look at thousands of viewers on YouTube still in 2013) so much to millions of people all around the world!

Shame on the (not so) new head writer that after killing Guiding Light totally threw Nuke, and especially Noah, under the bus during the last year of the show, totally distorting and disrespecting their characters and yearslong history, only to pimp Dr. Superhero who got all the airtime and all those "funny", "supercool" lines (that most of us who had been watching ATWT FOR YEARS because of Luke AND NOAH didn't give a damn about)!

The terrible treatment of Nuke and such wonderful young actors as Jake Silbermann was SYMPTOMATIC of everything that went wrong with ATWT and of how certain writers sank this show.

Luke and Noah forever!!
Aug 9, 2013   |  Reply
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