As the World Turns Outrage: Another National Treasure Bites the Dust

ATWT logoBy Ed Martin

The ‘00s may be the new Golden Age of primetime drama, but for fans of daytime serials they have truly been the Dark Ages, right up until the very end. With only 24 days left until the turn of the decade, and just three months after the last episode of Guiding Light, a historic franchise that spanned 15 years on radio 

I wonder if any daytime soap operas will remain when the next decade comes to a close. I wouldn’t count on it. All I can really say at this point is that I’m glad I was around to enjoy them when they were at their best, and even when they weren’t.

and 57 on television, CBS and Procter & Gamble Productions yesterday confirmed what had been a chilling rumor circulating for months on the Internet: The cancellation of As the World Turns, currently the longest-running scripted program on television and, like Light, one of the medium’s few remaining national treasures. ATWT will make its final telecast in September 2010 during its 54th season.

I mean, damn — Guiding Light was the soap that so many of our grandmothers listened to on the radio, before television came along, while As the World Turns was the one everyone’s mother watched while doing their ironing during the Fifties and early Sixties, when television came into its own. Don’t they deserve better than this?

How ironic that ATWT should die this way at this time. This was the first soap opera to enjoy an alternate life on YouTube and elsewhere, in the form of viewer-made short videos lifted from episodes and cobbled together by character or storyline, making it easy for people to watch only the stories and characters they were interested in. (The groundbreaking love story of gay teens Luke and Noah has been an Internet sensation all on its own.) What a shame that nobody on the network or production level could figure out a way to make this very dynamic viewer interaction work on the show’s behalf.

This would seem to be the perfect time for me to state the obvious, as I have so many times before: Daily daytime drama is virtually the only form of ongoing programming that remains unique to broadcast television. With the exception of big-ticket sports events, and a couple of awards shows, there is simply nothing left that broadcast can call its own. There are no daily soap operas on cable networks, and while there are a host of new serials on the Web (many starring unemployed actors from daytime dramas), these mini-soaps are a long way from the television variety.

What’s killing the genre, even though it remains popular with millions of viewers of all ages and still supports franchises that are instantly recognizable to tens of millions more? How about the fact that soap operas have been under attack from the outside and the inside for so long that long-term survival is no longer an option? External enemies include the handful of network executives in whose hands the fate of daytime drama has been placed — men and women who understand little about soap operas and care about them even less — as well as clumsy audience measurement techniques that don’t come close to reflecting the breadth and depth of the popularity these programs enjoy, nor the loyalty their viewers tend to feel toward the networks that broadcast them and the advertisers that support them. While it is true that changing American lifestyles have had a negative impact on daytime drama viewing patterns, don’t believe all that crap about cable and the Internet killing them off. Twilight-like madness still follows when popular soap stars gather together for promotional or industry events.

The internal problem is a creative one that to some degree has been so consistently enflamed by some of those external enemies referenced above that it has become positively cancerous, literally eroding the soaps from within. For the last ten years, and to some degree much longer, the soap operas on every network have remained in the clutches of a small group of head writers and executive producers who ran out of fresh ideas and interesting initiatives a long time ago. Successful innovation seems to elude the people who are paid to innovate. As a result, there hasn’t been a soap opera on broadcast television that has actually been fun to watch on an ongoing basis since NBC‘s Days of Our Lives in the early and mid-Nineties, when the late lunatic genius James Reilly took control of the show and put its characters through wild trials (including demonic possession and trips to alternate universes) that made Days more exciting than all other soaps combined. Those ever-essential young viewers were especially impressed.

For most of the last ten years, though, the experience of watching just about any daytime drama on a consistent basis has been one long depressing chore, only occasionally punctuated by brief periods of engaging storytelling. These sporadic swells have been so surprising that they have felt like happy accidents. As the decade progressed, the soaps largely lost their ability to tap into the moment and reflect the fantasies, desires and expectations of their viewers. This happened once before, way back in the Seventies, but a handful of skilled producers (mostly on ABC) identified that problem and fixed it.

It would be unfair not to point out that there have been a handful of strong and satisfying stories and performances on every soap opera during the difficult ‘00s. The producers and writers of One Life to Live, for example, have been especially fearless for many years now, consistently keeping their canvas populated with colorful and diverse and sometimes controversial characters, most of whom feel very contemporary – even the veterans. Given the new audiences OLTL has reached out to in so many creative ways I can’t believe its ratings aren’t stronger. Then again, as mentioned above, I don’t put much stock in daytime audience measurement.

Days of Our Lives has recently experienced actual audience growth by bringing back popular characters from years past. CBSThe Bold and the Beautiful continues to be a powerhouse on the international market. ABC has very publicly given votes of confidence to All My Children (by relocating it from New York City to a dazzling high-definition studio in Los Angeles) and One Life to Live (by moving it from its outdated studio space on New York City’s Upper West Side to the network’s high-def downtown studio where AMC had been located). Still, I fear that none of this is enough to halt the genre’s overall slide, let alone reverse it.

The resultant damage is terrible to see, and not only for viewers. With Guiding Light dead, As the World Turns soon to be snuffed and All My Children relocating to the West Coast, this is truly a catastrophic time for the New York acting community. Countless movie and television stars began their careers acting in New York City-based soap operas. (Soon OLTL will be the only one left.) For example, it was only a few years ago (eight, to be exact) that Matt Bomer first attracted a following as nice-guy turned psycho-killer Ben Reade on Guiding Light. Bomer is one of this year’s most popular breakout stars thanks to his lead role on USA Network‘s sparkling new crime caper White Collar.

I wonder if any daytime soap operas will remain when the next decade comes to a close. I wouldn’t count on it. All I can really say at this point is that I’m glad I was around to enjoy them when they were at their best, and even when they weren’t.

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Ed Martin is a veteran television journalist who writes for many national publications and websites. He blogs regularly at mediabizblogger.com.

Comments

  1. horselover says:

    Yea, I’m glad I got to watch soaps when they were the best – late 70s to early 90s. I guess that’s why it saddens me so much to watch the soaps today because they just don’t compare. Oh well. I guess everything must come to an end – including our beloved soap operas.

  2. Daniel says:

    I can’t really remember a time when soaps weren’t a part of my daily routine. I stayed home from school to see Laura marry Luke, I was dizzy with excitement as a 7th grader watching The Phoenix rise from the ashes for the first time, watching Judith Light really “bring it” before I even knew what that meant. There are so many memories, and I have to admit that As The World Turns only reached me about 8 years ago, but when I read on Eonline of all places that it had been cancelled I felt it physically. Guiding Light wasn’t a surprise, but it was still sad. ATWT being cancelled? It just got me right there, you know? We lose so many tangible connections to past joys as we age and I suppose that it is part of life. It just weighs heavily on me that I might be part of the last generation to really remember seeing soaps when they were the original “must see TV”. I guess I still don’t believe it.
    As far as what should happen now, with the soaps that are still hanging on? Get back to stories that take time, that involve almost everyone on the canvas, that make you NEED to see what happens next. Get rid of the mob, on all shows, for all time. Get back to the basics. Family, love, betrayal, retribution, forgiveness. Heck. Just starting telling compelling stories.

  3. DS0816 says:

    Dear Ed,

    I, too, am glad I had many years to enjoy the daytime soaps. I started viewing them in the mid-1980s. At that time, I was sorry I missed the glory years of the Luke-and-Laura romance, on “General Hospital,” but seeing what’s happening now — 25 years later — I don’t really have regrets. I was fortunate to experience other terrific stories. This has me wanting to echo Carol Burnett’s theme, “I’m so glad we had this time together.”

    In Connie’s/Marlena’s earlier article (my praise to both of you!), I wasn’t in the best mood to talk about my appreciation of “As the World Turns.” It may be because the cancellation is so new…and perhaps I’ll be more in the mood as the close of the series draws nearer.

    What really upsets me about these soaps — from ABC, CBS, and NBC — is not just the state of the shows themselves…it’s the uncertain fate of their actors.

    Kim Zimmer — in a farewell-to-”GL” interview with “TV Guide Magazine’s” Michael Logan — reflected on the secret to ["GL's"] success: the actors. I agree with her…but not just with “GL” but with all daytime serials genre (“ATWT,” very much included). If it weren’t for them, I may have turned my back on the suds 10 or so years ago. The performances have sold story. And I commend these players. They, and the behind-the-scenes production crews, deserve our best wishes for them (and their families).

  4. Billy Cooper says:

    Being a soap fanatic, both prime time and day time, it pains me to see GL, and now ATWT shunned and yanked off our sets by the network hatchet-men. Growing up, I joked about the 2 shows being the old CBS “War Horses” , eternal stories that nobody could deny nor bring down. I suffer vicariously thru my friends and family who were devoted to these shows at one time or another. I enjoyed them, but they were never my absolute “must-see”s.
    I empathize because of my angst, anger, and still-open wounds of the networks cancelling SOMERSET and THE EDGE OF NIGHT (smaller P&G siblings to the mighty ATWT, GL, and AW). I had grown numb and disinterested to Bay City (ANOTHER WORLD) by the mid 1990s, so it did not hurt me as much when NBC did away with it. PASSIONS was stupid. SANTA BARBARA never grabbed me. DAYS OF OUR LIVES kept bringing the DiMeras back relentlessly. I was addicted to GENERAL HOSPITAL when TEXAS and THE DOCTORS were cancelled, so I didn’t miss them much, even though I loved TEXAS with it’s connection to ANOTHER WORLD back then.
    And now, no thanks to CBS, we no longer have ANY Procter & Gamble cities to tune into !!!!!!!!!!!

    I wish that the CW or FOX would open up their daytime slots and revive these great P & G shows ( GL, ATWT, AW, EON, SOMERSET, TEXAS, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW), but due to budgets, trim the casts and keep them all at 30 minutes. Heck, even if they experimented (like ONE LIFE TO LIVE and GENERAL HOSPITAL on abc in the mid 1970s) a 45 minute time slot, for the bigger shows, that would be interesting. Oh, yes, and keep them filmed in NEW YORK where Broadway and
    aspiring young STAGE actors can be cast. Hollywood has too much share of TV & film production as it is. New York is much more artsy and has that “live” feel about it. And, is the birthplace and home to Soap Operas, at least television-wise.

  5. Preacher'swife says:

    American soaps should learn the lesson of the Tele-novela literally television Novel soap opera in Spanish. For example a long running soap such as ATWT could be composed of serveral smaller telenovelas A novel even a TV one has to have a beginning, middle and an end. This would help soaps with their passing and saved them from what helpped murder ATWT too many characters.
    I have a vision for a Christian soap opera featuring Josh & Reva Lewis of GL fame and composed of several smaller telenovellas written by guest writters such as Broderick, Barbara Cartland, Janette Oke, and Mary Higgins Clark. Let me know what you think? The real ATWT died with Doug Marland!

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