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 September 17, when the final episode of the venerable soap opera As the World Turns will be telecast. ATWT 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 robust 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).
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 Fifties, Sixties and Seventies can recall something about this show from their childhoods or teen years, perhaps because it was the highest rated daytime drama from 1958-1978. 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 November 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.
Like millions of other soap opera enthusiasts, I was all worked up one year ago when CBS and P&G Productions killed Guiding Light, a legendary soap that started on radio in the Thirties. 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 actually revitalize daytime drama. It certainly tried to become contemporary and offer something new. 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 debuted 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 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. Even the short version reads like the stuff of classic soap opera: Luke's new love interest, brilliant 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. In grand soap style, Reid insisted that Chris receive his heart just before he died. (Van Hansis, the actor who portrays Luke, deserves an Emmy for his heart-wrenching performance during the story of Reid's death. Then again, 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 age range, and no less engrossing, the long absent Dr. John Dixon (the esteemed 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 (Elizabeth Hubbard, one of daytime's finest). This has been 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 performed the Reid/Chris heart transplant.)
I'll miss such memorable moments from As the World Turns, as I do those from Guiding Light and so many other soaps, some long gone, 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 broadcast 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 trashy Real Housewives franchise.