“As the World Turns” went off the air on Friday, ending a run of more than 54 years.
I never really watched “As the World Turns,” but I’m a soap opera fan, so I wanted to see the last episode. To prepare, last month I decided to watch the final three weeks of the show so I’d have some idea of what was going on.
The last episode of a soap opera is a weird thing. Normally, a soap opera is a perpetual motion machine where nothing really ends: stories just continue, or evolve into other stories — just as in life — and cliffhangers abound. But on Friday, various couples found happiness, or contentment, or normalcy, and some people moved away. The venerable Dr. Bob Hughes, played by Don Hastings — who had been with the show since 1960, and who was on the live November 22, 1963, episode that was interrupted by the news of JFK’s assassination — retired as hospital chief of staff and bid his office, and the audience, a simple “Good night.” It was the final line spoken on the show — a nice bookend to the very first line spoken on the very first episode in April 1956 by Bob Hughes’s mother, Nancy Hughes (played by Helen Wagner, who just died in May): “Good morning, dear.”
There are now just six soap operas left on daytime TV:
- “General Hospital” (began in 1963)
- “Days of our Lives” (1965)
- “One Life to Live” (1968)
- “All My Children” (1970)
- “The Young and the Restless” (1973)
- “The Bold and the Beautiful” (1987)
The soap opera era is fading. When I first got into daytime soaps in the 1980s, there were 13 of them. In addition to the above — minus “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which wasn’t yet around — there were “Capitol,” “Guiding Light,” “Loving,” “Ryan’s Hope,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “Another World,” and “Santa Barbara.” Since then, a few others have come and gone: “Port Charles,” “Generations,” “Sunset Beach,” and “Passions” — the latter three on NBC, as the network tried again and again to find something that worked.
Here’s the daytime TV schedule from the spring of 1986, when I first discovered the soaps. And here’s the daytime TV schedule as of this coming week. The soap operas are in green. Look how many fewer there are today.
(Not to mention all the departed game shows!)
There was a time when soap operas were cash cows for the networks: they were cheap to produce and they got stellar ratings. In the ’80s and early ’90s, my soap of choice, “Days of our Lives,” spent lavishly on location shoots in the U.K., Greece, and Mexico. (Bo and Hope’s enormous wedding was in London; Justin and Adrienne Kiriakis got married in Athens.) Those days are long gone: the audience is literally dying off, there aren’t many housewives anymore, and talk shows and reality shows provide more fireworks.
Yes, soap operas move slowly, and they have their stale clichés, and they’re melodramatic and cheesy. But I like what someone on this page says:
I’m mad at the general ignorance that shows when anyone would say something like “soap operas are outdated and need to end” without ever actually watching the damn shows. Ten minutes doesn’t count. One day doesn’t count. One week doesn’t count. Soap operas are made to be long term, so any proper assessment of them can only be made if someone invests as much time into them as it takes to tell whatever story they want to tell. You can’t read one chapter of a book and then assess that the rest is not worth reading. You don’t watch the first ten minutes of a movie and leave the theatre. If you do either, then you don’t (in my opinion) deserve to have an opinion on the entirety of the book/movie/show if you’re only basing it on what little you’ve seen. Likewise, you can’t watch one episode of a soap opera and assess that the next six months is not worth watching, or that the past 54 years were not worth making.
I like the soaps despite their low production values, despite their recycled and slow-moving plots, despite their melodramatic acting style. I like the soaps because they symbolize continuity: they’re on every weekday, five days a week, with no repeats. The same families continue through the years, with new children born into them even as the patriarchs and matriarchs die. The soap I grew up with, “Days our Lives” — which I started watching because of my mom, who has watched it almost since the beginning — still features a slew of Hortons and Bradys.
I hate change. I hate goodbyes. I like security and continuity. That’s why I like the soaps. I like knowing that the soaps are there, every day, even if I rarely watch them. It just makes me feel good knowing that they’re still around.
But we’re now down to six daytime TV soaps. I wonder how much longer they’ll be there. ABC has three, CBS has only two, and NBC has just one, the one I call my own: “Days of our Lives.”
Friday, November 25, 1960, is known as “the day radio drama died.” On that day, the day after Thanksgiving, CBS network radio aired the final episodes of its last four remaining radio serials. It was the end of an era.
The day that the last daytime soap opera airs on network TV will be the end of another era, and it will be just as sad.