(Edited. See below.)
We watched the last two episodes of As the World Turns last night. The venerable CBS soap opera, which premiered on radio in 1952 and on TV in 1956, aired its last episode this past Friday. Forty years ago, there were 17 soaps on the three broadcast networks each day; with the passing of As the World Turns, there are now but six. Numerous culprits are cited for the general demise of the soap opera, among them the popularity of time-shifting via the DVR (which is how we watched the final episodes) and the rise of reality TV, which provides a “can-you-believe-that” sizzle fiction cannot. But maybe it’s just time. Like the western, perhaps the soap is simply going out of fashion.
Neither The Mrs. nor I had watched the show regularly in years, but As the World Turns was an important touchstone in my life. My mother started watching it the summer before I was born. While she did her morning chores with the radio on, afternoons it was the TV, and I can see her standing at her ironing board even now, strategically placed so she could see the set in the living room, following her stories. Soaps required a lesser time commitment in those days—I’m old enough to remember when Search for Tomorrow and The Guiding Light were 15 minutes long and ran back-to-back just before lunchtime, although in the late 60s, 30 minutes was the standard, before the jump to hour shows in the mid 1970s. As the World Turns went to an hour in 1975, and I can remember my mother lamenting that extra demand on her time. I suspect there’s a correlation between the decline in soap ratings and the jump to hour-long shows, but I doubt there’s any way to prove it.
I can claim that my mother watched the show and that I picked up the storylines by osmosis, but that wouldn’t be precisely true. Fact is, I watched it, perhaps not religiously, but I kept track of it, for maybe a decade. The CBS affiliate in Madison delayed it from 12:30 in the afternoon to 3:00, so I could see some of each day’s show when I got home from school, and I watched it almost every day in the summers. In college I got hooked on The Guiding Light, too, and followed both of them whenever I could, not giving them up until I got my first full-time job in early 1982.
It was a combined experience of confusion and nostalgia watching the last two episodes of As the World Turns. One focused on a convoluted story involving the birth of a baby and the revelation of its real father, which would take 500 more words to explain. Another storyline involving a gay couple seemed to have dropped in from an entirely different show, and a third concerned the impending reunion of the show’s super-couple. For old-timers like us, the best stuff involved the actors we watched back in the day: Larry Bryggman as evil Dr. John Dixon, Colleen Zenk Pinter as the ageless Barbara (honestly, she looks exactly the same as she did in the 1970s), Eileen Fulton as Lisa, and Don Hastings as kindly Dr. Bob Hughes, who narrated the final episode and got the final scene with Kathryn Hays, who played his wife for 25 years. Fulton and Hastings joined the cast in 1960, Bryggman in 1969 (although he left in 2004), Hays in 1972, and Pinter in 1978.
At YouTube, I found the show’s closing credits from sometime in the 1970s. The modern version of the show had dropped the theme entirely, and even at the end of the last day, it ran a truncated credit roll squashed under a network promo. What As the World Turns deserved before tailing off into television history was two minutes of fanfare. Its classic theme is surprisingly evocative of watching the show on the family TV set in the living room of the house I grew up in, but also of a state of mind, the way a daily soap becomes part of your mental furnishings in a way a weekly show does not.
If you’d prefer some plausibly related rock ‘n’ roll, click here.
(Late edit: Commenter below has it right. When I was writing this, I thought I remembered seeing that the show had premiered on radio in 1952, but I can’t find the citation, so I must have been hallucinating. It’s happened before.)