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In a lather for half a century

Television

`As the World Turns,' a matriarch of daytime soaps, marks 50 years of lies, loathing and lust in the afternoon.

March 26, 2006|Ellen Baskin | Special to The Times

IT was nearly 50 years ago that the world began turning in the fictional town of Oakdale. Nancy Hughes was in the kitchen, having just sent her lawyer husband off to work, arguing with her teenage daughter Penny. Meanwhile, in the real world outside -- a place rarely if ever mentioned on "As the World Turns" -- dangerous foreign powers and the specter of weapons of mass destruction posed genuine threats to living, breathing Americans.

Half a century later, the residents of Oakdale continue to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous domestic fortune. Nancy's grandson Tom is the district attorney and has problems dealing with his own teenager. And the real world? The names may have changed, but evil foreign powers are still out there, along with weapons of mass destruction -- some authentic, some as imaginary as the lives of the fine folks of Oakdale.

Sure, the more things change the more they stay the same, but the world is really very different than when "As the World Turns" debuted on CBS on April 2, 1956. Just look at the television industry, where these days it's nothing for a show to be yanked after one episode. One season is considered worthy of a DVD boxed set; 100 episodes is a bona fide milestone.

How, then, to classify the golden anniversary of "As the World Turns"? That's 50 years of original material, five new hourlong episodes each week, 52 weeks a year, no reruns, no seasonal hiatus

So a brief history seems in order:

"As the World Turns" was the brainchild of Irna Phillips, who is widely credited with creating the genre and whose soap opera career began in radio. Phillips' trademark was stories that developed slowly and were character-driven. Of course, there was the occasional over-the-top return from the dead -- then and now very much a soap staple -- but most of what happened on-screen could just as well have occurred in the kitchens and living rooms of her audience.

"Irna believed that the daytime show is best at reflecting life among people, their friendships, their families, the full relationships of people who live next door to each other," says cast member Helen Wagner. And she should know: Wagner, 87, has portrayed Nancy Hughes since that premiere episode and spoke the show's first words. (Note to trivia buffs: Nancy said, "Good morning, dear," to her husband, Chris.)

"It was just life around the dinner table," she recalls by telephone from her home in upstate New York. The show was broadcast live until the early 1970s, and cameras were heavier and more cumbersome then. "We couldn't move from set to set, so we worked mostly in the kitchen," Hughes remembers. "The stove worked, the sink worked. And people were always coming in and out of the back door."

In a real-life plot twist that could have been lifted from one of the programs she created, by 1973 Phillips was no longer considered a relevant figure and was fired by Procter & Gamble, the corporate sponsor that still owns "As the World Turns." She died several months later.

But Phillips' legacy lives on in the tightknit, multigenerational structure that remains the cornerstone of "As the World Turns."

In honor of the 50th anniversary, two special stand-alone episodes are airing, on Friday and April 3. In the first, the show's seven grande dames -- including Wagner and uber-grande dame Eileen Fulton (Lisa) -- find themselves stranded during a flashback-filled road trip. The next day, Oakdale's teens imagine the town's population as classic sitcom characters.

"A great part of this wacky soap world is continuity, and this show has never lost sight of that," says Michael Logan, who has written about daytime television for TV Guide since 1990. "Of all the shows, 'As the World Turns' has stayed truest to its original identity. And at the same time, the stories they're telling are completely contemporary." Logan gives high points to the program's writing team, which has won the daytime Emmy for four of the last five years and is nominated again this year.

At the height of its popularity, "As the World Turns" had upward of 10 million regular viewers. More recently, however, ratings fell to under 3 million. It's no secret that network television is losing viewers, and this is acutely felt in daytime. Like all programmers, the soap powers that be are searching for new ways to reach an audience, especially the holy grail that is the youth demographic. "As the World Turns" is now available in a real-time audio podcast at the CBS website and in shortened form on iTunes. Executive producer Chris Goutman reports that a video podcast of the show will be coming soon.

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