Today is quite the monumental day in marketing history. Today, one of the most recognized entertainment brands of our lifetime brings its 54-year history to a close. Today, perhaps the most successful example of “brand-created entertainment” that ever exists draws to a close. Today, we will see the last episode of the most popular soap opera of all-time, As the World Turns.
Of course, if you didn’t already watch the show or follow the daytime television world, you probably didn’t know. There are a few stories here and there. But, as several reporters told me blatantly, most people said, “We already did a story on another soap going off the air a year ago.” Today, it seems the mainstream media looks at the “soap opera” genre as interchangeable, a dying anachronism from yesteryear that’s slowly being phased out.
Sure, there’s plenty of ammunition to that story. Consistently dwindling ratings. A change in our culture that has left many fewer “housewives” to watch. An aging audience (amidst an aging culture) in a television and advertising industry that now seems to look at the once-darling and courted Boomer viewer as a leper.
And thus As the World Turns, a show that once garnered ratings that mirror only the very-most popular of primetime shows today on a daily basis with no off-season is going off the air with far too little fanfare. After all, this is the show that created most of the earmarks that we now consider emblematic of the soap opera genre. As TV Guide expert Michael Logan told The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “It was the show that invented so much of the soap form–the pregnant pauses, sitting around having coffee while talking about your problems, the big dramatic freeze before a commercial. Even people who didn’t know anything about soap operas knew this title. And if you didn’t watch it, this seems to be the one your mom or your grandmother watched.” It was the first soap opera that lasted more than 15 minutes and the most popular of the daytime dramas from 1958 to 1978, the era when soap operas were the stable ratings draw that helped fuel the television enterprise for the big three networks. What’s more, As the World Turns was produced by Procter & Gamble to its very end. The remaining six “soaps” are now all produced by entertainment companies.
At the center of As the World Turns for its full run was an actor named Don Hastings. Hastings, who played the most well known doctor at Memorial Hospital in fictional Oakdale, Ill., from 1960 until the present, will be the last face viewers see when the show fades to black today, when there is no more “on the next … ” Last year, Hollywood Reporter‘s Roger Friedman called Hastings “the best actor on soaps.” Over the years, we’ve seen Dr. Bob go from young love to leading man to wise town sage. While his cohorts have come and gone, Hastings never left the show, and Bob always remained on our screens. I’m pretty confident that Hastings’ portrayal of Bob Hughes may be the most watched character in television history.
Helen Wagner, who played Bob’s mom from speaking the first line of the show in 1956 until earlier this year, played her character longer, but Nancy’s appearances were far less frequent in later years–and she left Oakdale for a short stint once upon a time. Bob’s first wife, Lisa Miller, has been portrayed by Eileen Fulton for slightly longer, but Eileen was once known for famously leaving the show from time to time.
Considering how often Hastings has appeared on screen over the years–with 260 episodes of As the World Turns airing a year, a fair number including Dr. Bob–his character might well be the most viewed in television history–at least in original airings.
But we’ll probably hear little of that today. Like Hastings’ character–and acting style–As the World Turns says goodbye in an understated fashion–ironic, because it’s a show that excelled when it featured quiet moments amongst its characters, the same sort of intergenerational relationships that saw soap operas passed down from grandmothers to daughters to granddaughters.
Unfortunately, soap operas have too often gotten away from that intergenerational storytelling model, just as marketers have written off the relationships that exist amongst the generations and instead focused on one target demo or another. In the process, this once-regular vehicle for promoting household products (like soap) has eroded, in my mind at a more dramatic pace than necessitated by the changes in our society.
Let’s not forget the lessons of Don Hastings or Dr. Bob, though. He didn’t yell very often, but Oakdale’s residents found that, when they slowed down and listened to Bob, there was much to be learned. As our marketing world launches full force into thinking of brands as storytellers, we should slow down and think about Dr. Bob’s “story,” and what we can learn both from where soaps have gone wrong but also what they got so right, and what has propelled this genre for the past 80 years.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.