As ‘World’ stops turning, Chicago soap bubble bursts

As ‘World’ stops turning, Chicago soap bubble bursts

Editor’s note: Robert Feder is on spring break until April 7. While he’s away, we’re running “The Best of Feder.” The following post originally appeared on Dec. 10, 2009:

As the World Turns creator Irna Phillips

Like hearing of the death of a celebrity you’d long assumed already dead, my first reaction to news of the cancellation of “As the World Turns” was surprise that it was still on the air. I’m not proud to admit that, but it’s true.

As the last soap opera produced by Procter & Gamble, the company for which the term “soap opera” was coined, “As the World Turns” was a relic of another era in television — when millions of housewives (and later millions of college students) followed Monday-through-Friday daytime dramas religiously. It became an indelible part of American history on Nov. 22, 1963, when Walter Cronkite‚ interrupted a live broadcast of the program with the first‚ bulletin of President Kennedy’s assassination. The show’s title took on special meaning that day.

After a 54-year run on CBS, “As the World Turns” will air its final episode at the end of this season. The announcement followed the network’s cancellation earlier this year of Procter & Gamble’s “Guiding Light” after 72 years on TV and radio. CBS Chairman Les Moonves told the‚ New York Times:

“It’s certainly the end of the client-owned soap. All good things come to an end, whether it’s after 72 years or 54 years or 10 years. It’s a different time and a different business.”

While it’s possible for “As the World Turns” to be revived on cable, that’s not likely to happen, considering the show’s production costs and dwindling audience. When the curtain falls in September, it almost surely will mean the end of what was the No. 1-rated soap on television from 1959 to 1971 and the winner of 58 Emmy Awards. It also will close a chapter in Chicago history.

Conceived in an apartment on the Gold Coast (a‚ tribute marker commemorates the site at 1335 North Astor Street) and set in the fictional community of Oakdale, Ill., “As the World Turns” was co-created by soap opera queen Irna Phillips, the Chicago writer who invented the genre at WGN, and her brilliant protégé‚ Agnes Nixon. It was Phillips’ most successful serial and, by some accounts, her all-time‚ favorite.

“I just feel Irna gets slighted so much,” Nixon once told me of her mentor, who died in 1973. “I’ve never forgotten her or what she meant to me. In my studio [office] I have a peg board with a big photograph of Irna. It all stems from her.”

After “As the World Turns,” Nixon went on to write “Guiding Light” and “Another World” and create “One Life to Live” and “All My Children,” among several others. In an unparalleled achievement, Nixon and another Chicago protégé of Phillips, the late William J. Bell, were at one time responsible for creating and/or writing all but one of a dozen daytime dramas then on the air.

At the height of their popularity in the early ’80s — when daytime and nighttime soaps were the hottest thing on television — I spent two weeks with Nixon and the writing staff of “All My Children” in New York. I came away astonished at the complexity of the process involved in plotting and producing a one-hour drama, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, with no reruns, no breaks, and major storylines and themes that sometimes play out over decades. And every episode had to end with some sort of cliffhanger to bring viewers back tomorrow.

Soon there will be no tomorrow for “As the World Turns.” I can’t really say that I’m sad about it. But it doesn’t make me happy, either.