Through what I can assure you is no fault of my own, I seem to have become a character in a long-running soap opera at the Recovering Dissident Catholic site (with graphic embellishments by Abbey Roads). It’s flattering, to be sure, to be cast as your own character. And far be it from me to discourage comparisons with such sartorial luminaries such as Amos Burke, John Steed, or even What's My Line's John Daly.
But this does bring us around to the golden age of soap opera on television. You don’t see many soaps on TV nowadays, and in fact why would they be needed? Between Opera and Springer and The View and all the rest of the daytime talkers, your dramatic and lascivious needs are pretty well taken care of.
Such was not always the case, however. There was a time, back in the day, when daytime television was ruled by a combination of sudsers and game shows (now also largely forgotten, alas), with a few movies and variety shows thrown in for good measure.
The April 27, 1957 issue of TV Guide (with Groucho Marx on the cover) gives us a fair measure of what the average housewife might be able to choose from. (And housewives were the primary audience back then, in the age of stay-at-home moms, when men dominated the workplace and televisions weren’t yet a staple of college dorms and common areas.)
Soap operas had started back on radio, of course, and many of them made the transition to early television (including a lawyer who was once a character in The Edge of Night – Perry Mason). The Guiding Light was one of them, although originally the show had something of a religious, inspirational subtext – the guiding light, after all, was pretty much what you’d expect.
The soapers were broadcast live, back then, five days a week. They even provided listings in the TV Guide as well, if you can imagine that. Here’s a week’s worth of Guiding Light, for example:
Mon: Bill goes to see Dr. Fletcher. Tues: Dick tries to advise Paul about his attitude toward the patients. Wed: Bill tells Elsie not to let Albert know she is aware of his condition. Thurs: Dick tells Marie he is taking Kathy as a patient. Fri: Robin comes to visit Meta.
There you have it. No need to even tune in; you know the whole week right there. (By contrast, yesterday’s listing: Natalia alerts Gus that Harley knows that they slept together.)
As you could tell, doctors (and nurses) were popular subjects for soap operas. Some, like The Doctors and General Hospital, were primarily about them (at least at the start). But almost every serial had a doctor or two somewhere in the mix.
So let’s look back at what you might expect to see that week.
CBS was the king of the soapers back then, with Brighter Day (Rev. Dennis talks to Max and tries to explain Grayling’s resentment), Secret Storm (with an opening theme based on the second movement of Brahms' Concerto in A Minor), The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, The Valiant Lady, Love of Life, The Guiding Light, and As the World Turns (which was, of course, the program interrupted in November 1963 by the news of JFK’s assassination). NBC was in the mix as well with Modern Romances, although they relied more on variety and game shows, and their prime afternoon feature was the hour-long “Matinee Theater,” which sounds as if it belonged more properly in prime time. (Sample program: “The Professionals,” by Stan Cutler. A professional golfer employed by a country club is stunned to learn it will no longer finance his expensive trips to golf tourneys. He has lost too many matches to make it worthwhile.) ABC also gave the nod to movies, with Afternoon Film Festival, and cartoons (Mickey Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle, etc). Both NBC and ABC would follow suit eventually, however, introducing such classics as The Doctors, Another World, Dark Shadows (a story in itself), One Life to Live, and a daytime version of Peyton Place.
You might wonder how they were able to squeeze so many soap operas into the daytime schedule, back then. Well, it was because most of them were only 15 minutes long. It was a big deal back in the late 70s and early 80s when some of the most popular serials expanded to an hour, but it was just as big a step in the 60s when many of them went from 15 to 30 minutes. The longer form meant that more than one storyline a day could be explored, and the hectic back-and-forth cutting of the modern soap opera can probably be traced back to that original 15 minute timeframe.
So, as is the case with so much of television nowadays, the daytime lineup has changed greatly over the years. And not for the better, I’d suggest. With 150 channels to choose from, anyone can probably come up with a better lineup than that which was available with only 4 or 5 channels – but that means there’s a lot more dreck out there as well. Which is a shame, because many of the plot-driven soaps of the era, with five shows a week and no reruns, required a fairly high quality of writing and acting. Relatively speaking, of course; I don’t think anyone would ever confuse The Edge of Night with Playhouse 90 (a reference for you old-timers like me out there). But there’s no doubt there was a style in those days which is missing today.
Unless, of course, we can produce more writers like Cathy of Alex. With her, the soap opera might make a comeback after all.