where the writers are
can it really have been a year already...

since As the World Turns’ final episode aired? Actually, it’s been a bit longer. I’ve had a lot going on – and this has been a difficult piece for me to write.

In 1995, after contributing several pieces to Soap Opera Weekly, I began pitching an idea to Smithsonian Magazine for a long article on the 40th anniversary of As the World Turns. Not surprisingly, it was a tough sell; I had to overcome a lot of skepticism. But, I stuck it out and a year later, I finally got the assignment. 

But, while I was dealing with my editor’s eye roll, a blunder not on We Love Soaps’ list, The 25 Biggest Blunders in Daytime Soap Opera History, was unfolding: the 1995 reshuffle of PGP executive producers that had Michael Laibson taking over at Guiding Light for Jill Farren Phelps, who moved to Another World whose executive producer, John Valente, went to ATWT, leaving then-executive producer, Laurence Caso, odd man out.

The executive shuffle inflicted considerable damage on all three P&G soaps: at GL, Laibson hired Megan McTavish, who would later undo Erica’s abortion on All My Children, as headwriter; on AW, Phelps fired several cast members over 50 and green-lit the brutal murder of Frankie Frame, reportedly another example of “death by focus group” (#14 “The Unnecessary Death of Maureen Bauer”); and, at the suggestion of CBS president, Leslie Moonves, ATWT’s  John Valente hired headwriters Steven Black and Henry Stern. But it wasn’t until I arrived on the set in March 1996 to watch the taping of the 40th anniversary episode that it became clear just how much trouble ATWT was in.

When it comes to anniversary shows, ATWT’s 30th (along with Guiding Light’s tribute to Irna Phillips for its 70th) remains the gold standard. Of course, Douglas Marland, who wrote the 30th, had passed away, but when I approached Smithsonian, and even after the changing of the guard, I fully expected ATWT’s 40th anniversary episode would honor the show’s history just as the 30th had. But listening to Valente, Black and Stern, not to mention the publicist, Janet Storm, it was as though the show was trying to run away from its history. Their sole talking point seemed to be “this show isn’t 40 years old, it’s 40 years young.” Valente talked about how “the need for fantasy is greater than it’s ever been” so the show should provide “a little escapism, a little romantic fantasy.” Not surprisingly, Valente had worked with Mary-Ellis Bunim at ‘World Turns in the early 1980s as she tried to replicate General Hospital’s success by turning Tom and Margo into Oakdale’s version of Luke and Laura.

When asked by We Love Soaps about the 40th, Eileen Fulton said, “Is that the one with the hot, steamy love scene?” Well... I was on the set, and I knew there was a love scene between Connor and Mark, but I didn’t find how just how hot and steamy that scene was intended to be until the next day when I was talking with music director, Jill Diamond. As she tapped a CD on her desk, she said “this is the music for the butt scene.” 

To say I was dumbstruck is an understatement; if there were a gun at my head right now, I couldn’t tell you what music was on that CD. But, I wasn’t just a fan, I was there on assignment. I suppose, as a journalist, it should have been a difficult decision. But it wasn’t. I knew that Soap Opera Weekly had already put the next week’s issue to bed, so I called the editor of Soap Opera Now, Michael Kape, in Atlanta. Without identifying my source, and making clear that I hadn’t been able to confirm the information, I told him what I had heard. There was a blind item in the next SON issue.

Now, I have no idea if anyone at PGP or CBS even saw the item, then again, maybe Irna Phillips came to one of TPTB in a dream and whispered very softly (Eileen always said the angrier Irna was, the more softly she spoke). Or maybe, someone just came to their senses. But, when the episode aired, Alexander Walters' bare butt was nowhere to be seen. And neither was my Smithsonian article, although this incident wasn’t the reason. It was a couple of months later, when Nikki asked Hal who told him that Adam was his son and Hal said, “Barbara.” I understood that the writers might have missed this – the show’s history was not a priority to Black and Stern. But how could Benjamin Hendrickson have forgotten the scene in the courtroom when Margo told Hal the truth? Long after the fact, I read somewhere that Hendrickson rarely even looked at his script before arriving on the set. But, at the time, it was what convinced me that this piece was simply not meant to be. I could see all of the ways the show was going wrong; I simply could not put the pieces together to explain why – or what it all meant.

The thing is, for me, it wasn’t about nudity, per se. If it had been a couple with whom, to paraphrase Agnes Nixon, viewers had laughed, cried and waited – two characters in whom viewers had a deep emotional investment and wanted to see together – it wouldn’t have seemed quite so crude and crass. But it was painfully clear that Mark and Connor had been thrown together as one of those insta-couples simply to juice the ratings. Or to prove (to whom?) that the show “wasn’t 40 years old, it was 40 years young.” What followed was a parade of models, male and female, with great hair and chiseled cheekbones, but little, if any, acting talent.

Even before CBS foisted Black and Stern on ‘World Turns, the network was widely believed to have had a hand in the producer shuffle, a fact this February 1996 Los Angeles Times piece seems to confirm.

A year ago, the Bells were asked to create another show to replace the fading "Guiding Light," sources say. But Procter & Gamble Co., which owns both this show and "As the World Turns," vigorously fought the change, and CBS relented. (Senior Vice President of Daytime Programming Lucy) Johnson and P&G instead initiated a number of production changes on the show...

While LA Times article is referring specifically to GL, those “production changes” extended to ATWT as well, pushing Laurence Caso out as the show’s executive producer. So how perversely ironic is it that when Caso took over the New York office of CBS Daytime in 1983, he did exactly the same thing, pushing PGP to replace Mary-Ellis Bunim, and hiring Douglas Marland to write the legendary 1985 bible that would restore ATWT to its previous glory. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Laurie Caso for many years. I’ve interviewed him on numerous occasions; in the past, we collaborated briefly on a project and may again in the future)

History was indeed repeating itself, in a most convoluted fashion. In 1995, it was fallout from the O.J. Simpson trial that had CBS hitting the panic button. In the early 1980s, ATWT was alienating longtime viewers while chasing the youth demo. The difference was while Caso recognized that to succeed the show needed to return to its roots; twelve years later, the changes CBS imposed took ATWT back to the time when it was floundering. The floundering continued until the show left the air in September 2010. I detailed the damage last year in a series of Red Room articles: 15 years of faux family ties and squandered opportunities…

A while back, a thread on Soap Opera Network posed a most salient question: How Did P&G Lose Its Way?  One comment cut to the chase – almost.

I'd always like to know what Kenneth L. Fitts and others at P&G were thinking when they decided to flip around management for the three shows there in 1995. Such an epic failure, Fitts and everyone else was fired a year later.

Another posted opined: “I remember some of the gossip mid-1990s pointing at Ken Fitts as one of the core problems, as an exec who could have cared less about the P&G soaps (unlike Ed Trach).”

Given Fitts’ long history with PGP (in addition to 10 years as ATWT’s supervising producer, he also coordinated the PGP writing program begun by Harding Lemay) it’s unfair to suggest that he didn’t care about the shows. But that’s not to say he wasn’t one of the core problems – perhaps the core problem.

The real question is why was Ken Fitts chosen to replace Edward Trach, when Trach retired in 1994 as Procter and Gamble Productions’ Executive in Charge of Production? Before coming to PGP, Fitts taught in the theatre department at Thomas More College, a small Roman Catholic school in northern Kentucky, where he was remembered as an excellent administrator. But running a theatre department at a small college and a writing program at PGP is a far cry from overseeing the production of three shows with a combined annual budget topping $100M and, dealing with two networks, CBS and NBC.

Laurie Caso’s experience made it all the more difficult to understand why Fitts was promoted above him. Before taking over as ATWT’s executive producer in 1988, Caso had worked at CBS in several capacities, including five years in daytime, the last two as vice-president for daytime programs. Yet, according to Caso, he was not offered the job. Of course, this was all taking place in late-1994, and with ATWT still reeling from Douglas Marland’s sudden death in March 1993, it’s possible that not wanting to further rock that boat was why Fitts was given the job. If so, that would all be shot to hell in May 1995 with the producer reshuffle.

When I interviewed Lucy Johnson for the stillborn Smithsonian piece, she told me that while she was content to let Bill Bell run his own ship at Young and Restless and Bold and Beautiful, she felt that the PGP shows required more input from her. And after the shuffle, ATWT had a producer in place who seemed receptive to network input, and Jill Farren Phelps, by all accounts no shrinking violet, was at AW, which was on NBC. But it couldn’t have happened if the PGP executive in charge of production at the time hadn’t been receptive, as well.

As the SON poster noted, “Such an epic failure, Fitts and everyone else was fired a year later.” Fans were hopeful when Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin (MADD) replaced Fitts in 1996. Her first act was to replace Valente with Felicia Minei Behr, who promptly recast Connor Walsh, firing Allyson Rice Taylor and hiring Susan Batten, setting off the ABCafication of ATWT that escalated when another former ABC Daytime exec, Barbara Bloom, replaced Lucy Johnson at CBS Daytime in 2003.

MADD certainly had her shortcomings: she dropped Michael Zaslow from GL, saying fans wouldn’t want to see Roger Thorpe as "wizened old man." (#5 on the WLS list of blunders); Another World was canceled on her watch, and when Christopher Goutman wanted to bring back Beverlee McKenzie (Iris) he was reportedly overruled by PGP. When MADD retired in 2005, PGP eliminated the position of executive in charge of production, leaving the remaining executive producers (Goutman now at ATWT and Ellen Wheeler at GL) to deal directly with CBS.  I wonder how different things might – might – have been if PGP had instead filled the position.

 

© 2011 Lynn Liccardo

 

Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only.

Comments
3 Comment count
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Spot on

This is really fascinating, Lynn.

I knew that there was a lot that happened between 1993 (when Marland died, and also when the CBS O&O's stopped running GL at 3 pm) and the end of MADD's reign. This really puts it into perspective. 

The sad thing for ATWT is that it *did* seem to stabilize in the early aughts and at least recover in some small ways. It wasn't perfect, but it was not bleeding, so to speak, as GL was for so many years. Its decline, when it happened, was so rapid. Its death so soon after GL, which had been slowly sinking for years and was thrown a lifeline far too late to make a difference, should have never happened. 

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i think it was a slow bleed...

doug came on as headwriter in 1985, and that is when the show began to stablize. and even after doug's death, i think laurie kept the show on a pretty even keel.

as for atwt "not bleeding,"it was a long slow bleed from multiple internal injuries:

valente, black and stern inflicted considerable damage (starting with not connecting carly to the hughes), which was exacerbated first by felicia minei behr, who failed to capitalized on the show's history by not creating a strong story for margo and katie when the latter returned, then by hogan scheffer's killing bryant (a short term payoff, at best), then barbara bloom pushed it off a cliff with those short term arcs in 2008.

as for gl's lifeline, sure it was too late to make a difference, but the show was heading in the right direction when it was canceled (while the impact of affiliates moving its time slot was was difficult to calculate, it was, i'm sure, significant; same for another world). when gl was canceled, i actually argued that it ought to have been atwt that was canceled.

i expect i could argue the other side just as well. but it was always a moot point because when gl was canceled, i think we all knew in our heart of hearts 'world turns would soon follow.

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Slow bleed

I see what you're saying - there was definitely long term damage done by each team. killing Bryant and Jennifer were two of the stupider moves. 

I think as a viewer I just had more hope for ATWT's longevity based on that first year or two under Goutman/Sheffer, but that really plummeted towards the end of Sheffer's time as HW. 

GL's last few months were wonderful (at least to me as a viewer), but from the sounds of things its fate was sealed before any of those things that made it wonderful were allowed to happen. And up to then it reminded me so, SO much of AW - a new writer or producer every year or two, another sharp jerk from one track to another, one group of characters to another.