When I heard CBS was canceling the Emmy Award-winning daytime drama As the World Turns, I went into mourning for its escapist froth and for the effect its absence will have on its home base of Brooklyn. Not only is ATWT a favorite show from my childhood, but it shoots in my Midwood backyard. Worse still for the New York television industry, and the hundreds of people these programs employ, and the dozens of local businesses the cast and staff support, it was only a year ago that another daytime legend, Guiding Light, which filmed nearby on Coney Island, went off the air.
I began watching soaps when I was in grade school. They were a love I shared with my mother. When I was home, I would camp out on the couch for hours and my mother would listen on the radio from the kitchen, periodically popping into the living room to ask me what was going on if she couldn't follow the action. At the time I had no idea ATWT was produced in New York. I thought it was just cool to watch a show set in the fictional Midwestern town of Oakdale, Illinois when I was living in neighboring Wisconsin. I got hooked right away over the summer, lured in by a mysterious explosion and a character who vanished. I feigned illness three days in a row when school was back in session so I could watch the dramatic arcs of the Hughes and Snyder clans going down that week. There were kidnappings, bouts of amnesia, and incest plots, all of which made for compelling theatre to an aspiring writer. They were definitely a lot more interesting than gym class and band practice in my small Midwestern town.
The show, which entered its 54th season this year, launched the careers of such heavyweights as James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, Julianne Moore, Meg Ryan and Marisa Tomei. I caught it during the Moore and Tomei era, but was equally captivated by veterans such as Eileen Fulton, who has been on for nearly a half century and Helen Wagner, who opened the first episode and at age 91 carried the honor of playing the longest-running character in television history until she passed away this spring.
In 1999, the cast and several hundred local workers packed up and moved from Manhattan to a track much more off the beaten path out here in the middle of nowhere. Four years ago, I too found myself in Midwood, and discovered I was just blocks from JC Studios on Avenue M and East 14th, where ATWT tapes.
Unlike neighboring hot spots like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, Midwood is so untrendy that it's usually not even on the map. I get a blank look when I tell people where I live. You wouldn't expect to find a production studio in a part of Brooklyn that is a largely Orthodox enclave populated by kosher shops and eateries. But Avenue M actually has been part of television history since the 1950s. Until 2000, JC Studios was NBC Studios, where countless programs, such as Hullabaloo, part of the first season of Saturday Night Live, and The Cosby Show, were filmed.
What I don't understand is that with the national unemployment rate hovering around ten percent, why more people aren't turning to the high drama stories these shows provide. I could get lost in the countless programs on my computer or the 100 channels I have as part of my cable package. Instead I welcome the afternoon distraction of looking at familiar faces (and highly attractive ones at that) with much crazier lives than me. And even at its current ratings low point, ATWT still gets more than two million viewers a day. That's far more than a new talk or game show, the inevitable replacement, will ever get.
The show's demise is not even the last of the bad news affecting the genre or New York. In December All My Children departed for Los Angeles after four decades here, which leaves One Life to Live as the only serial still filmed in New York. Maybe instead of shooting in the hinterlands of Brooklyn, ATWT and Guiding Light should have taken production to Wall Street. Then the actors, crew and fans could have gotten a buyout.
For fans, there is a small bright spot on the horizon. Cable channel SOAPnet will begin airing old episodes in January. As the World Turns will air its final original broadcast on CBS September 17.