July 4, 2007
Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part II of VI

As the World Turns

However, As the World Turns changed the conception of the television soap opera. Under the supervision of Irna Phillips, one of the "auteurs" of television rarely discussed in "mainstream" accounts of television history, As the World Turns (ATWT) popularized many of what are now considered defining elements of the genre.

The program aired daily for 30 minutes, breaking away from the shorter 15-minute increments of shows like Guiding Light. Slow pacing, an emphasis on dialogue, and the now-stereotyped camera angles were all part of the ATWT conception. For that reason, many soap historians would consider ATWT the most significant soap opera in American television history.

From 1958 until 1978, ATWT was unchallenged as the top rated soap opera, until growing competition in the 1970s unseated it. Throughout its now 50-year run on CBS, ATWT has survived important changes--the switch to color, the conversion from live to taped television in the early 1970s, the shift from 30 minutes to an hour in the late 1970s, and fluctuating ideas about what topics the genre should cover, oscillating from family drama to romantic escapist fare to tackling controversial social issues or some combination of the three.

Today, ATWT remains an award-winning soap, often recognized with writing and production awards at the Daytime Emmy awards. While Guiding Light has phased out many of its long-term characters (most characters considered "veterans" on the show today debuted with Guiding Light in the late 1970s or early 1980s), ATWT has retained not only the greatest number of long-term characters but also many of the actors who have defined those characters.

The most impressive acting career may be Helen Wagner's, with her long-time portrayal of Nancy Hughes. Wagner is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest portrayal of a character by a single actor in history. Wagner spoke the first words on ATWT's debut episode on April 2, 1956, and her character was recently recognized on the April 3, 2006, episode with a lifetime achievement award by her women's club, an episode that also served as recognition of Wagner's contributions to ATWT over the past 50 years.

Wagner is joined by several cast members who have also been a part of ATWT for decades. Don Hastings was the third person to play the role of Bob Hughes, taking the part in 1960. However, he has portrayed Oakdale Memorial's most famous doctor for the past 46 years. The same year, Eileen Fulton originated the role of Lisa Miller (now Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi) and has likewise been on ATWT consistently for the past 46 years.

These accomplishments are backed by eight other actors who have been with the show over 20 years and several others who have been on ATWT over 15 years. Actors may have left for temporarily due to an illness, a contract dispute, or a film or primetime television role, but these stars have become associated with their characters, portraying them for decades.

The most central character in the history of ATWT, however, may be Tom Hughes. The son of Bob Hughes and Lisa Miller, Tom Hughes was born on ATWT in May 1961. Miller was, as portrayer Fulton writes in her memoir, daytime television's original "bitch," and her marriage to Dr. Bob was one of the original great stories of ATWT. Audiences reportedly cringed at the thought of their Bob Hughes marrying a conniver like Miller.

For the past 45 years, viewers have watched Tom Hughes mature from birth to his current role as Oakdale's district attorney. Hughes is the only character in television history to be born on a show and to survive in the plot for this duration, with viewers able to watch each step of the character's development. Tracing the maturation of the Tom Hughes character can thus provide a lens to view both the trajectory of the soap opera genre and the changes in the audience and the culture that surrounds and supports these shows.