‘Turns’ burns bright

Family-focused sudser feeds fan base with topical twists

As warhorse sudser “As the World Turns” celebrates its 50th anni, it’s interesting to note the very things that made the skein a broadcast pioneer in 1956 now contribute to the notion that it’s old-fashioned.

” ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ is our biggest burden,” jokes executive producer Chris Goutman, referring to the classic parody “As the Stomach Turns.”

For starters, “ATWT” was the first soap to debut at 30 minutes, an innovation that was made specifically so characters could spend more time gossiping behind the back of one another.

“The cliche is that we’re a show about people sitting around talking over a cup of coffee about people who aren’t in the scene,” Goutman says, “but back in 1956 that was revolutionary for television.”

According to 50-year-vet Helen Wagner, “Irna (Phillips, the show’s creator) felt that she could write a more compelling story if she didn’t have to spend a few minutes at the beginning luring in the audience and a few minutes at the end teasing the audience to come back tomorrow.”

Equally as revolutionary was the show’s focus on families rather than a melodramatic hero or heroine. “We were a multigenerational show that accurately reflected the lives of our audience,” Wagner adds.

Head writer Jean Passanante points out, “Clearly the pace has changed, the look has changed and we’re telling stories in a much more urgent way than we were 50 years ago, but the conflicts between characters aren’t forgotten. Relationships continue even if rivalries have been resolved. The characters move on, but they still have that history together — just like in life. This show isn’t trendy; it defies the impulse to do gimmicks. It has lots of integrity in the strict sense of the word.”

“What we do now may seem old-fashioned, but we’re really not,” Goutman says. “We were the first show that had a gay character on and we did an HIV story in the early ’90s. Last year we had stories about crystal meth addiction and breast cancer. We use issues that are present in American life to create real drama for our characters.”

The show’s 50-year run is a feat surpassed only by sister CBS soap “Guiding Light.” The big difference between “Light” and “World” is that latter’s core family, the homey Hughes clan, is still active in everyday storylines.

“I don’t consider that a burden,” Goutman says. “We look at our past as an inspiration and use our history all the time in creating story. Anyone will tell you that the biggest challenge in this medium is creating fresh story, and the way we handle that on this show is to use our history in new and inventive ways. The history is both a bedrock and an inspiration for us as creators.”

The show is also taking advantage of emerging technologies: It’s one of only two soaps to be podcast, and the show’s gay teen character has his own blog in which he talks about coming out to his friends and family.

According to Goutman, “Even with all the changes the show has endured, I’m proud to say that it’s stayed true to its roots. The show is very much alive and kicking.”