Since September, longtime fans of NBC’s lone remaining daytime drama, “Days of Our Lives,” may have noticed some changes. Favorite characters are returning to Salem, the storytelling pace has picked up — the show even looks different. That’s pretty exciting stuff for a show celebrating its 50th anniversary Nov. 8.

“We made some changes with writers and producers and decided to raise the bar with the look of the show, the performance aspect of the show, and where we’re going with the stories and characters,” says producer Ken Corday, whose parents, Ted and Betty, created “Days.”

Not only have fans noticed, but so has the cast.

“It’s like a whole new show,” says Kristian Alfonso, who’s played Hope Williams Brady off and on since joining the cast as a teenager in 1983. “Until a few months ago when these new producers and writers took over, financially there were so many restraints. Now we have new sets. Before, sometimes I’d be in the same set for three days. Now I can be in five different sets in one episode.”

She says cast members are so happy with the show’s new direction that instead of just reading their own scenes, they’re reading entire scripts and asking about each other’s storylines. “When you see that happen, you know something special is happening because we’re not just thinking about our work that day,” she says. “We’re excited.”

Throughout the years, “Days” has maintained its “bread-and-butter formula” of focusing on family and the redemptive power of love, but the narrative has changed. “In the ’60s and ’70s, it was much slower-paced storytelling, with fewer characters. In the ’80s, there was the blossoming of what would become the ‘super couples.’ And in the ’90s we had Jim Reilly’s advent and the far-out ‘Days of Our Lives’ with demonic possession, people buried alive and multiple personalities,” says Corday.

“We made some changes with writers and producers and decided to raise the bar.”
Ken Corday

While Salemites grow nostalgic preparing for the fictional town’s bicentennial — which just so happens to coincide with the soap’s 50th anniversary — viewers are being treated to flashbacks of bygone eras. The old clips underscore the evolution of daytime drama.

“Forty or fifty years ago, scenes went on for four or five minutes as the organ music was swelling,” says Steve Kent, senior executive VP of programming at Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show with Corday Prods. “At the time it was compelling, that’s why it stayed on the air. But you have to keep evolving. That’s why we’re constantly updating.”

Changes in technology have also helped the show evolve. Instead of shooting live-to-tape, Kent says each camera now has its own output, and the editing system allows for rapid intercutting between cameras. “It’s much easier to do non-linear editing and play with time,” he says. “Using this technology to help storytelling is something we’re playing with, and using effectively.”

“We work longer and harder, but in fewer days than we did before,” says James Reynolds, who’s played Abe Carver — the longest-running African-American character on television, daytime or primetime — since 1981. “Scenes are quicker and shorter.”

When he and Alfonso joined the show they shot one episode per day. “Now we do a lot of shows during the course of a week, and we work very far ahead,” says Reynolds. “There’s a lot to keep straight.”

Because the show tapes six months ahead, episodes written by new co-head writers Dena Higley and Josh Griffiths only began airing around Labor Day.

Griffiths says being a lifelong “Days” fan was helpful when he and Higley started. Their first move was giving some underused longtime characters better stories and bringing back iconic characters, including Bo Brady (Peter Reckell), Steve “Patch” Johnson (Stephen Nichols) and Andre DiMera (Thaao Penghlis).

“I’m trying to keep the focus on the characters the audience loves, while creating the next generation of characters. The next generation needs to be integrally tied to the iconic generation so they’re not coming out of leftfield,” Griffith says. “It’s keeping it connected to history.”

Penghlis, who joined “Days” 34 years ago as another DiMera, Tony, was surprised he was asked back. “I never thought I’d be going back. I thought it was over, actually.” After all, his characters, Tony and Andre, had been killed off six times, collectively. Then he met with Corday and his new team.

“There was something about going into Corday Prods., being embraced, and them telling me how and where the story was going — I just went, ‘I love this,’” he says. Now that he’s back on set, he says, “I’ve never seen a team this complete. I’ve never seen writers who blend in with the actors, study their personalities, and then go back and write about them. I’ve never seen producers who are as hands-on like Albert Alarr is.”

Nichols, a fan favorite during his initial run from 1985 to 1990, was lured back in 2006 but left in 2009 when a new producer took the show in a different direction. He hoped he’d be invited back for the 50th anniversary. And indeed he was.

“I’m thrilled, but the icing on the cake is that the show is better than it’s ever been,” Nichols says, adding the behind-the-scenes dynamic reminds him of his early days on the show. “We have another group of people who’re working well together. It’s a well-oiled machine, and everyone is supporting each other.”

Just a few years ago, soap operas looked like a dying breed. But DVRs and digital streaming breathed new life into the genre, letting fans watch whenever and wherever they like — NBC even has an app for it. That, coupled with the recent production investments, are encouraging signs to “Days’” fans.

“In an era where having a show return for a second season is considered a major success story, the 50-year run by ‘Days of Our Lives’ is simply extraordinary,” says Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment. “We’re so extremely proud of the show’s longstanding relationship with NBC and its connection with viewers all around the world.”

Hoping the excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary bodes well for renewal, Corday says it’s almost incomprehensible that this little show his parents started is still going strong.

“My father thought the show would last maybe a year, and before she passed my mother said, ‘Gee, it’s great that we’re going to be on the air 20 years,’” he says. “Soon I’ll be standing on a stage saying ‘We’re golden.’ Who knows what the future holds, but what an achievement to endure that long in such a difficult medium.”