Boomers Got Their Prime-Time Washed Out with Soap

There are many things that help to define us as boomers, and certainly TV is among the top contenders. We were infants at the same time as early TV, so you might say we grew up together. After the War, our mothers were promptly thanked for “filling in” and dismissed from the factories, relegated to the urban expansion known as Suburbia. There, the Baby Boom took flight as they became domestic engineers, baby-makers and the prime targets of advertisers of daytime TV soap operas.

A form of serial narrative called the soap opera had been broadcast on radio since the 1930s, but now, in the age of TV, the genre was transformed to the still relatively new medium. The term “soap opera” was coined by the media in the 1930s to describe the fifteen-minute serialized dramas that were sponsored by the manufacturers of household products. Since the 1930s, Proctor and Gamble was among the biggest sponsors, establishing a soap opera ad division exclusively for the purpose. Radio had the distinct advantage in that members of a household — especially homemakers — could listen while doing other things, like household chores. With the advent of regular TV broadcasts in the late 1940s, producers had to put a visual face on stories that would appeal to women who may or may not have had the time or inclination to stop what they were doing and watch. Though the genre began in uncertainty, TV executives’ concerns were quickly allayed as soaps caught on.

As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, soap operas became the staple of daytime TV, expanding from radio’s fifteen-minute format to half-hour TV programs. It seemed only natural, then, that big advertisers of daytime soaps would want a bigger piece of the prime-time viewing pie (the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) as well. By this time, radio soap operas had disappeared, replaced by the daytime TV soaps. It was ABC that fired the first salvo by introducing a prime-time soap opera in 1964. Called Peyton Place, it was a half-hour program that was based on a 1956 novel of the same name, by author Grace Metalious. It was aired twice a week.

The buzz around Peyton Place spread across the country like wildfire since it was among the first to deal with sex, infidelity, teen pregnancy, the draft, riots and God in a frank manner; in other words, all the subjects that are de rigueur for today’s soaps. Since its storylines were peppered with very adult subjects, ABC aired the show at 9:30 p.m., a time when we boomers were supposed to be in bed. Buoyed by the show’s popularity, the network switched to airing the show three times a week in 1965. Viewers didn’t care for the change of being forced to follow a serialized narrative over the course of three times per week, and ratings dropped. The network reluctantly switched it back to two episodes a week, but the damage had been done as Peyton Place never regained its Top 20 ranking.

Despite a gradual decline in viewership, ABC continued to air the show twice a week. By the fall of 1968, the show was losing more viewers every week, so it was moved to an 8:30 p.m. time slot in a last-ditch effort to bolster its ratings. Ultimately Peyton Place was cancelled in June of 1969. It had paved the way for future prime-time soaps, and like many of its daytime counterparts, helped to launch the careers of many actors, including Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Mariette Hartley and Lana Wood.

Mister Boomer’s mom was a huge daytime soap fan, tuning into one after another all afternoon — her favorites included As the World Turns (1956-2010), All My Children (1970 to present) and General Hospital (1963 to present). Yet after giving Peyton Place a try once or twice, TV variety shows remained king of the Boomer household prime-time viewing, much to Mister B’s preference. Whenever Mister B was home from school for whatever reason, he tried to make himself scarce when his mother’s soaps came on; he never had the stomach for the overacted melodrama. The same was true of Peyton Place. Though it was talked about among Mister B’s peers in the schoolyard (as taboo subjects were), Mister B was completely uninterested, so he was pleasantly surprised when his mother passed on a nighttime soap addiction.

Mister B’s parents continued to avoid prime-time soaps even after the immensely popular Dallas hit the airwaves in 1978. That record was shattered one evening a few years later when Mister B paid a visit. As he entered the house, his father was on the couch, beer in hand, watching Dynasty (1981-89), but no sound was emanating from the TV. “Is your TV broken?” asked Mister B. “No, I turned off the sound,” answered his father. Alexis (Joan Collins) was pulling Krystal’s (Linda Evans) hair as the two started fighting, their shoulder pads poised like the battle-ready edges of suits of armor. “See?” he continued, “you don’t need the sound to enjoy watching this show.”

What experiences did you have with prime-time soaps, boomers?