Days of Our Lives is one of the longest-running programs on American television, begun in 1965 and carrying through to the present day. Of all the continuing daytime TV soap operas, Days of Our Lives most emblematizes a bridge between the origins of daytime drama and developments in the form over its multiple decades of existence. Days of Our Lives is both traditional and innovative, rooted in the foundation of soap opera but branching out into some of its most novel shifts. This balance between the conventional and the disruptive is one of this program’s most distinguishing features, one that might help to account for its continuing survival.
In 1965, Days was created by married couple Ted and Betty Corday, produced by Hollywood production company Screen Gems, and aired on NBC. Ted Corday had been working as a director and producer in both radio and television, most notably serving as a director for the pioneering Procter & Gamble-owned, CBS soap opera, As the World Turns, for most of its first decade. In that capacity, he worked closely with Irna Phillips, who created As the World Turns for television in 1956 but who had also pioneered the very form of daytime soap opera in radio before transitioning to TV. Phillips consulted with Ted and Betty, who had been working as an actress and casting director, as they created their own, new soap, Days of Our Lives. With Ted’s death soon after the program’s launch, Betty took charge, producing the soap until their son, Ken Corday, took over in the 1980s. The family control of the program for its entire history is a practice found only in the world of daytime soap opera, and one the Cordays have mastered longer than any other.
The program’s roots in soap opera history come not only from the Cordays and Phillips but also from the soap’s long-time head writer, William Bell, a protégé of Phillips’ who guided the writing of Days of Our Lives for most of its first decade, even as he created his own, new soap, The Young & the Restless (with Lee Phillip Bell), in 1973. The Cordays, Phillips, and Bell shaped Days of Our Lives around a central, white, middle-class, middle-American family, the Hortons, a practice as old as the soaps’ radio origins. By the 1970s, however, Days of Our Lives' storytelling began to take more chances, to venture into newer and riskier realms. At first, this meant more attention to social issues, most notably an inter-racial romance between the black Valerie Grant and the white David Banning, son of Horton granddaughter Julie. Their story received a lot of popular attention in the late 1970s, but the soap handled their relationship with extreme tentativeness. While audience responses to the pairing were mixed, eventually the couple parted ways, a development motivated in part by another social issue-related plot, abortion, as (white character) Trish Clayton seriously considered terminating her pregnancy by David. Trish decided to have the baby, and Valerie decided to leave town. Then and since, the soap was criticized for backing away from the inter-racial relationship due to fears of negative responses.
Like the rest of daytime, in the 1980s, Days of Our Lives turned away from social issues and toward fantasy romance, featuring a slate of “supercouples” who pursued exciting adventures and married in “fairy tale” ceremonies. While this trend of supercouples facing danger amid developing romances was pioneered by ABC’s General Hospital, Days had been one of the first to pursue more overtly sexual relationships amongst its characters as early as the 1970s, and became most expert at generating sensational and popular pairings across the 1980s, featuring more supercouples than any other soap. On Days of Our Lives the attraction of opposites—typically privileged young women and rougher-edged, yet heroic, young men—perfected the supercouple formula. Fans were deeply invested in pairings such as Bo and Hope or Steve/“Patch” and Kayla.
In the 1990s, Days of Our Lives sought new directions for its storytelling. The arrival of head writer James E. Reilly led to some particularly outrageous plots, from characters buried alive to the devil possession of longtime heroine and pillar of the community Dr. Marlena Evans. While some viewers saw these developments as campy fun, others disliked their difference from the traditional family orientation of this program, and of soap opera as a whole. Such stories made permissible a wider array of storytelling and generic devices within daytime, particularly those of a supernatural bent, as in Reilly’s next project, the new soap for NBC, Passions, which took these campy excesses even further.
While Days’ storytelling has bridged traditional and new directions since at least the 1970s, its status within the TV industry has always been that of innovator. Days of Our Lives was the first successful soap opera to be owned by a Hollywood studio (with a small ownership stake by Corday Productions) rather than a sponsor or (as in the case of its immediate predecessor, General Hospital) a network. Following the path of the media business as a whole, that studio, Screen Gems, was gradually absorbed by larger and larger corporations over the years, eventually making Days a product of global conglomerate Sony in 2002. While this ownership model has been relatively successful and was copied for the launch of The Young & the Restless in 1973, Days of Our Lives has faced particular struggles due to this structure, especially as the soaps have become less profitable in the 21stcentury. Because NBC licenses the program from Sony, the conglomerate has to re-negotiate its deal with the network at the end of each contract period. As NBC has taken in fewer ad dollars for daytime, it has shrunk its license fee. Meanwhile, Corday Productions alleges that Sony has neglected the secondary distribution of Days of Our Lives, failing to sell it internationally. The results of these struggles have been extensive budget contraction and belt-tightening for Days, wherein the soap produces episodes months in advance of airing at a production schedule of eight episodes per week in order to shut down the studio for at least fifteen weeks per year. These “dark weeks” are a way to cut expenses in order to make the production financially viable.
While Days of Our Lives' status in the 21stcentury TV industry can seem precarious, the program has long found ways to balance its standing between tradition and risk. Whether in its business dealings or its storytelling, Days of Our Lives has combined the conventional and the unusual across its history, continuing the legacies of the both the fictional Horton and real-world Corday families across more than half a century.
- Elana Levine, September 2019
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Levine, Elana. Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.
Levine, Elana. “Love in the Afternoon: The Supercouples of 1980s Daytime Soap Opera.” Critical Studies in Television 9:2 (Summer 2014), 20-38.
Russell, Maureen. Days of Our Lives: A Complete History of the Long-Running Soap Opera. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 1995.