The first soap operas on radio were 15 minutes long. That was the standard length of soaps, even when they transferred to television. Irna Phillips, however, didn’t feel that the length was enough time to fully tell her stories, so she eventually brought about the half-hour soap opera, As The World Turns, in 1956. That was just the beginning of how and why soaps literally grew.
The Great Soaps Expansion
“She thought she could do a much better job of telling her stories if she had more time,” recalled the late Helen Wagner, who played Nancy Hughes on the now-defunct CBS soap. “She didn’t have to spend so much time bringing you up-to-date and catching your interest for tomorrow’s show, with just a little bit of something to say in the middle. The half-hour was much better.” Soon, all the shows followed suit and lengthened to a half-hour.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the soaps expanded to a full hour when Another World did so in 1975. “It was frightening because we didn’t think that we could do it,” noted former Another World star George Reinholt, who played the dynamic Steve Frame.
“We thought that it would be disastrous. Eventually, they staggered all of the hours and made it possible and re-worked it so that assured us that it would work.” Reinholt was happy with the results. “The hour is better, actually, because it’s a better read. It’s a better stand on all the various characters. You get a better panorama on it then you do in half-an-hour. A half-hour is too quick.”
Reinholt’s writer at the time, Harding Lemay, was extremely pleased with the opportunity to write an hour show. “I wanted to write longer scenes. The frustrating thing about writing a half-hour show was that the little things that weren’t considered important would get cut for time. The hour gave me the chance to write those little things, like Charlie Hobson singing old romantic songs in his fix-it shop. Those elements help build and enrich characters.”
With the success of Another World’s expansion, it wasn’t long before all the other soaps lengthened to an hour. The spirit of expansion continued when Another World went to an unprecedented 90-minutes in 1979. But longer isn’t always better — or successful.
That move proved to be too much, however, and the serial soon went back to an hour. The success of the hour format brought about questions, though. Was the hour-length good for soaps? Surprisingly, many soap opera insiders would say no. For more, check out Part II.