Forbidden love, hidden children, tragic deaths, tearful reunions. For Irna Phillips, creator of the soap opera, nail-biters and heartbreak were all in a day’s work. Phillips pioneered the genre when she wrote, produced and starred in a radio serial called Painted Dreams in the early ’30s. By 1957, her newest TV project, As the World Turns, was making soap-opera history. The show broke boundaries, expanding soap operas’ length and scope. With its focus on the residents of fictional Oakdale, Ill., As the World Turns privileged character over plot—a method still seen in today’s prestige TV. Phillips popularized cliff-hangers and swelling organ music to ratchet up tension, and commercials for household goods like margarine and, yes, soap to wash it away. Within two years of its release, As the World Turns became America’s top daytime show. Eventually 10 million viewers tuned in every afternoon.
Dismissed by critics, the show was beloved by women who saw their preoccupations and power reflected. Its popularity proved to advertisers that women’s stories were worth investment. As the World Turns ran for 54 years, the third longest TV run of any daytime soap. Another Phillips creation, Guiding Light, was canceled in 2009 after 72 years on radio and television. —Erin Blakemore
Blakemore is a journalist and the author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.
- Meet TIME’s Newest Class of Next Generation Leaders
- After Visiting Both Ends of the Earth, I Realized How Much Trouble We’re In
- Google Is Making It Easier to Remove Personal Info From Search
- Oil Companies Posted Huge Profits. Here’s Where The Cash Will Go (Hint: Not Climate)
- Column: We Asked Hundreds of Americans About Abortion. Their Feelings Were Complicated
- A Short History of the Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the Marcos Family
- Long-Lasting Birth Control Is Already Hard to Get. Advocates Worry It May Only Get Worse
- Who Should Be on the 2022 TIME100? Vote Now