“The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “Cheers,” “60 Minutes,” “Home Improvement,” “Seinfeld” and “ER.” Since the fall of 1988, all seven of these shows have been crowned prime-time television’s most popular series for a season.
During this same 10-year stretch, however, a single show has dominated the daytime ratings: “The Young and the Restless.”
On Thursday, when Nielsen Media Research officially designated it the top daytime program for the week of July 13-17, the CBS soap opera registered its 500th consecutive week as the highest-rated daytime series. It’s an astounding streak that dates back to Dec. 26, 1988.
“It’s a terrific achievement,” says Bill Bell, the co-creator, senior executive producer and executive story consultant for “The Young and the Restless.” “Whenever you get to a milestone, whether it’s 50 or 100 straight weeks at No. 1, it’s something you celebrate. What I like about it is that we’re way out in front of all the competition. It’s not even close. I honestly don’t see us giving up first place for even the indefinite future.”
The success of “The Young and the Restless” is, in part, attributable to the nature of soap operas in general. Soaps are capable of cultivating a rabid viewer loyalty rare in other forms of television. Because these intense, interpersonal dramas air five days a week and unravel at a pace more closely resembling real life, a deeply personal bond can be forged between characters and fans.
But to many of its supporters, there is a definite qualitative difference between “The Young and the Restless” and most of the other soaps in daytime. Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata, the co-authors of a recently released book called “The Young and the Restless: Special Silver Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” applaud the series for its quality writing and acting, as well as for its dedication to traditional soap storytelling.
“ ‘The Young and the Restless’ focuses on romance, love stories, interpersonal relationships and family at the heart of everything,” observes Irwin, a professor of mass communication at Canisius College in New York. “It does that in such a great way, to the exclusion of the very outlandish story lines and unrealistic events that you might see in other soaps. You won’t see aliens landing in [“Y&R;'s” fictional Midwestern setting of] Genoa City [as viewers once did in “General Hospital”] and you won’t see things that are off the deep end.”
Consistency of vision is another quality that has contributed to the show’s enduring popularity. “The Young and the Restless” has been guided by the meticulous hand of Bell since the day he created the show with his wife, Lee Phillip Bell. As a result, Irwin says, the characters and story lines have tended to evolve in a seamless and captivating manner.
"[Bell] is a man who knows exactly what he wants,” observes Eric Braeden, who has portrayed the show’s multimillionaire Victor Newman since 1980. “He has a kind of obsession that is necessary for this type of unparalleled success.”
Last May, Bell stepped down as the series’ head writer and was replaced by Kay Alden. The show hasn’t missed a beat. Alden has been a part of the ‘Y&R;” writing team since 1974, the year after its premiere.
Though he has given up much of the day-to-day operation of the show, Bell is still very much involved in the program and continues to serve as its creative compass.
Irwin says “The Young and the Restless” helped change the face of daytime television by being the first soap to place a strong emphasis on beautiful and handsome performers. Tom Selleck and David Hasselhoff were both members of the “Y&R;” cast at one time.
“The Young and the Restless” also led the way in terms of reflecting the sexual revolution of the ‘70s, boasts Bell.
"[When “Y&R;” began] it was different than anything else that was on the air,” recalls Bell, who also created the CBS soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” with his wife. “There were open-mouth kisses. There were people in their underwear. We weren’t doing it to be sensationalistic. We were trying to show how people really lived.”
Actress Jeanne Cooper remembers the strong public reaction when her Katherine Chancellor Sterling character overcame an alcohol addiction in the ‘70s.
“I can’t tell you how many people sobered up with Katherine,” remembers Cooper, who joined the show during its first year. “To this day I will be out doing something and people will come up and say, ‘I got sober with Katherine.’ I had a really big responsibility after Katherine became sober.”
Soaps, however, are primarily about delivering entertainment and fantasy. Cassata marvels at the amount of attention “Y&R;” producers pay to such matters as lighting and set detail. It all contributes to an aura of romance that is essential to the hourlong show’s allure, she says.
“People love romance. It’s an upper,” states Cassata, a mass communication professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “It’s a very bright show even though it deals with unhappy subjects. People on soaps are beautiful and they look like they’ve never slept. But on ‘Y&R;’ they look particularly beautiful.”
The impact of “The Young and the Restless” has not been limited to the United States. It is seen in more than 30 countries.
“It has universal appeal,” observes Braeden, who won a daytime Emmy Award earlier this year. “One of the most astounding things is that whether I’m standing on the streets in Istanbul, standing at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or standing in Duluth, the reaction is the same--it’s one of worship almost. It’s absolutely stunning the degree of recognition everywhere.”
* “The Young and the Restless” airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on CBS (Channel 2).