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When Y&R arrived this day in 1973, it came in a half-hour format and in a highly competitive daytime landscape.
When Y&R arrived this day in 1973, it came in a half-hour format and in a highly competitive daytime landscape.

The Young and the Restless turns 40: How did this soap survivor live on past its golden age? Add to ...

Forget the glamour, the gossip, the gowns and the countless romantic entanglements. The real story of The Young and the Restless is staying power.

The Young and the Restless, which notches a remarkable milestone today with its 40th anniversary, may still deal with forbidden love, improbable business dealings and, of course, those stunning gossamer frocks, but the show deserves a rightful place in TV history simply for weathering the fickle tastes of viewers and sticking around. Then and now, Y&R is a survivor.

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To most people within the current coveted 18-to-35 viewing demographic, the daytime soap is already a distant memory.

When Y&R arrived this day in 1973, it came in a half-hour format and in a highly competitive daytime landscape. At the time, the most-watched soap on North American television was All My Children – more than 50-million U.S. viewers daily! – followed in succession by the network soapers Another World, The Doctors, As The World Turns, One Life to Live and The Guiding Light.

Both ambitious in scope and simpler in tone, Y&R focused on two very different American lineages: The fantastically wealthy Brooks family, and the decidedly poorer Foster clan. The show endured some early ratings challenges (most notably from the Watergate hearings, which dominated U.S. daytime television in the summer of 1973) but kept plugging away with torrid tales of attractive people in terrible predicaments. By early 1988, Y&R was the most-watched soap opera on daytime television.

It still is today. Back in 1988, Y&R was one of 13 network soaps holding down prime daytime real estate on U.S. television. Fast-forward to present day and the last network soaps standing are Y&R, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives and the Y&R spinoff The Bold and the Beautiful.

By economic necessity, the U.S. daytime TV landscape has changed drastically in recent years. Networks have long since abandoned the costly concept of serialized soap stories in favour of much cheaper-to-produce lifestyle programming like The Chew, The Talk and The Revolution and syndicated daytime fare like Anderson Live and Katie.

As with all the soap survivors, Y&R has faded somewhat in public prominence in recent memory, but back in the show’s golden age, there were few hotter entertainment properties.

Back then, unlike now, it wasn’t a shameful thing to admit you were a fan. During his playing days, Wayne Gretzky was an unabashed aficionado of Y&R and even wangled a guest part on the show in 1981 (playing, oddly enough, a mafia boss). Y&R cast members guested frequently on mainstream talk shows and appeared regularly on magazine covers.

Fan-appreciation events were regular occasions and drew record crowds. The theme park Canada’s Wonderland hosted innumerable soap events in the late 1980s. The format involved fans filling the seats of the park’s Kingswood Theatre for a question-and-answer session with a soap star. More often, the soap star would simply sit on a stool onstage while fans screamed their lungs out.

And very often the loudest screams were reserved for Eric Braeden, who has played the imperious and seemingly priapic Victor Newman on Y&R for the past 33 years. As the show’s resident dastard, Braeden’s character recently married Nikki (Melody Thomas Scott) for the fourth time. Over the years, the nasty Newman has also maintained a tempestuous relationship and even a brief marriage with Ashley (Eileen Davidson), with whom he had a child (though to be fair, she did steal his sperm in order to get pregnant).

What keeps the show running? In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Braeden credits Y&R’s longevity to the show’s ever-revolving writing staff for “tackling contemporary issues. There was disease, there was drug addiction, there were real social issues. It was as real as a soap could be.”

Even TV’s glitziest fantasy factory has to keep it real.

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