Present and past cast members celebrate Y&R's 10,000th episode (CBS)

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers The Young And The Restless, which has been running since 1973.

One hundred episodes is an impressive achievement for any scripted television show, but what if your format mandates producing more than two times that amount every year, year after year? All of this with no designed end, no reliance on repeats or hiatuses, and no designated seasons to build your story arcs around? Thus is the challenge—and sometimes freedom—of the daytime soap opera, of which The Young And The Restless currently stands as the vanguard. But what does it mean to be the best of a genre that’s barely holding on in this modern media landscape?

To understand just how far the daytime soap opera in America has fallen, just look back at its height: In 1981, General Hospital rode the Luke and Laura romance to a daytime-leading average of 14 million viewers, with an astonishing 30 million tuning in for their eventual wedding. In comparison, current-day first-place show The Young And The Restless averages barely 5 million viewers. Audience erosion isn’t a problem specific to daytime soap operas, but the constricting format—constant new content, five days a week, one hour a day, with few breaks—makes adapting to the erosion far more difficult. As a result, daytime soap operas have gone from 15 series in 1981 to only four today, with the fate of some of the remaining series in constant jeopardy.

It wasn’t always like this. When William J. Bell and wife Lee Phillip Bell created The Young And The Restless in 1973, networks were looking to get further into the daytime soap business, not running away from it. William Bell, a protégé of soap pioneer Irna Phillips, was a hot commodity in the soap world, having written ratings-boosting runs on Guiding Light, As The World Turns, and Days Of Our Lives. CBS was so eager to be in the Bell business that the network agreed to a show before it was even created, granting him practically a free pass to create exactly the show he wanted. What he created both respected the current conventions of the genre by focusing the story on two main families, but also revolutionized it, by making younger characters the story focus and bringing Hollywood production values to daytime. Although the show struggled to gain market share in its first few years, creatively it came out of the gate extremely strong, winning the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1975.

The Young And The Restless of 1973 was very different than the show it is today. The show launched as a half-hour program focusing on the Brooks and Foster families, and only one original character remains today: Jill Foster. This seismic creative shift wasn’t the result of a conscious retooling, but one of necessity: When CBS decided to expand the series to one hour in 1980, many of the original actors opted out of their contracts. Bell was forced to either recast the roles of many of his main players all at once, or completely reconfigure the show around new characters. Bell’s decision to jettison most of the original Brooks and Foster families and build a new foundation by bringing minor characters Paul Williams and Jack Abbott to the forefront was a feat unprecedented in the daytime world, especially with such resounding success. Not only did viewers accept the new characters, but the show actually gained viewers during the potentially rocky transition.

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When The Young And The Restless expanded to one hour, Bell might have been forced to get rid of many of his original characters, but the building blocks to create the show as we know it today were already there. Chief among these were the feud between Katherine Chancellor (portrayed by soap legend Jeanne Cooper) and Jill Foster, the love story between Nikki Newman (née Reed) and Victor Newman, and the rivalry between Jack Abbott and Victor Newman, which spread to the entire Abbott and Newman families as a whole.

Female rivalries are extremely important story drivers in daytime drama. Katherine and Jill’s unique love/hate relationship—which started when Jill got pregnant from an affair with Katherine’s husband—fueled YR storylines from the time of Katherine’s debut in the show’s earliest days until Cooper’s death in 2013, which also meant the death of the iconic Katherine Chancellor. Over the years, the rivals went back and forth from enemies to friends, then to mother and daughter, then finally respected friends for good, and all portrayed with steely grace by both Cooper and Jess Walton (although Jill was portrayed by several actresses throughout the years, most consider Walton the definitive Jill). Katherine and Jill’s decades-long story exemplifies the triumphs of character development the never-ending format of a daytime soap opera can allow, by giving audiences years and years of story history to color and shape every interaction between the characters.

Successful soap-opera storytelling also relies on the development of a solid core romantic pairing, and The Young And The Restless found that with Nikki and Victor Newman. Like the creative renaissance brought on by the show’s forced expansion to one hour, the rise of Victor Newman was also a bit of a happy accident. Cast as a short-term villain slated to die after only a few months, Eric Braeden’s performance as Newman forced Bell to reconsider and rehabilitate the villainous character into something more palatable to viewers by giving him a tragic background. It was his romance with kindhearted stripper Nikki Reed, however, that truly cemented their relationship as the foundation for the show going forward. The Newman family was not an original family in Bell’s design, but it has evolved into the family most associated with the show by present and past fans alike.

Victor and Jack’s explosive relationship remains the source of many of the show’s most successful storylines over the past three decades. The two men are competitors in business—the Newman and Abbott families own rival companies—and also in romantic pursuits. Most notable was the period in the ’80s and ’90s when Jack was married to Victor’s true love, Nikki, and Victor was married to Jack’s sister Ashley, creating a twisted love quadrangle.

In writing The Young And The Restless, Bell created an ongoing story structure that always left viewers waiting for the next development, while paying off emotional and story developments in a controlled, careful manner. Couples would be kept apart for as long as possible, then after their supposed happy ending, their relationships received complications almost immediately. Bell knew he had to keep audiences satisfied, and that meant giving small payoffs each and every day. Not satisfied for viewers to only tune in to one “big” episode a week (usually on Fridays), Bell stressed, “I don’t go for repetition. I want to have something important happen in every episode so that the viewers can’t watch [the show] casually every other day.” In Bell’s biography, his son Brad called his father’s unique storytelling style “folding it back in,” meaning that a story wouldn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end. Instead, in the middle it would “take a diversion, which would start a whole new story.” This allowed storylines to go on for months or even years, keeping viewers entertained the entire way. Bell was able to tell stories that always had a memory and a history, relying on the audience’s knowledge of a character’s past as much as their uncertain future.

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As iconic as the characters Bell created were, the most recognizable aspect of The Young And The Restless to the world at large is likely its theme song. Selected by Bell and his wife and show co-creator Lee Phillip Bell, “Nadia’s Theme” was originally composed as “Cotton’s Theme” by Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. for the film Bless The Beasts And Children. The song became successful even beyond the show, thanks to ABC’s Wide World Of Sports’ decision to use it to score the re-broadcast of a Nadia Comaneci gymnastics routine during the 1976 Olympics games. Nadia made the song a commercial hit outside of the show, but the association with The Young And The Restless is what it will be best remembered for.

Although Bell’s introduction of new production techniques, innovative storytelling style, and creation of iconic characters began in the 1970s, the show wasn’t rewarded with consistent No. 1 ratings until December of 1988, when it took the top spot in the daytime ratings and remains there to this day. At the same time the show gained dominance in the ratings, however, the actual total number of viewers for daytime soap operas started dropping. Numerous causes led to the decline in soap viewership—including changing lifestyles, additional competition from reality and cable programming, and an increase in serialized storytelling in primetime—but viewer attrition caused a veritable bloodbath for the genre. When Bell retired in 1998 and handed oversight of his show to other writers, there were 11 daytime soap operas. Today, only four remain: YR, The Bold And The Beautiful, General Hospital, and Days Of Our Lives.

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One event frequently cited as devastating for the soap opera genre was the O.J. Simpson trial, which caused soap preemptions for months and frustrated regular viewers. By the time the trial was finished, daytime soap operas had lost around 10 percent of their audience, who then never returned. But CBS Daytime’s president at the time of the trial, Lucy Johnson, stated in Bell’s biography, The Young And Restless Life Of William J. Bell:

The world would like to blame that trial [for] the demise of soap operas, but the demise had already started due to lifestyle changes. Computers were becoming more prominent, and cable was always an active competitor. There was a huge social shift in the ’90s.

In the face of the declining viewership of the entire daytime soap opera oeuvre, how do the soaps that do remain survive? Soap operas are uniquely generational, “passed on” from an older generation of viewers to a younger one. If soaps cannot attract that next generation, viewership will naturally decline. The obvious answer for this problem is to actively court new and younger viewers, which The Young And The Restless attempted with near-disastrous results in the mid-2000s. Like other scripted shows, soap operas are highly reflective of the head writer hired to helm the writing staff. Just like the showrunner of primetime, a head writer in daytime is responsible for all aspects of the show’s production, from casting decisions to storyline and day-to-day script writing and supervision. In 2005, experienced primetime writer Lynn Marie Latham was hired to overhaul YR for a more modern audience and bring a primetime sensibility to daytime. The results—veteran characters sidelined, pacing accelerated, and character-driven stories turned into plot-driven stories—were resoundingly rejected by loyal audiences. The 2007 WGA writer’s strike forced Latham from the show and brought back William Bell’s daughter-in-law Maria Arena Bell, who agreed to work outside union purview and quickly returned the show to the style approved of by longtime viewers.

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Despite 2007’s creative resurgence, total viewers continue to dwindle even as The Young And The Restless remains on top of the ratings. This has forced the show to adjust in other ways, like bringing down the budget by reducing the number of sets and forcing veteran actors to take significant pay cuts. Several actors, including Eric Braeden (Victor), Jess Walton (Jill), and Melody Scott Thomas (Nikki), briefly left the show during contract disputes, only to return after agreeing to smaller salaries. Primetime shows can quickly reduce ongoing costs by reducing episode orders. Daytime soaps are far less flexible due to the very nature of the format, a mostly five-day, 52-week schedule to maintain the viewers they do have. Cutting salaries and reducing production budgets in other ways—long gone are the sumptuous costumes of the ’80s and ’90s, for example—are almost the only way the genre can adapt to survive, especially after more experimental ventures like the Prospect Park online continuation of All My Children and One Life To Live failed so spectacularly.

While the overall daytime soap-opera landscape is dire, The Young And The Restless has responded by surviving—and sometimes even thriving—in this more cutthroat environment. In 2012 it celebrated its 10,000th episode (by ending Victor Newman’s inconvenient—and viewer-loathed—amnesia story), an impressive milestone. The show also is still committed to telling stories that reward longtime viewers, like the payoff of a story in which “vixen” Phyllis ran down “good girl” Christine with her car in 1994—which the audience always knew but Christine did not find out until 2012. It’s this type of history and storytelling that can’t quite be replicated in any other format, and at which The Young And The Restless has always excelled. Hopefully, YR will be able to continue to do for a long time to come, even as it faces declining viewership and an uncertain future.