'Days of Our Lives' 45th Anniversary: Executive producer Ken Corday looks back with EW
Image Credit: Trae Patton/NBCYesterday, NBC announced that its long-running—and sometimes possessed-character featuring—soap opera Days of Our Lives had been renewed for two more years, with an option for an additional third year. The new contract ensures that the daytime drama will be on the air through at least September 2013. And no surprise, the news corresponded with a milestone for the show—its rather amazing 45th anniversary of being on the air. That’s a feat, when you consider that major soaps have been killed off both this year and last. (R.I.P., As the World Turns and Guiding Light.)
To celebrate the moment, the network has sanctioned a sure-to-be-fan-favorite picture book, Days of Our Lives 45 Years: A Celebration in Photos; a load of fan events; and today, the soap broke its fourth wall, with longtime character Maggie (Suzanne Rogers) telling fans simply at the end of the episode: “Today, we’re celebrating 45 years of Days of Our Lives. Our families have been through a lot together, and today we especially want to thank you for being with us through it all and to let you know that we are looking forward to many more years of all of us sharing…the Days of Our Lives.” That was, hilariously, after we cut from an episode-ending scene with Maggie trapped in a tombish casket at the hands of nemesis Vivian (Louise Sorel). Oh, the irony of working in daytime drama! So silly, yet so earnest.
To celebrate here at EW, we decided to check in with Days of Our Lives‘ longtime executive producer Ken Corday, the man behind the show and the owner of Corday Productions, the company that producers the soap. Corday talked about his favorite episodes (hint: he’s a sucker for the Hortons’ holiday traditions!), storylines he regrets (yah, those possession episodes went on too long), and his hopes for the future of soap operas. Read on for more:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Days has been a familial labor of love for 45 years now. What would you say is the key to your success?
KEN CORDAY: My mother’s golden rule is that you’re only as good as your last show, so don’t rest on your laurels. You can’t sit back and say that you were wonderful a year ago and expect to stay on the air especially in a time where viewers are persnickety.
But that doesn’t mean you blow up the show every couple of years, does it?
Well, you can’t do that. The viewers keep track of things far better than I do, and also we’re dealing with the likes of someone like Stefano or Maggie or Victor—very good actors—and a lot of time a new writer will come in and say, “Oh they’re old, the network doesn’t want to see old people,” so they don’t get written. I would say that in the last few years, those three actors have had as much to do as actors in their 30s or 40s—or 20s! That’s refreshing.
So, Days of Our Lives is celebrating its 45th anniversary this week. You’ve got the special photo book coming out, but you doing anything to celebrate?
We’ll break the fourth wall one day, to thank the fans. And there will be a massive amount of fan events, a second book launch, a celebration of 45 years pictorial—and my memoir has been out since May. But we don’t get a lot of press.
Really? You get a lot of press in the soap press.
True. The time we get press is when we get renewed, and we make the business sections of the Los Angeles Times and they’re like, “Can you believe another blank amount of years for Days?” But if I walked over and killed the lead actress of the show or my wife found me in bed with her and killed us both, I doubt it would make front page news.
It did happen in Brazil. There were two actors who were the leads in the biggest soap in Brazil and they had an affair, I don’t know which spouse caught them and murdered them.
It was a relatively big deal in mainstream press with Drake Hogestyn and Dedire Hall left a couple of years ago.
Well, they left the show the year Obama took office, so it was two years ago. I had conversations with both of them and I said, “Well that doesn’t mean you’re not coming back.” The actors could choose to not come back, but there’s a time and a place for everything.
Well, you’ve had other big actors who’ve left and came back. So there’s a possibility that they could still come back?
Of course, of course.
They’re still a part of the family, no?
At the memorial service for Frances Reid [the actress who played matriarch Alice Horton and died Feb. 3, 2010], I only asked five actors to speak, and Dedire Hall was one of them, and she had everyone in stitches because she’s blue with her testimony, but I think she’s still part of the family.
Will soaps ever resurge as a format? Could there be another golden era for them?
I do think there could be, but I think it will be in a reformatted situation. I don’t think you will see standard soaps from noon to three in the afternoon. We look to primetime, and we see our formula with a bit of a twist is working out on a lot of shows and on cable. So can we reinvent Days so to speak and put it on at night or in a foreign market R rated? Yes. Can we launch a lot of new soaps in the daytime hours? A tougher call. There hasn’t been a new one in a while.
The most recent was NBC’s Passions, which was a personal—and complete cult—fave.
Correct. That came out in 1999, I believe. God rest Jim Reilly, because he wrote that show and created it and then he came and wrote this show and was writing Passions, which was problematic. How do I say this? Passions was so antithetical to what a soap was. It was completely ridiculous and out of control, much like The Office was when it came on here. It broke so many of the rules, constantly with actors looking at cameras. I think people in general either really loved it or rejected it.
Speaking of Passions, after it was cancelled, Days picked up three of the show’s biggest actors in Lindsay Hartley, Galen Gering, and Eric Martsolf. Was that an NBC thing?
Definitely not. Galen Gering especially came over playing completely different roles then he did on Passions. You won’t see him in the same dynamic in his portrayal as you saw on that show. Two of the others that came, Eric Martsolf and Lindsay Hartley—Eric he is somewhat similar to the character he played over there, and Lindsay has come to the show and will be leaving the show, so no, it wasn’t conscientiously, Let’s go get Passions actors and put them on the show. There’s just good talent available. That’s all.
When you encounter people on the streets and they realize that you’re the man behind Days of Our Lives, how do they react?
I never tell them! I try to make it a point to just have them take me at face value. But yes, when they find out, there’s a whole different demeanor. I want to be treated as Ken, not Ken-slash-owner of Days of Our Lives. However, the first thing that they ask is will you tell me what’s going to happen with this story. Is it really true that this actor does this with her hair? Just the standard let-me-in-on-the-inside stuff. I love it. I love doing signings across the country with a star of the show—say, with Kristian Alfonso. Just watching the way fans react to her! Because they’re here to see Ken sign this book, then—look who’s there! It’s just fervent. It’s unbelievable. It’s what keeps us on the air.
Do you have a favorite storyline from all the years you’ve worked on the show?
You’re going to find this odd, because every decade had its high watermark storyline. The tradition of every Christmas is my favorite, the Hortons putting up a Christmas tree, hanging their ornaments—or “hanging their balls” is the inside joke—every one with their own name, that resonates so much with the viewers who have either been there for three or five year—or 35 years. That, to me, says a lot about the show. Just those one or two episodes. To pick a story excludes others and it’s like asking me what my favorite song is. Real tough.
What storylines do you regret doing?
It’s not so much the storylines I regret doing, it’s that sometimes thinking you’ve got more than you have and stretching them out too long and getting burned by thinking you’re better than you are. Those are the regrets I have. Sometimes we jump into something that’s a total failure and those numbers come back pretty quickly, and we’ll bail. No—it’s kind of tough to regret. We did do Marlena was possessed. Remember, The Exorcist was only about 25 years old at the time, and [writer] Reilly walked into my office and said we’re going to do a storyline with Marlena possessed. And I said we’re going to do The Exorcist? He said, “That’s right.” I said, “We’re going to do a feature film?” And he said, “No, we’re going to make it great. It’s a serial.” It was supposed to last three months, starting somewhere around Halloween and ending with a Christmas miracle. And he dragged it into Easter, and he ended it literally with John Black just standing over her saying one “Our Father,” and that story was over. People remember because the effects were so strange. Here’s this wonderful, goddess of beauty, wisdom, and light, and she’s floating around with green eyes doing horrible things. That’s an eye opener.
When filming outlandish things like that, how’s the mood on set?
Very serious. If we screwed it up we’re going to be there another 20 minutes. Each minute is thousands of dollars. They read the script, and they know as absurd as it’s going to be, we’re going to go in there and get out at five. Going back to her being possessed, that also came, I believe, at the same time as the O.J. Simpson trial. We were the only show that went up in the ratings at that time, and the judge would always gavel at noon precisely for some reason and take that hour break for that trial that went on forever. And if you noticed, on his judge’s podium desk, he had like 15 hourglasses. He might have been a closet Days fan.
What is the origin of the iconic symbol of the show, the hourglass?
Of course, Days of Our Lives comes from the twenty-third Psalm. My father once said that the hourglass is symbolic of life because there are so many moving pieces—so to speak—in one place. Each grain is a day of our lives. So it is symbolic. The original time piece, et cetera. How do I quantify it? It stuck. It worked.
Why do you still do the halftime announcement of “And we will return for the second half of Days of Our Lives in just a moment…”?
I tell you, it was always there from the beginning. MacDonald Carey’s voice is the one you hear at the front, and I like hearing it at the halfway mark. It just let’s people know, OK, go to the refrigerator and get the other half of the sandwich, and we’ll be right back.
Days was always famous for being popular with the younger set, compared to other soaps. That still the case?
Still the case. We will be in the demo the 18 to 49 demographic, somewhere around second place. It’s tough to beat The Young and the Restless. Their lead in is The Price is Right, a mass syndication lead in across the nation. We don’t. In 40 percent of our markets, it’s infomercials. But 18 to 34 became the most important demo in the programmers’ eyes. Not necessarily advertisers eyes. We’ve been consistently in the top one, two, or three there for many years. I think we held the No. 1 ranking for over 10 years.
Why does the show resonate so well with younger viewers?
A younger viewer—let’s say 18 to 25—doesn’t necessarily want to watch characters of the same age. They want characters that are a little bit older, going through a period of time that they are about to go through. So you take that all the way up the ladder and, interestingly enough, some of the younger viewers do like watching Victor and Maggie and Stefano do their senior bit. It’s really hard to quantify it. We found when we gave more airtime to the over-34 actors, it didn’t touch the 18 to 34 rating. I don’t think teenagers or really young people necessarily want to watch stories about teenagers or really young people. And our viewers that are over 50 love watching the young people.
With, say, Alison Sweeney, who’s been on the show for years, how do you keep her character interesting?
Good example that you picked, because Allison is a very driven person. We often have quarterly conversations—she and I alone—where we talk about her character and how her character can grow. Not just continue to do the idiotic or Sami’s-her-own-worst-enemy stories. But, you know, character growth. Can she ever grow up to be anything but her own worst enemy? And the answer is: Oh, yes. She takes five steps forward, but then takes one massive step back. She commits basically homicide today and tomorrow. We talk about this a lot. But you have to have character growth and character development—either growing up or down, sideways whatever, so the viewer doesn’t say, “Oh, I know where this is going to end up. I’ve seen him or her do this before.”
Alison is arguably your biggest star now, and she does other projects—notably, she’s the host of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. How do you keep her from wanting to just leave the show totally?
She’s a very smart cookie. She realizes that she came in on the show when she was 16. It’s not that she owes us anything, but this is where her bread was buttered for a long time. This is her fan base. So perhaps the day will come when she’s the star of her own show, but perhaps, hopefully, on NBC. But it’s great that she has these forays out on The Biggest Loser. She’s smart. She still knows this is home for her, and we just recently resigned with her.
You just got renewed for two more seasons, with an option for a third season. So there is a future for the supposedly dying soap industry?
There’s a three-point answer. One, you have to at times economically branch out how you do the show. So we are now doing seven shows in five days, sometimes eight shows. That saves us a lot of money. Second, I think the time will come in the next two to five years where you will see one soap on each network—only the strongest will survive. And the third and most important, you can quote this. [Former head of NBC] Jeff Zucker and I spoke sometime in mid-July when we were renegotiating, and I said, “Jeff, you’re still the boss and it’s going to end up in your lap, what do you think?” And he said, “Ken, I’d love to see the show hit 50. It’s amazing that it has hit 45.” It’s the longest running dramatic show on NBC, but 50 would be very precedential. So I say the glass is half full if not more, but you can’t ignore the fact that there are so many alternatives.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky