By Kevin Goldman
November 5, 1986
Mary Stuart has seen her share of trouble. In 35 years, she's been married four times and widowed three times, all on daytime television. This time, it looks like she's in a fix no script-writer can get her out of.
NBC announced yesterday that Search for Tomorrow, television's longest-running soap opera, would be canceled. The 30-minute daily program will have its final airing Dec. 26.
So ends the tale that began in the mythical town of Henderson and helped launch the careers of Morgan Fairchild, Susan Sarandon, Jill Clayburgh, Kevin Bacon, Lee Grant and Wayne Rogers, among others. The show, which moved to NBC in 1982, will be replaced by the game show Wordplay beginning Dec. 29 at 12:30 p.m.
When Search for Tomorrow premiered on CBS Sept. 3, 1951, the central character was played by Stuart, whose name on the show - Joanne Gardner Barron Tate Vincente Tourneur - came to reflect her marital exploits.
"I was told last Friday," Stuart said yesterday afternoon, breaking into tears during a telephone interview. "As soon as I was told the producer wanted to see me, I knew we were canceled.
"What could I do? I spent 10 minutes hugging staff and cast and went back to work."
Stuart, who was 22 years old when she began on the series, said she was not sure what she would do after Search for Tomorrow concludes its run. She said Procter & Gamble Productions, which owns the show, had offered her the opportunity to move to one of its other three soaps.
"Search for Tomorrow came to us from CBS after 31 years, but the audience didn't come with it," Brian Frons, vice president for daytime programming at NBC, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "We, therefore, had to treat the show as a new one, not one with a long history."
Ironically, Frons was an executive at CBS in 1982 and recommended the cancellation of Search for Tomorrow from that network. Somewhat like the evil twin brother who always seems to pop up in the soap opera genre, Frons reappeared at NBC and canceled the Procter & Gamble production a second time.
Poor ratings and low acceptance levels from affiliates were factors in the decision, Frons said. Search is last in the daytime ratings race, and is seen on just 72 percent of the NBC-affiliated stations, or approximately 145 outlets.
Procter & Gamble Productions tried several methods for halting the audience erosion. For example, it went on location in Ireland this year, and, said Pam Sussman, Procter & Gamble corporate spokeswoman, "tried more romantic and less melodramatic story lines."
"We've done everything we can to save the show," Sussman said.
But nothing helped. For the week ending Oct. 19, Search was in last place in the daytime ratings, ranking 26th.
In celebration of its 35th anniversary the week of Aug. 27, the show featured taped segments by former cast members at the end of each episode. Such actors as Hal Linden, Don Knotts and Ken Kercheval made appearances reminiscing about their roles.
And will the audience be left in suspense with dangling story lines when Search for Tomorrow runs out of time?
"We're going to make every attempt to close out all plots," said Frons. "We're also hoping for happy endings."
Happier, one hopes, than the ending for Search for Tomorrow.