Doyenne of Daytime
Agnes Nixon launches her first new soap in 13 years
By Richard Stengel; Reported by Peter Ainslie
August 15, 1983
The tribulations in this academic community go far beyond publish or perish. There is the oh-so-smooth college president who is scheming to become a political bigwig. There is the cuckolded football coach whose wanton wife is exchanging signals with the star quarterback. There is the ogreish dean who keeps his pristine daughter locked away in his gothic manse. Meanwhile, no one seems to be paying much attention to books, lectures, homework or grades. That is because Alden University exists only in a mythical grove called Soapland and in the mind of a woman who creates worlds that flicker on the mental screens of millions.
That woman is Agnes Nixon, 55, the acknowleged doyenne of daytime drama, the wizard of such ongoing washboard weepers as ONE LIFE TO LIVE, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, ALL MY CHILDREN, ANOTHER WORLD, AS THE WORLD TURNS and THE GUIDING LIGHT, each of which she either created or once served as head writer. And now there is the freshly minted college town of Corinth, the setting for LOVING, ABC's first new soap opera in eight years and Nixon's first new soap in 13.
LOVING, which airs daily at 11:30 a.m. E.D.T., is only five weeks old and thus far ranks among the least buoyant of the soaps: No. 11 of 13 last week. But a new entry needs time, often as much as two years, to find both a following and a rhythm. ABC is not worried. Nixon has had a successful serial on TV five days a week, every week, for the past 27 years.
Soaps have long been a bonanza for the networks. Daytime programs contribute about 20% of network revenues, but because of their modest production costs they yield a disproportionate 35% to 40% of network profits. Nixon can take credit for generating more of the networks' daytime revenue than any other individual. With the sales of her shows and her annual six-figure income, she has become a multimillionaire.
Although she once dictated a niagara of dialogue into a tape recorder every week, Nixon today works only on the daily plots and long-term story projections for LOVING and ALL MY CHILDREN. She supervises like a master marionetteer, manipulating her characters from above, dictating their future actions as much as nine months in advance.
If life were a soap opera, then Nixon would undoubtedly be the inspiring heroine who weathers the storm and stress with a patient smile and unwearying resilience. The daughter of a burial-garments manufacturer in Nashville, Aggie Eckardt yearned to write drama. After she graduated from Northwestern University's School of Speech in 1946, her skeptical father got her an audience with the querulous queen of soap opera, the prolific Irna Phillips, creator of THE GUIDING LIGHT and ANOTHER WORLD. Agnes was hired on the spot to be a soap writer in Chicago.
In 1951 she created her first serial, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, and moved to Philadelphia after marrying Bob Nixon, a Chrysler executive. The lone child of divorced parents, Agnes craved a big family. Soon, she recalls, "I was doing a 15-minute show at home and having babies and rearing them [four in all]. It was a cottage industry. I was just this strange mother in the suburbs of Philadelphia who wrote soap operas. And then it grew like Topsy and I sort of grew with it." As she grew, she also forced soap opera to grow up.
Perturbed by critics who accused soaps of being a wasteland of roiling organ music and shallow emotions, Nixon began to inject social themes into her shows. The breakthrough came in 1968 when she created ONE LIFE TO LIVE, which transported soap opera from the age of innocence and prudery to a controversial new world of relevance and physical love. Suddenly, there were not only pregnant pauses but pregnant teenagers. ONE LIFE had sequences involving premarital sex, drug addiction and racism, and integrated assorted ethnic types into the white-bread Waspiness of Soapland. Nixon even introduced a sympathetic child abuser in order to explain that "these people are sick, not criminals." The show flashed a hot-line number for people seeking help to call after the show. People did.
Nixon is canny enough to know that while controversy may capture a viewer's attention, only character will keep it. Pinned above her desk at home near Philadelphia, Nixon notes, is a quotation reminding her that "situations change, but human nature does not." Her fictional children may suffer from Viet Nam Flashback Syndrome or venereal disease, but their real problems are always rooted in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart. According to ABC Vice President JoAnn Emmerich, Nixon's secret is that she "knows who the character is before she starts writing: they are characters who have a history." In a genre where amnesia was once a more common ailment than headaches, Nixon is often the poet of the quotidian: her characters can be as petty, venal and trite as those in real life.
Her most enduring characters, like TV's bitch goddess Erica Kane, ALL MY CHILDREN's suburban lago, inhabit the unconscious of America. Future sociologists may watch reruns of Nixon's soaps the way students today read Dickens. Indeed, like the didactic lady novelists of the 19th century, Nixon wants to impart a moral with her melodrama. She affirms, "I'm a writer, but I'm also a teacher." That message, in the current patois of network executives translates as "prosocial values," by which they mean virtue triumphant. But Nixon's meaning is subtler: it is the notion that nothing human is alien.