They're Happy To Be Hooked
By Agnes Eckhardt Nixon
Chief writer of the current serial ANOTHER WORLD and creator of ONE LIFE TO LIVE, which starts July 15
New York Times
July 7, 1968
Time after tedious time, when critics suffer an aridity of fresh, inventive phrases with which to denigrate a film, play or book, they fall back on "soap opera"; it has become the classic cliché of derogation.
But the critic cannot be singly criticized when his attitude is shared by a good part of the television industry itself. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for example, did not simply fail to give an Emmy to any soap opera: by having no award category for them, it failed to recognize their existence.
Of course, after viewing the recent fiasco of the Emmy awards, it may well be considered a mark of distinction to have been ignored by this group. But the syndrome persists that soap opera is a Never-Never Land where hack writers and inferior producers, directors and actors serve melodramatic pap to a lunatic fringe of female children who grow older but never grow up.
How justified is this attitude? How accurate?
Let us explore this Never-Never Land, its inhabitants, folkways and the commodity it offers in the market place. Of the 33 programs presented during daytime viewing hours, 12 are serials, seven of which are among the top 10 in the national daytime ratings. Each one of these 12 is watched by an average of 6,830,000 viewers - men, women and children. This is more people, in one day, than saw "Life With Father" during its nine years on Broadway. And when one multiplies that number by 12 shows five days a week, 52 weeks a year - well that is either a lot of arrested development or a lot of entertainment.
What is the appeal of the soap opera? What causes them to have millions upon millions of faithful viewers, or, if you will, "addicts"?
For a serial to be successful it must have a compelling story. That story, in turn, must concern interesting, believable characters. And the fact that it is a continuous story, allowing the development of these characters in episode after episode, permits the audience to become deeply involved with what is happening to them.
Our detractors say this becomes a vicarious experience bordering on sickness, but ask the lady who watches one and you'll find it is the very normal empathetic response that a good tale, well told, has held from time immemorial. (When, on the final page, or the final reel, of Gone with The Wind, Rhett Butler has spoken his immortal words or rejection to Scarlett and she then promises herself, "I'll think of it all tomorrow," is there one reader, one viewer in a million, who does not wish he could be a witness to that tomorrow?)
This is what soap opera gives us. There is always tomorrow. A tomorrow fraught with problems, tragedies and traumas, to be sure, with hate mixed with love and sorrow and joy. But how does this differ from life itself? There are more of humanity's horrors to be found in any issue of the daily newspaper than abound in all of Sudsville.
Perhaps it is not mere coincidence that Charles Dickens, one of the greatest creators of immortal literary characters, started his careers as a writer of serialized stories. He knew, and demonstrated with genius, that for a public to stay with a story they had to care about the characters in it. And this is why the people of London, in the middle of the 19th century, waited in queues each month to buy the next installment dealing with the fate of Little Nell, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton or the humorous adventures of Mr. Pickwick.
Though no soap writer suffers the grandiose delusion of being a Charles Dickens, certainly we have learned from him, perhaps by osmosis rather than scholarly scrutiny, that the development of characters in depth, the audience's ability to follow their lives, to love them and hate them, is an intrinsic part of the serial's appeal to its audience. Certainly it is by this very hold that the soap opera has been able to do stories which have performed a public service to the national community in a way which no other kind of television could achieve.
As an example, the axiom and the battle cry of the American Cancer Society is that this disease can be prevented if caught in time. Yet how many people turn off the Society's program or throw away its pamphlets unread because the name strikes terror into their hearts.
It was for this reason that several years ago THE GUIDING LIGHT undertook a campaign to reach the "ostriches" among women viewers, with the message of the Pap Smear test for the prevention of uterine cancer. This story was preceded by painstaking research and detailed planning so that the message would be gotten across by integration into a gripping long-term story with many dramatic elements and no "preaching."
Through the weeks and months of this sequences "Bert" was discovered as a result of the Pap Smear test to have uterine cancer; a hysterectomy was then performed after which she was returned to a normal healthy life. The women who would never have watched or heeded a Cancer Society program, with its obvious public service appeal, were, in effect, a captive audience fo rour message because Bert Bauer was to them like a sister or a very old and dear friend. And though all concerned were extremely pleased by the plaque received from the American Cancer Society, this was far eclipsed by the countless letters from viewers across the country who, believe it or not, really were intelligent enough to know what we had been trying to do and who thanked us for doing it.
A woman from Santa Barbara wrote to say, "Like Bert, I had not gone to my doctor in twelve years. After what happened to her I did go for a Pap Smear test and found that I, too, had uterine cancer. I have now had a hysterectomy, am feeling wonderful and I want to thank you for saving my life."
No Fan of AS THE WORLD TURNS will ever forget when Ellen, an unwed mother, had her baby and give it out for adoption. But quite aside from the compelling story, the sequence was researched with meticulous care and the writer worked at great length with the Children's Aid Society to present to the public - and to thousands of young women who, statistics tell us, yearly find themselves in this situation and do not know where to turn - information on how one can seek help and thus insure that one's baby will find a loving home and parents.
GENERAL HOSPITAL is doing an excellent public service with its long term story of Iris, an alcoholic, who is helped by a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. The subject is presented with great sensitivity and charity and surely as Iris comes to understand that her condition is an illness, not a stigma of character, and that she can be helped by AA, there will be tortured souls among the audience who will thereby find the courage to follow her example.
The young are frequently exposed to articles, books and movies about LSD, some that are good and some that are bad. But no viewer, young or old, who has watched the trevails of Lee Randolph on ANOTHER WORLD can any longer doubt the potential horrors of this chemical mind-expander and the long range destruction it is capable of effecting, not only on the person who has taken it but on future generations.
For a number of years it was the practice of THE GUIDING LIGHT to devote a portion of its Good Friday program to a nonsectarian sermon on the subject of brotherly love and the equality of man. This would always be followed by letters of thanks, approval and of requests for copies of the talks by many ministers and church groups.
While on the subject of man's equality, however, it would be fatuously dishonest to pretend that daytime soap operas have, in the past, done as much toward providing jobs for Negro actors as they should. The serial must stand accused along with the rest of the industry, and the American business establishment in general, in this regard. Nor is a possible explanation - as one person sees it - in any sense a valid excuse. Apathy can at times be more insidious than prejudice because it is less tangible a foe.
There have always been some parts played by Negro actors over the years but certainly when compared with the number of white parts, and the degree of involvement in story, it could not help but appear as a token gesture, no matter how sincere individual attempts to improve the situation may have been.
All this is changing rapidly now, although belatedly. A sequence has been running on ANOTHER WORLD which closely involved a Negro couple, the wife being a legal secretary and the husband a somewhat unsympathetic police detective. On THE DOCTORS a Negro father and his son - who is abjuring his medical profession for personal reasons - are being featured. Everett Chambers, produce of PEYTON PLACE, has announced that beginning July 22 a Negro doctor will become a part of this nighttime serial and by September his whole family will be with him.
And on July 15, when the new soap opera ONE LIFE TO LIVE will have its premiere on ABC, two leading characters will be Negroes with deep, long-lasting story involvement, and as the various plots unfold, there will be other important roles for Negro talent.
And that's how it is in Never-Never Land, folks. We don't get the Emmys or trade kudos but, frankly, we think the thousands of letters we received from our viewers are a much better measure of the success for which we strive.
We are doing a job we like, getting a satisfying response from the audience we are trying to entertain and even have the feeling, at times, of accomplishing something truly worthwhile along the way. So if the critics wish to cite us as a paradigm of puerility we really don't mind. But we do think that these erudite ladies and gentlemen of the press, before they next invoke our names for the purpose of scorn, should be warned that they may actually be paying their target a compliment.