... and 8 million people keep watching
by Joan Barthel
New York Times
September 8, 1968
THE STORY THUS FAR...
Young Dr. Bob, who was blinded by flying glass in a lab explosion, faces eye surgery. The accident happened on the day his wife, Sandy, ran away from home. San ran away because she upset at having lost custody of her son Jimmy, who was born in prison while she was doing a stretch for having helped her ex-husband Roy rob a store. Sandy's flight was unnecessary, however, because Roy had decided to return Jimmy to her. This so upset Penny, Dr. Bob's sister, who had married Roy specifically to make a home for Jimmy, that she has gone off to New York. Dr. Bob's ex-wife Lisa has just had a child, Chuckie, out of wedlock. Chuckie's father is Dr. Michael, who was married to Claire, the alcoholic mother of Ellen, who has problems of her own. Ellen once had a child out of wedlock, who was adopted by Dr. David. When Dr. David's wife died, he and Ellen got married, but the child, Dr. Dan, has not been told that Ellen is his real mother. When Dr. David's housekeeper threatened to spill the beans, Ellen hit her with a statue. The housekeeper died, and Ellen went to jail for a while, where she met Sandy. Roy blames himself.
"A soap opera is a kind of sandwich," James Thurber wrote 20 years ago in a memorable series of New Yorker articles. "...Between thick slices of advertising spread 12 minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week."
He was writing about radio soaps, but obviously, judging from the above synopsis of the recent beleaguered status of just some of the folks on television's top-rated daytime program, As the World Turns, the ingredients have remained the same. Only the size of the daily serving has increased. When soaps sloshed over from radio to TV, 15 minutes was deemed the audience's attention span (or threshold of pain). Then on April 2, 1956, As the World Turns became the first TV serial to run for 30 minutes (the race was close: the half-hour EDGE OF NIGHT bowed on the same day, but in a later time slot). Since then, cued by its smashing success, all the new entries in TV's serial sweeps have come in at 30. On Sept. 9, the last two 15-minute holdouts, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW and The Guiding Light, will go half-hour.
And not only that. "On that day, for the first time in the history of television, there will be three serials at 3 o'clock," says Fred Silverman, CBS vice president for daytime programs. He says it in an appropriately awed, what-hate-God-wrought tone, for the cynic may see the 3 o'clock stack-up only as an enormously sadistic Hobson's choice, to the networks it is vitally important in the continuing domination of the daytime.
Once upon a time, CBS had the war won, partly because of its cannily tailored-for-TV dramas like As the World Turns, which has yet to be toppled from first place in the ratings, and partly because of audience loyalty it had built up in radio soaps. (As late as 1960, the network still carried seven radio serials, including the venerable "Ma Perkins." All seven were terminated in the momentous week of Nov. 23, 1960, when after years of unrelieved travail and consistent heartache, everything suddenly came up roses for everybody as storylines took a wildly benign, if somewhat vague, turn: "Ma...sees happiness ahead...")
But NBC plotted and waited. The three TV serials it eventually brought forth - The Doctors, Another World, and Days of our Lives - are the next-highest-rated serials in the latest list of the top 10 daytime shows, topping all sex of CBS's other soaps. ABC, accustomed but not resigned to trailing in the numbers race, has gamely come up with a brand-new entry, One Life to Live, in the latest round of jousting for the jackpot. (And the daytime pot is brimming: in the first half of this year, the networks earned a total of $131,000,000 for the 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. period. The loot depends on the ratings; a one-minute commercial on As the World Turns costs about $16,000; on a low-rated show, only about half that.)
That new show, One Life to Live, is the brainchild of Philadelphia Main Line house-wife-writer, Agnes Nixon, who gets in a few licks of her own: "The newer, younger, more vital shows are coming along. I write a very young show, though not hippie. CBS has just kind of coasted along. Their audience has been getting older; they were not reaching the people who buy Oreo cookies, peanut butter, Crisco, soap flakes, Band-Aids and baby powder. They have been getting the Geritol crowd." A pause. "EDGE OF NIGHT demographics are very old," she adds cheerfully.
So there she is, Mrs. America, sitting "target for the package goods," and numbers say she is mostly watching As the World Turns. The program attracts eight million viewers a day which is about 50 per cent of the available audience, which is phenomenal. "We have that way-ahead feeling," Lyle Hill, the producer of the show, says happily.
He is less happy, however about the idea of a magazine piece about his show, because Procter & Gamble has been offended in the past by snotty stories about soap opera, and Procter & Gamble is his boss. Lyle Hill works for Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency that produces As the World Turns for P&G, which owns it.
"Serials were created to accommodate advertising needs, so most of them are owned by the clients," says Roy Winsor, independent television producer whose two shows, Love of Life and The Secret Storm, are owned by American Home Products. Of the 13 network serials currently televised, only five are not owned by sponsors. The arrangement is neat and extremely effective.
Irna Phillips and her protégée, Mrs. Nixon, created the show [As the World Turns] and sold it to P&G on a royalty basis 12 years ago. Miss Phillips, who has written more words and made more money than any other writer of soaps - she started in radio nearly 40 years ago - still writes the show, along with The Guiding Light. (Writers Guild minimum for a serial writer is $1,750 a week; for established writers such as Miss Phillips and Mrs. Nixon, however, the scale is not too meaningful. Mrs. Nixon earns an undisclosed six-figure amount, annually; Miss Phillips is likely to top even that.) Mrs. Nixon, who wrote LIGHT for a while, as well as Search for Tomorrow, now writes - in addition to One Life to Live - Another World, which was begun by Miss Phillips. It is characteristic of the tight little world of the serial that colleagues frequently become competitors, networks and loyalties are switches, versions of what created what do not necessarily agree, and not only is friend often pitted against friend, but even, in a sense, self competes with self.
For the soap actor, it isn't as easy as it looks. "They work so hard," says Mrs. Nixon, and Dan Curtis, executive producer of Dark Shadows, has put it more bluntly. "We work the hell out of them." At the CBS Broadcast Center on New York's West Side, work on the day's episode of As the World Turns begins at 7:30 A.M., when the show is blocked; it is established where the actors will stand, sit, walk. The director can cameraman are closely involved, and the directorial rebuke, "You walked out of frame," is frequent.
At 9 A.M., actors are made up for dress rehearsal. During the note session, which follows next, lines are discussed and changes are made. "There are scripts you feel you cannot get through," says Helen Wagner. "You just cannot say those words. We have a certain amount of latitude if we have been on a long time, and we don't always lose; sometimes we compromise."
At these note sessions, the director's voice is sometimes important, sometimes not. "Directing a serial can be as imaginative, or as dull, as the imagination of the director," says Agnes Nixon. "If he is a talented and conscientious man, his contribution will be great and he will get things out of the script that the writer hadn't thought of. On the other hand, I know directors who pick up a script and say, 'Well, let's see what this crap's about today.'"
At 1:30 P.M. Eastern time, As the World Turns goes on the air live (it is also taped for relay to the West Coast, and it is becoming more and more usual for serials to be taped for all showings). In this tiny, windowless office at CBS, Lyle Hill lunched on a liverwurst sandwich and a can of Coke and watched his color TV set intently. Less than half-way through the program he suddenly picked up his direct phone to the studio; his ear had picked up a condensed line of dialogue. "Are we long?" he asked sharply. At 2 P.M. precisely, when the show went off the air, Hill's phone rang. It was Irna Phillips from Chicago, who had also been watching. Primarily because of the high stakes, people involved in a serial tend to be answerable to other people, the communications chain is extremely tight-linked and everybody is jumpy as hell.
After air time, the actors get a half-hour break before the afternoon session at which that day's show is rehashed, fights fought, and the next day's script read through and discussed in a "dry rehearsal." By the time an actor leaves the CBS building, he has put in at least a 10-hour day, with hubbub to spare. "Every day is opening night," says Mrs. Nixon. "Every day a Polish wedding."
It is unquestionably a grind, and Helen Wagner says she'd like to return to Broadway, but admits "there's a great temptation to stay put." For if a regular actor in a central role is accepted by the sponsor, the producer, the writer and the audience, he gets tenure (Miss Wagner has played Nancy Hughes for 12 years), a good salary (from about $20,000 to $50,000 a year), and artistic leeway (a character may "go off to New York" for three months so the actress can do summer stock).