Sunday, July 1, 2012

Irna Phillips: Three Elements That Make The Daytime Serial Format Popular

Irna Phillips dictated stories to her assistant, Rose Cooperman.
Irna Phillips, considered by many to be the "queen" or "creator" of the daytime serial, was born on July 1, 1901. She died at age 72 on December 22, 1973, following a groundbreaking career that is still influencing the continuing stories being told on television. Below is an essay she wrote late in life about soap opera sharing lessons she learned from her many decades of experience in radio and television.

The modern soap opera is a living thing. It has a pace and pulse and, it sometimes seems, a will of its own. In As the World Turns, for example, the Hughes family is so well established in my mind and the minds of its audience that the family's behavior and responses are largely dictated by what has gone on before. The Hughes family believes in certain values, and it would be uncharacteristic - that is, dishonest - to tamper with those believes in the story. Contrary to popular opinion, the writer of a daytime serial cannot play God, manipulating characters as if they were puppets. The writer who hopes to have a successful series must think of characters as flesh-and-blood entities.

Part of my particular approach to my characters and my program results from my way of working. I never type my stories, nor will I dictate into a tape recorder. Like Scheherazade, I work best before a live audience; and so I dictate to a secretary who takes down what I say, and this gives me the sense of a responding entity out there. Beyond that, I try to put myself into each role. From the time I was a little girl I wanted to be an actress. So when I dictate a script I become all the people. I find great emotional release in this process. I never think of a vast, faceless audience somewhere out there in Televisionland. Rather, I think of myself as my audience and of myself as performer. In the end, I must interest and entertain me or I am unsatisfied. I cannot write about what does not engage my imagination or curiosity.

Where does the serial writer get inspiration? The answer is, from many sources - newspapers, radio (I turn mine on in the early morning), and, of course, from other people. By and large, people are the best source of information about themselves, and I will talk, literally, with everyone. My circle of acquaintances is wide - doctors, lawyers, workingmen, and TV moguls - and I gain something from each of them. I enjoy phoning people who write in to the show. It surprises and pleases them to hear from a live body at the other end of the mails. One correspondent, a music professor in California, wrote to complain that she felt I had hurt the cause of women's liberation in a script that urged one of my characters, a girl named Susan, to remain at home with her child instead of going out to work. The letter writer was astonished to get my call, and we found we were not so far apart as her letter implied.

I have been told that my programs reflect traditional American values - by which I suppose are meant a belief in God, patriotism and the virtues of a cohesive family unit. I suppose that is right, but it is an oversimplification. I also believe in, and try to reflect, some of today's problems and aspirations. I think my young people are "with it," in the sense that they are concerned about things most young people worry about. One of my characters recently graduated from law school. He did not choose a lucrative private practice, he went into neighborhood law - not quite a storefront lawyer, but almost. He is also very much "into" organic foods and the practical, manual skills which so many of today's young people are turning. Or returning.

With these complications have come the added ones of producing a program on television, as opposed to radio. Radio was a perfect medium for presenting drama. It was possible to paint almost any scene, construct any set, arrange any situation simply by leaving things to the imagination of the listener. A train whistle, the hiss of steam, the voice of a train caller and - presto! - you had created Grand Central Station. You might as easily whisk your audience to a city sidewalk or hospital corridor, with a few instructions to the special-effects department. To perform the same tricks in television requires the extra expenditure of thousands of dollars in sets or the movement of your entire crew and cast to a location somewhere. In the end, the result is still not as good as the mental pictures the audience builds for itself from radio.

Still, soap opera is trying to break the bonds that have held it to a studio for all these years. On AS THE WORLD TURNS, for example, we have begun to experiment with location tapings for special events including the wedding of two main characters.

The mechanics of the soap opera have become enormously more complex since the days of radio when I began to write (and act on) my first original, PAINTED DREAMS. I got that assignment when a programming man called and asked if I could write a family situation show. I had never written one, but I replied, "Of course I can." I never said no to anything. In those days we did everything. We wrote the scripts, directed the shows, played the roles, and did the sound effects. It was a wondrously free and creative time. We didn't worry about things like ratings or censorship.

What I try to avoid are fads. Programs that try to stay on top of every turn in the public fancy are doomed to a kind of restless wandering. The writer cannot properly maintain his characterization by this kind of device. Among the daytime dramas now on the networks, it is possible to find several that are engaged in such a hopeless pursuit. One network had murder trials going on in four of its daytime programs at once.

I often listen to other soap operas, not to imitate but to avoid imitation. In many cases, I have shuffled entire synopses because other programs anticipated a plot line that I was considering. But basically I write in a way to please myself. I think the 40 years I have spent writing serials make me a fairly good judge of what plays and what does not.

In a sense, the Nielsen - which, after all, is based on samplings taken in only a limited number of homes in the country - has become a kind of tyrant of the industry. It not only guides the thinking of sponsors and agencies about whether to cancel this program or that, but in the cast of daytime drama it may even dictate what the writer must do with story lines. There is no arguing with the ratings; they stand unassailable in the minds of the network executives and many advertising agencies, who decide how the sponsors' dollars are spent. (I should hasten to add that my own association with my sponsors over the years has been gratifyingly open, honest, and straightforward.) Scheherazade would never have made it throughout a thousand and one nights if Nielsen had been around.

What has kept the audiences involved in daytime drama for all these years? Two great human events were largely responsible for the success of the early years. During the Great Depression and World War II, people had a tremendous need for human contact. Families were drawn closer, even while being rent by the tragedy of privation and war. Communication was important, identification imperative. Daytime drama answered much of the longing these people felt for meaningful and accessible escape and identification. Today, I credit these two elements, plus a third, for the continuing popularity of the daytime serial format. The third factor is a sense of conviction. Taken in order:

1. Escapism. While I reject the theory that the U.S. housewife is a downtrodden and unchallenged slave to her kitchen, I do recognize that her life, as all of ours, contains a degree of tedium and monotony. I think the soap opera listener, therefore, out to be given some insights into other lives and life-styles. She (or he) should be offered the chance to participate vicariously in problem solving, from minor matters such as how to settle a family quarrel to weightier issues such as crime, punishment, and retribution. The listener should be asked to think a little. With it all, there should be some means to achieve the second element:

2. Identification. It is a perilous practice among dramatic writers to allow their situations or characters to become too remote from the average listener. On As the World Turns, for example, I have tried to keep my characters on a life-size scale. They are well off, but not wealthy. They are average in intelligence. My villains (though I reject the concept of the totally irretrievable character) are never so villainous that the listener turns away in disgust. There must be that element of universality in everything - that something that causes the listener to say, "Yes, I have felt that way," or "I have known someone very much like that."

3. Conviction. I suppose there is a little of the evangelist in all of us, and I am no exception. I have always tried to impart a point of view to my stories, to carry a message, if you will, that I believe is important for the viewer to hear. It is not a heavy-handed message, I hope, but one that comes across only from prolonged exposure to a program like The Guiding Light or As the World Turns.

What is the message? Nothing earthshaking. I have tried to let my programs convey my own faith in the family unit - not necessarily the unit of yesterday, but also the possible unit of today and tomorrow. I believe in a stable home, in healthy mental attitudes, in discipline, and in cooperation. The critics say, "But why then do soap operas convey such a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of lives gone wrong?" First of all, I don't believe they do; but as for the tragedy that is seen, I can only point out that unrelenting bliss can be (in dramatic terms) as tedious as unrelenting misery. It is true, however, that there is a school of serial writing that might be characterized as "never a dull moment." I try to leaven my story lines with problems of the sort anyone may encounter from time to time - some of us, to be sure, more often than others. These troubles, or tragedies, are a kind of crucible in which I try to expose the inner strengths and weaknesses of my characters. I ask myself what forms escapism should take - on television or in real life. Many people today simply do not want to face reality, and they look to television to escape it. I believe that answering their need is part of my mission as a writer.

Even Scheherazade must have felt that her storytelling was more than an exercise in lifesaving.

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