Irna Phillips created the soap opera in 1929, but it was one of her protégées, writer/producer Agnes Nixon, who reinvented it in the 1960s and seventies by injecting scripts with socially relevant and politically charged topics such as racism, child abuse, abortion, and the antiwar movement. In doing so, Nixon helped capture new audiences—including men and college students—at a time when the traditionally female viewer base for soap operas was being eroded by women entering the work force. Nixon’s impetus for altering the makeup of the daytime serial was not only pragmatic—as audiences change, so must popular entertainment—but also a reaction to the genre’s image. In the fifties and sixties, “soap opera” had turned into “a cliché term of denigration,” said Nixon, who wrote for such soaps as The Guiding Light and Another World, was the cocreator of As the World Turns and Loving, and was the sole creator of One Life to Live and All My Children. Nixon once explained how she was able to develop such a multitude of plots, over so many years: “Life is fascinating,” she said, “and if you look at your family and your friends and you have a writer’s viewpoint, you can see each person’s life as a soap opera in itself.”
The only child of divorced parents, Nixon grew up in Tennessee where she often played alone, directing a troupe of paper dolls through various complicated scenes and stories of her own devising. Like her mentor Irna Phillips, Nixon originally set her sights on a career as an actress, but upon arriving at Northwestern University’s School of Speech, she recognized that writing was her true métier.
Nixon’s education was financed by her father, a manufacturer of burial garments with whom she had had little contact as a child, but who expected Nixon to repay him by joining his shroud business. (This reality became fodder for One Life to Live when Nixon created a character, Victoria Lord, with a very demanding father.) Nixon’s father belittled her writing talents and ambitions, and, in an attempt to quash them completely, arranged for her to meet Irna Phillips, to whom he was connected through a friend in Chicago. According to Nixon, her father thought Phillips would dismiss her, but instead, after reading aloud a student effort by Nixon, Phillips offered her a job writing dialogue for the radio serial Woman in White, at $100 a week. No amount of money would ever again seem as great, Nixon said, “because it bought freedom.”
Her stint with Phillips laid the groundwork for a career as a professional scriptwriter, and Nixon moved to New York, drawn by the promise of a new medium, television. As a freelancer, she contributed to such shows as Studio One, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Robert Montgomery Presents. In 1951, Nixon married auto executive Robert Nixon, and, in less than five years, had four children.
Though eager to keep working, Nixon no longer lived in New York, and she had her children to take care of. Irna Phillips reentered her life by approaching Nixon to write for The Guiding Light, then airing on both television and radio. Nixon and Phillips worked through the mail; Phillips would send her a story outline, and Nixon would first fill in the dialogue for the television script and then adjust the same script to make certain everything could be “seen” by a radio audience. It was an ideal working arrangement for Nixon, who was able to stay at home with her children and still maintain a career as a writer.
Nixon eventually became the head writer for The Guiding Light, and in 1964 she created a story line with lasting impact about a character who develops uterine cancer. The show encouraged women to have regular Pap smears. Procter & Gamble, the show’s producers, had at first been reluctant to incorporate what it saw as a public service message into an entertainment program. “It was rough going,” said Nixon as she recalled sending scenes to P&G months in advance for approval. But the story succeeded, and women all over the country wrote to Nixon thanking her for letting them know about a simple test that could save their lives.
With Phillips, Nixon cocreated the first half-hour soap, As the World Turns, in 1956. Nixon also worked for a couple of years in the sixties as head writer for Another World, a show originally created by Phillips that had lost its audience and was on the verge of cancellation. With little at stake, NBC allowed Nixon to introduce humor into the show, which, though not usually a part of soaps, helped save it.
Her success with Another World boosted Nixon’s reputation to such an extent that ABC approached her about creating a show for them. At the time, many of the important soaps were owned by Procter & Gamble, which refused to air a soap on ABC, labeling it a “half network.” This led ABC to order both One Life to Live and All My Children directly from Nixon, whose husband quit his job to work with her in a production and packaging company. The shows were such hits that they burnished Nixon’s already golden image and gave ABC a solid footing in the lucrative daytime serial market—much to P&G’s consternation. ABC eventually bought the shows from Nixon’s company.
While angry at “soap opera” becoming a pejorative, Nixon said she also “began to wonder if we deserved that attitude, and if there was something we might do that no one else could do, given the forum we had.” And so Nixon put her new power to good use, introducing many groundbreaking stories and characters. On One Life to Live, a young woman thought to be white by the audience was revealed to be a light-skinned African American, opening up a story line about racial prejudice. For another One Life story line about a young woman with a drug problem, Nixon filmed a scene with recovering addicts at Odyssey House, a drug treatment center in New York. Nixon was one of the first to take advantage of the advent of video tape, which, in this case, allowed her to tape several hours at Odyssey House and edit it into a workable scene. Just a few years earlier, soaps were still being broadcast live from the studio, so few of them were recorded and saved.
By introducing contemporary social issues, Nixon made soaps a fixture on college campuses, and not just with students hooked by, say, the latest romantic crisis on All My Children: in the eighties, Nixon-style soaps suddenly became a hot field of academic study. Nixon also managed to attract such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dick Cavett as guest stars on her shows.
Her impact in modernizing soap operas was so profound that in 1981 she became the first woman and the first writer to receive the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Trustees Award for her contributions to the industry and the public it serves.