TITTERS OF EXCITEMENT RUN THROUGH the auditorium of the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications as a fragile-looking 63-year-old woman steps daintily onto the stage. Agnes Nixon, the premier storyteller of daytime television, has created and written soap operas that have aired five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for more than 30 years--a remarkable show of endurance in a medium notorious for burnout.
She accepts with poise the sustained applause from a standing-room-only crowd. It has assembled to honor her at the kickoff of a 60-year retrospective entitled "A Summer of Soaps." The smile Nixon beams at fans is that of the actress she trained to be rather than that of the writer she is, and it just barely betrays her nervousness and shyness.
"Soap operas have come of age," Nixon tells the rapt group. "Today men as well as women are involved in watching them, people from the ages of 8 to 80. We are more sophisticated than ever before. We inform as well as entertain."
The petite Nixon is the creative powerhouse who originated such daytime hits as "One Life to Live," "Loving" and one of the most popular and profitable soaps ever--ABC's "All My Children." In the process, she reshaped a genre long mocked as chewing gum for the vapid minds of dull housewives. Says soap fan Robert C. Allen, associate professor of radio, TV and motion pictures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "It's hard to think of a more despised and scorned art form, except maybe pornography."
Due largely to Nixon's talent, the soaps' tarnished image has brightened in recent years--the satire in this summer's film "Soapdish" notwithstanding. Says Brian Rose, an associate professor of media studies at Fordham University: "Soaps have become the hottest thing in academic TV study. "Agnes Nixon is instrumental in bringing soaps respectability. She added a whole new approach, which was at once serious and at the same time committed and humane." He refers to her innovation of weaving timely issues such as alcoholism, child abuse, AIDS and interracial romance into her melodramatic plots and of having characters cope with these themes realistically.
For this pioneering effort, she was awarded the industry's highest honor in 1981: the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Trustee Award, which cited her "distinguished service to television and the public." Nixon is the first woman whose name is inscribed on the award, a distinction that places her with an elite that includes Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, David Sarnoff and Bob Hope.
Nixon's yarns of tragedy and triumph, love and hate, sin and redemption also have won her a place among the wealthiest working women in America. She earns more than $1 million annually as an exclusive consultant to daytime programming at Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and as head writer of "All My Children." Her perks include an ABC car and driver to chauffeur her between her New York City apartment, where she lives Mondays through Thursdays, and Pine Cottage, her three-acre, 20-room pre-Revolutionary home in Rosemont on the Philadelphia Main Line. She works there in a third-floor study with a secretary on Fridays, then spends weekends with her husband, Robert, who manages her business and races Thoroughbred horses. A laconic former auto executive, Robert Nixon observes, "Agnes and I have always been sort of in double harness."
Although Nixon is gratified by her success, she is not really surprised that soaps have at last achieved a small measure of critical acceptance. "I think soap operas are the form of entertainment closest to real life," she says. "Everyone's life is a soap opera. Some are more interesting than others, and of course there are no new stories. But everyone's life is a journey. Each time something dramatic happens for the first time, in a way, the story is new because it's never happened to that person before."
THAT NIXON, AN EXQUISITELY LADY-like woman of Irish and Southern heritage, has triumphed in an industry famous for devouring writers and turning female executives into unholy viragoes, is an anomaly. That she creates the tempestuous characters who kick up so much emotional dust seems improbable, because longtime colleagues report that Nixon never raises her voice in anger. Her manners are impeccable and, by her own admission, she shies away from confrontation. A devout Catholic, she has been married for 40 years and is intensely involved with her four grown children and six grandchildren.
Nixon mesmerizes viewers by homing in on the emotional ups and downs that send shock waves through every life: love and hate, infidelity, the joys and pains of raising children, jealousy, fear, greed, malice, heroism, unselfishness. Despite her serene, even prim, demeanor, aspects of her life have allowed her a visceral understanding of the tales she spins.
The story lines that Nixon crafts for "All My Children"--which she created 21 years ago--flow from her characters' inner motivations. She points out that her plots do not rely upon external hokum such as earthquakes or the arrival of extraterrestrial beings. The stories set in the show's imaginary locale, Pine Valley--which mirrors Rosemont--grow out of the shenanigans of rogues, scoundrels, temptresses, liars, busybodies, social climbers and the lusty folks who populate Everytown, U.S.A.
Nixon's most riveting character--the beautiful Erica Kane, played by Susan Lucci, arguably the most popular daytime TV star--vamps men as a hobby and over 21 years has discarded six husbands. Erica possesses a wicked tongue and exhibits a narcissist's thrill at manipulation. Ceara (played by Genie Francis), a sweet young adult whose father sexually molested her as a child, tugs at heartstrings as she unblocks the horrible memory, then kills her father in self-defense. Palmer Courtland (James Mitchell), a cold, heartless man of enormous wealth, is loved by Opal Gardner (Jill Larson), who is loud, brassy and lovable.
Nixon's devoted fans deliver ratings that help ABC executives sleep well at night. "All My Children" consistently ranks No. 1 in sophisticated urban markets such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with up to 30% of the viewers. The show's toughest competitor, CBS's "The Young and the Restless," bumps "All My Children" into second place in national measurements, and "General Hospital" occasionally displaces it to No. 3. But "All My Children" is extremely profitable because it delivers the best demographics: free-spending urban 18- to 49-year-olds whom advertisers pay a premium to reach. Advertisers pay $21,000 for a 30-second spot, compared to $19,300 for the same spot on "The Young and the Restless." The average price of a prime-time spot on ABC is $35,000.
Capital Cities/ABC Inc. chairman Thomas S. Murphy assesses Nixon's contribution generously: "Daytime soaps at ABC were built because of Agnes Nixon's talent, and daytime is one of the most profitable parts of our business." ABC does not disclose what portion of profits comes from individual shows, but North Carolina's Prof. Allen, in his authoritative book, "Speaking of Soap Operas," estimates that daytime dramas deliver more than $900 million in revenues to the three networks--and about one-sixth of total earnings.
Daytime TV is more profitable than prime time, so the networks battle fiercely for viewers' loyalty, even though the number of daytime viewers has dwindled in recent years as women continue their exodus to the workplace. ABC's four daily soaps--"Loving," "All My Children," "One Life to Live" and "General Hospital"--compete against a tough CBS lineup: "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the Beautiful," "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light." NBC trails both with weaker entries: "Days of Our Lives," "Another World" and "Santa Barbara."
NIXON IS A PERFECTIONIST WHO drives herself at a pace so grueling that 25-year-olds have difficulty keeping up with her. Hal Corley, a writer on her staff, remembers a phone call from Nixon at 8:45 one Saturday morning with an idea for solving a script problem. Last spring, at her family's vacation home in the Virgin Islands, Nixon churned out three long-term story outlines. If she falls behind her tight schedule, she becomes fidgety, nervously checking her watch.
At her age and level of achievement, many people step back from work and indulge themselves a bit. But Nixon's demanding routine leaves little time for frivolity. Despite a gorgeous Size 4 designer wardrobe, plenty of cash and glamorous show-biz associates, Nixon is no creature of the society pages. Rather, she is, says her son, Robert, "the most disciplined person I know." She is a voracious reader, a devotee of the theater, a loner who confesses, "I crave solitude."
Unlike her fictional characters, no hint of scandal, no ugly backbiting, no salacious gossip follow in Nixon's wake. Says Wisner Washam, an "All My Children" writer for 17 years: "Ego doesn't drive her. She is open to other people's ideas." Rose, the Fordham professor, offers this tribute: "Dare I use a word like 'integrity'? She stands as a kind of legend. All the excesses shown in 'Soapdish' are those she is not guilty of."
Nixon's achievement, according to those who analyze her work, is in portraying the humanity of each character, no matter how loathsome his or her actions. Says "All My Children" writer Megan McTavish: "Agnes' characters are quirky and interesting, and they have layers. Erica does spiteful, hateful things, but the audience loves her because they understand why she does what she does." Characters are allowed to grow and change. When Brooke English first appeared, she was a bratty, rebellious teen-ager; today she is, McTavish says, "the heroine supreme." Nixon also sprinkles her scripts with welcome humor, capitalizing on a wacky sense of fun that prompts daughter Emily to recall, "I remember laughing with her to the point of tears."
" 'All My Children' is the show dearest to her heart and the nearest to her personal truth," McTavish says. "The town is like her town, the characters are people she knew. She puts a lot of her tears and joy into this show."
GROWING UP IN NASHVILLE IN THE '30S AND '40S, the only child of divorced parents in an Irish-Catholic enclave, Agnes Eckhardt experienced more tears than joy. She felt isolated and painfully lonely because no other child she knew had a father living apart from his family. Moreover, she was terrified of her dad's irrationality. "He was nearly psychotic," she says. "He could not trust anyone and had to conquer and crush people."
Her bookkeeper mother and Irish grandmother raised her like a hothouse flower: tap and ballet dancing, singing and drama lessons, constant entertaining. In an interview at her New York apartment, Nixon recalls her lonely upbringing: "I was the epicenter of the adult world at my house. I was always performing. This is what made them happy." The message she received still resonates: "I tried to be all things to all people, to please and be perfect. And I came to feel that if I didn't do something on my own . . . achieve, achieve, achieve . . . I would evaporate." Pausing, she adds with quiet candor, "I am sitting here wondering when you will ask the question that will show you I think I am nothing."
Nixon never got over those feelings of inadequacy. They provided a writer's insight into the hidden emotions that so often shape people's destinies. As a solitary child, she cut out paper dolls and made up stories about them. At St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., she won a class competition for writing and directing the best play. She transferred to Northwestern University's Speech School in Evanston, Ill., where she studied alongside Charlton Heston, Cloris Leachman and Patricia Neal under the late Alvina Krause. Though she suffers from what she calls "math dyslexia," she is blessed with a nearly photographic memory. Nixon graduated in 1949 with all A's--except in math courses; the only trouble she got into was studying past curfew. Says daughter Emily: "In college, she was really a beautiful nerd."
Nixon wrote scripts, directed and acted before deciding that, though some classmates were better actors than she, none was a better writer. A play Nixon penned at Northwestern called "No Flags Flying," about a father leafing through mementos of a son killed during military service, led to her first job in radio three days after graduation.
She was desperate for the position because her father, a manufacturer of shrouds at the Perfection Burial Garment Co. in Chicago, had surfaced in an attempt to persuade her to join his company. "One of the undertakers near my father's factory had a daughter who joined his business, and whenever I thought of her, I remembered that she smelled of formaldehyde," she says.
To disabuse Nixon of foolish notions about writing, her father set up an appointment with Irna Phillips, a colorful, tough-minded writer revered as a pioneer of soap opera. Phillips created what was probably the first soap: a 15-minute radio show called "Painted Dreams" that aired in 1930 in Chicago. Nixon's father was sure Phillips would find his daughter untalented; instead, Phillips read "No Flags Flying" aloud before the tremulous young woman and then hired her on the spot to write dialogue for "Woman in White" for $100 a week.
Under Phillips' firm hand, Nixon mastered the craft of interweaving plots and writing steamy dialogue. She briefly gave up daytime for prime time, moving to New York to free-lance for shows such as Philco Playhouse and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. But in 1951, Agnes married Robert Nixon, a Chrysler Corp. manager, moved around the Northeast and began producing children at "a rather surprising pace": Cathy, now 37; Mary, 36; Robert, 35, and Emily, 32. Nixon could no longer manage trips to Manhattan, so when Phillips asked her to return to soap writing, she gratefully resumed.
A determined Nixon clung to her career, writing at home and mailing scripts to Chicago. "My feeling was that I had to work," she recalls. "I had live-in help, but it was wild. I often wished I could take a summer off, but I didn't."
In the mid-1950s, Nixon accepted Procter & Gamble Productions' offer to become head writer of "The Guiding Light," the only soap to make the leap from radio to television, and collaborated with Phillips on one of the first half-hour soaps, the mega-hit "As the World Turns." In 1964, P & G asked Nixon to take charge of NBC's "Another World." Chafing against P & G's rigid formulas, which she felt treated women as objects on a pedestal, she accepted on the condition she be allowed to inject humor. Skeptical executives agreed, and she introduced a character who was Miss Black-Eyed Pea of 1960. Ratings soared, and a fledgling network, ABC, came calling.
In those days, ABC was a weak competitor, but the network offered Nixon a powerful lure: the promise of creative control. She accepted and plunged into her first solo attempt: "One Life to Live," which premiered in 1968. To ensure absolute control, she and Robert formed Creative Horizons Inc., a production company, to make "One Life." Robert quit his job at Chrysler to work full time on the venture--a commitment that required hiring actors, technical staff and studios as well as the myriad business details of licensing the show to ABC.
Nixon decided to wield her newly granted powers to dramatize tough, real-life issues. Even she was confounded, however, when a program on teen-age venereal disease led to an avalanche of 50,000 letters. A grateful official at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta told her: "You've shown us how to reach the teen-agers of America."
Her reputation soaring, Nixon was midwife in 1970 to her special baby, "All My Children." Her theme was the brotherhood of man. In the "bible," industry slang for her original presentation, she wrote, "The great and the least, the weak and the strong, in joy and sorrow, in hope and fear, in tragedy and triumph, you are all my children . . . we are all linked by our common bond of mankind."
After five years, ABC decided to buy the soaps for undisclosed sums. Explains Robert: "As the shows got better, ABC was able to charge more for commercials. But our licensing fees lagged by several years. As a result, we couldn't invest as much into improving production as quickly as ABC could."
By this time, technology had vastly improved daytime TV. Smaller, more mobile cameras meant livelier scenes, and videotape opened up location filming and visual presentation of dreams and fantasy. In 1978, ABC decided--against Nixon's protestations--to expand her popular serials to one hour. The shift meant that Nixon had to start commuting to New York and "learn a new way of working," a challenge with which she still struggles. In 1983, she created a third serial for ABC, "Loving," which focuses on the way love motivates and defines its characters' lives.
Today she spends about 10% of her time on "Loving," primarily overseeing long-term story development. But to Nixon's--and ABC's--distress, "Loving" has been a major disappointment. She blames the time slot ABC assigned the show for its poor ratings. A new executive producer and head writer have recently been hired.
In an effort to boost the popularity of "Loving," Nixon left as head writer of "All My Children" in 1985 to devote more energy to her new show. During her absence, the ratings for "All My Children" sagged, and actors grew disenchanted. Says Richard Van Vleet, who plays Chuck Tyler: "The dialogue was all wrong, we started losing the characters." Adds Candi Early, who plays his wife, Donna: "We felt Agnes' loss. We had always felt her presence in the script and story line. Without her, the sun went behind a cloud."
ABC felt that loss as well, on the bottom line, and in late 1989 returned her to "All My Children," along with a new producer, Felicia Behr. Last fall, Nixon received a handwritten note from chairman Murphy: "Just saw the latest ratings on AMC, and it looks like your magic is working once again."
NIXON'S MAGIC IS FAR FROM illusion; it flows from a rigorous schedule required to churn out 260 hours of entertainment every year. The immensity of that task requires precision timing and an assembly-line effort. Asked what's hardest about the job, her staff responds: "Doing it every day." Says Nixon: "We are long-distance runners."
To stay in shape, Nixon breakfasts on a Spartan combination of brewer's yeast and two packets of Knox gelatin ("lots of vitamins and nutrients, all natural") washed down by decaffeinated Earl Grey tea, then exercises on her treadmill. Her metabolism is the envy of friends; she eats heartily the rest of the day, indulging in chocolate desserts at her favorite French restaurant, Bouley. Even so, it's tough for her to keep her weight up to 110 pounds on her 5-foot, 4-inch frame.
In the green-and-white living room of her New York co-op, surrounded by such books as "Tales of Irish Myth, Legend and Folklore," Nixon works till noon, then hails a taxi cross-town to a modest office overlooking the Hudson River. There she oversees a staff of 12, including four writers who specialize in plots and five who write dialogue.
At 1 p.m., she and her plot writers sit down at a round table for a working lunch while they watch that day's episode of "All My Children." It's a lively session with lots of laughter, a far cry from the "Soapdish" portrayal of more than a dozen men jabbering rudely at one another. For three hours, the writers pore over plot outlines. They question various points: Is this action consistent with Trevor's behavior? If this couple can only afford a one-room apartment, why would they lunch at the country club? Isn't it time for Erica and Charlie to go to bed?
Nixon listens and intervenes in her soft drawl if she feels she can make a point. For example, as the writers search for the proper mood of the abused Ceara, Nixon solves the problem with a brief anecdote. "When my young son was in the hospital, I was driving home in the rain at night and had a horrible anxiety attack. I froze, started slowing down and shaking. Cars were honking, lights were coming at me, I was completely disoriented. That's what Ceara is having, an anxiety attack."
Scripts are finished three weeks before taping; they are delivered to the cast one week before. Despite--or perhaps because of--their symbiotic relationship, writers and actors see very little of one another. Says Nixon: "Of course, actors would have us write the entire show around them." Actor James Kiberd ( Trevor Dillon on the show) says he adds interpretations to scripts, lightening up a bit if he feels a scene is too heavy or vice versa. Hours are long for the cast. When taping, they spend 12 hours on the set.
Most actors study their lines for the first time the night before. They worry about getting too far ahead of the day's story for fear they'll confuse that day's performance. In Chicago, Nixon tells the rapt audience that soap actors are the "most talented and hardest-working people in show business." As to their contribution, she adds generously, "I never see a character's face until the actor is cast."
Many actors, in turn, love soaps because they allow exploration of emotions. Van Vleet describes his relief when he read his first soap script. "It was human, it wasn't remedial," he says. He had played so many cops and robbers on prime time that he was ready for something more complicated. He also is grateful for the steady employment soaps offer in a notoriously unstable business.
A problem with soap operas can be that fans are so deeply involved they can't separate actor from role. Susan Lucci, for example, was attending confession at a Roman Catholic church one day when a woman accosted her. "I hope you told him all the bad things you've done," the woman scolded.
Soap audiences were once exclusively housewives who bought the cleaning products that sponsored the shows--hence soap opera. But as women left home in favor of the working world, soaps improved, and their audience broadened to include a surprising number of teen-agers, an estimated 5 million young men, millions of career women who tape episodes for after-work viewing and hordes of college students.
Collegians make up perhaps the most enthusiastic group. Students jam lunchtime hangouts in an effort to stay abreast of their favorite characters' latest high jinks, gathering fodder for dorm gossip sessions about soap characters that outsiders might mistake for reality. When Luke and Laura, a famous couple from the popular show "General Hospital," got married in 1983, students held receptions all over the country.
Still, the decline in daytime viewership troubles networks already beleaguered by shrinking market shares. Capital Cities/ABC chairman Murphy says, "Our gross revenue (from soaps) today is less than our profit was five years ago." He attributes this to changing lifestyles of American women plus the fact that fans who tape for night viewing don't count in the ratings. Nevertheless, the company's 1990 annual report crows, "ABC remained the most popular network for young adult women in 1990, as it has been for 14 years."
SOME CRITICS ARE FASCInated with soap opera as a unique form of narrative storytelling. Says North Carolina's Allen: "For thousands of years, drama has presumed to have a beginning, middle and end. Soap operas have only forever-expanding middles."
The slings and arrows of criticism, however, point at soaps' unvarying melodrama, repetition and oversimplification. Surely all these characters must have more to do than simply run into one another in restaurants, hospitals and street corners? Doesn't anybody have to really work for a living? Certain themes are recycled ad nauseam: Every show seems to have a character who doesn't know who his or her real father or mother is, while that parent lurks about trying to conceal what everyone knows must eventually be disclosed. Other timeworn ploys: illness, affairs, simmering rivalries, coincidental meetings that shock participants and overheard conversations that reveal disturbing information.
One critic, Soap Opera Digest editor-at-large Meredith Berlin, argues that soaps operate at a too-heightened pitch. "Happiness and a happy marriage are underrated commodities on soaps," she argues. "There's plenty of drama in a good marriage. Things happen beyond our control, but that doesn't mean we have to cheat on each other." She adds that although soaps claim to deal with social issues, they are not as contemporary as they could be. "What about working mothers?" she asks. "We never see them struggling or juggling or the children suffering. The whole child-care problem is not explored." She also complains that soaps hire too many actors for the way they look rather than the way they act.
Prof. Allen wonders why American soaps, unlike their counterparts in Australia and Britain, never feature the working class. Characters on American daytime TV are beautifully costumed, upper-middle-class denizens. Author Dorothy Rabinowitz recently amplified on that theme in a Wall Street Journal review of the Australian soap "Neighbors," now aired in some U.S. cities. " 'Neighbors,' " she writes, "has characters that ought to be more recognizable to Americans than the peculiar beings that inhabit the worlds of our home-grown TV dramas. For one thing, the characters . . . actually converse with one another in the way that people do--without declaiming or the rat-a-tat of one-liners or recitals of a position on the latest hot social themes."
Nixon counters that she would be hard-pressed to develop stories that spin out over eight to 12 months from any of Berlin's suggestions. "Two people arguing about who takes out the garbage is not what breaks up a marriage," she says. "It can be a symptom of what is really wrong. We call those 'incidents' in a major story line."
Nixon remembers other jabs with discomfort. In 1981, she attempted to transfer her daytime skills to the risky province of prime time by collaborating on a six-hour miniseries called "The Manions of America." The show flopped. A critic for The Times wrote, "You get the impression you can take the lady out of the soaps, but can one take the soaps out of the lady?" "I was a neophyte at prime time," Nixon says. Nevertheless, she would like another shot at an evening show.
WHEN SHE LOOKS BACK, Nixon recognizes that, in part, she was successful in TV because she concentrated on the one sector that the industry relegated to women. She sympathizes with today's career women who must juggle demanding jobs and long commutes with families left at home. "I lucked out," she says. "I couldn't have gone to work away from my children. I couldn't have borne the censure of that from others." Back when she was mailing scripts written at home to Irna Phillips in Chicago, soaps were a cottage industry. "I grew up with the business," she says.
As she looks ahead, Nixon sees her primary responsibility as developing the writing talent that will ensure her shows' futures. "I would like to work on long-term story outlines only. But my primary function now is to teach." She assumes this mantle in part because she feels a need to repay the industry that has rewarded her so generously. This is not easy for her. "I suffer from a syndrome, 'If I can do it, anyone can.' I am realizing this isn't true." Nixon's overriding emotion is gratitude for the outlet her career has provided. "Loneliness impelled me to create a world," she says, "and soap opera was natural. My psychic energy found an outlet. I had to justify my existence. I always understood that it was not enough to be a wife and mother. I was always trying to please, and I still am."