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David P. Lewis; Creator of First TV Soap Opera

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David P. Lewis, who took a handful of actors, a $300-per-episode budget and a plot line from his own saccharine novel and melded them into television’s first soap opera, is dead.

Lewis, an advertising copy writer, TV producer and director, was 83 when he died Sunday in a Burbank hospital of what his family called a short illness.

In 1945 he was producing a radio show in Omaha for the Caples advertising company when he noticed a story in Life magazine about the commercial viability of TV. He persuaded his bosses to establish a TV division in New York and got himself appointed its head.

When the war ended, he approached the DuMont “network,” a loose affiliation of Allen B. Du Mont’s television interests and one of two TV broadcasters in the nation. NBC was the other.

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Du Mont, Lewis recalled in a 1981 interview, was desperate for programming of any kind. It was presenting old films, amateur acts or “anything they could get their hands on” during the nine hours of weekly programming it shared with NBC in New York City.

Thus was born “Faraway Hill,” a 30-minute, five-actor tale of Karen St. John, an attractive widow who found love, intrigue and a new life with her cousin’s son on a primitive Kansas dirt farm, hundreds of geographic miles and cultural light years away from her sophisticated existence in Manhattan.

The first broadcast (live, of course) was on Oct. 2, 1946, from the basement of Wanamaker’s department store in Greenwich Village in a makeshift studio for DuMont’s WNEW. It was a Wednesday evening, noted Lewis, because DuMont was the only network permitted to broadcast that night.

Primitive surveys showed that in 1946 there were 3,200 New York City households that contained television sets, and it was estimated that a whopping 400 of them watched the turmoil on “Faraway Hill,” a novel Lewis had started years earlier but never finished.

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Despite the show’s success, it ran only 10 episodes. Lewis declared at the time that it was only an experiment. It never made a cent and had no commercials. So he wrote the melodrama’s demise into its final episode over the outcry of faithful fans.

He wanted, he said years later, not a successful series but to “test the mind of the viewer.”

He remained in TV to direct one of the first, if not the first, detective series--"Barney Blake, Police Reporter"--for NBC, but he pulled back from television when networks began to take programming power from sponsors.

Lewis returned to advertising, moving to California in 1959, where he wrote scripts for some TV series on the side. But not another “Faraway Hill.”

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“I’ve never been a fan of soap operas,” he admitted.

Survivors include his wife, Dorothy, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.


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