The Queen of Soaps
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In a Chicago Tribune Q&A, soap-opera creator Agnes Nixon talks about her short-lived acting days at Northwestern, her education under the legendary Alvina Krause (C28, GC33), the downfall of TV soaps and how she broke her father's heart.
When ABC announced the cancellation of the soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live in April, the shows’ creator, Agnes Eckhardt Nixon (C44), says she was saddened by the news but vowed to “do everything possible to keep them alive.”
Devoted fans of the two soaps felt the same way. Supporters bombarded ABC with phone calls, signed petitions and picketed in front of ABC offices in New York City and ABC affiliates across the country to register their outrage.
Three months later, the 40-year-old soaps got a modern-day reprieve. ABC announced it would license All My Children and One Life to Live to Prospect Park, a production company that plans to produce the two shows and distribute them over the web.
“I’m so happy that ABC found a home where the legacies of All My Children and One Life to Live can continue,” says Nixon. “I’m excited for their future with Prospect Park.”
Nixon credits the shows’ fans for this surprising outcome. “What really amazed me was the outrage of the viewers over the shows’ cancellation. It was just astounding,” says Nixon. “A friend of mine told me he had to call a business acquaintance at Disney [which owns ABC] right after ABC canceled the shows, but he had lost the person’s direct line. So he called the main number and got this menu recording: ‘If you’re calling to protest the cancellation of All My Children, press one. For all other business, press two.’
“I’m incredibly grateful to our loyal fans,” she continues. “Their tireless advocacy over these past few months has touched me deeply. They made this happen.”
Known as the “Queen of the Modern Day Soap Opera,” Nixon began her career in daytime serial drama three days after graduating from Northwestern, when she was hired by legendary soap opera genre creator Irna Phillips as a radio script writer. She later wrote for As the World Turns (as co-creator with Irna Phillips), The Guiding Light (as head writer) and Another World (head writer). Nixon created One Life to Live, which premiered on ABC in 1968, and All My Children, which premiered on ABC in 1970.
Nixon broke new ground on TV in the 1960s and ’70s when she began to write socially relevant scripts for One Life to Live and All My Children that dealt with such issues as interracial relationships, abortion, drug addiction, the Vietnam War, domestic violence and, later, AIDS.
“Coming from Nashville, which was very racist when I was a child,” says Nixon, “made me want to get our audiences to examine their prejudices.”
While some affiliates canceled the shows after Nixon’s controversial episodes aired, most did not.
“On the 25th anniversary of All My Children, we had a big gala,” she says. “I remember that the president of ABC called us the jewel in their crown and said that we had made millions for them. Of course, that was when there were only three networks in town.”
Nixon received the Daytime Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. Later that year she accepted the Los Angeles–based Peace Over Violence center’s award on behalf of her show All My Children for its 40-plus years of progressive storylines and advocacy on social issues related to domestic and sexual violence.
When ABC canceled the two soaps and announced that All My Children would be replaced by a reality TV show called The Chew, Nixon knew money was behind the decision. Ad revenue for the soaps had gone down while production costs had skyrocketed.
“It costs $40 million a year to produce All My Children,” she notes. “There are about 30 to 35 contract players, 100 people behind the scenes, including the people who run the cameras and lights. The studio never closes.”
Nixon, who planned on an acting career as an undergraduate at Northwestern, decided to become a writer instead after seeing the considerable talent of fellow classmate Patricia Neal (C47, H94) in acting class. Nixon credits legendary acting teacher Alvina Krause (C28, GC33) for helping her become a good writer. “She knew more about character and motivation than any other teacher ever did,” recalls Nixon. “She was just terrific.”
Despite her reluctance to pursue acting, Nixon is no stranger in front of the camera. She will appear in the last few televised episodes of All My Children.
All My Children will go on a three-month hiatus after the last televised episode airs on ABC on Sept. 23. The last televised episode of One Life to Live is scheduled to air in January.