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As Agnes Nixon's World Turns 1983 article


Paul Raven

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The fortunes of the three broadcast networks can be traced, in no small part, to a 56 -yearold suburban Philadelphia housewife who has never drafted a billion -dollar budget, juggled a prime time schedule, eyeballed an Olympic Committee negotiator, run a news department or sold a single 30- second spot. Hers are other specialities: child prostitution, incest, drugs, murder and general heartbreak. It is the world of daytime serial programing, better known as soaps, and the woman, Agnes Nixon, is among its creators.

With their low overhead and high profit margin, soaps account for an estimated 20% of a network's revenue, 35% to 40% of its bottom line. And as creator of One Life to Live and AU My Children on ABC, creator of Search for Tomorrow and co- creator of As the World Turns on CBS, and as head writer of NBC's Guiding Light and Another World, Nixon has contributed substantially to those totals, with at least one serial on the air five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 27 years. Her most recent creation is Loving, which premiered on ABC June 27 and represents that network's newest daytime serial in eight years and Nixon's first in 13.

Nixon's career, unlike those of many of her characters, is anything but a hard -luck story: She was hired as a dialogue writer three days after graduating from Chicago's Northwestern University School of Speech in 1946. The woman who hired her for a 15- minute radio network serial called Woman in White, part of the General Mills Hour, was Irna Phillips, among the prime originators of modem soaps and creator of The Guiding Light and Another World. Phillips hired Nixon after reading a script written for a college workshop. "She read it aloud as I sat there and died," Nixon recalls now. "I wanted to go down the dumbwaiter." After six months in Chicago, Phillips moved west (to Hollywood) and Nixon moved east (to New York). It was a time when "all the actors were going to Hollywood," Nixon recalls, and the radio daytime serial industry was following them. Nixon, however, had her sights set on writing for a new medium called television. It was during that time that Nixon wrote for Playhouse 90, Somerset Maugham Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, Albert McCleary's Cameo Theater and a "forgettable thing" called Hazel Bishop Lipstick's My True Story. Laments Nixon: "It was the golden age of television and it lasted 15 minutes." One year after arriving in New York, she married Robert Nixon, an executive with the Chrysler Corp., and they settled in the Philadelphia suburbs.

An only child whose parents separated when she was three months old, Nixon, after marriage, immediately set about raising her own family, having four children in "two weeks less than five years." Between diaper changes and feedings, she wrote soap operas. Nixon doesn't recall how she found time to be both a mother and writer, other than to volunteer that she was "young and foolish." Whatever the reason, it moved a friend at the time to observe that: "I used to sit up all night at the Stork Club; now I sit up with the stork." There were early signs that Nixon would be a writer of drama. Nixon began creating serials at an early age. As a young girl, she cut out characters from comic books, pasting them on paper and basing stories around them. In college she tried acting, "but I had the sneaking suspicion I didn't have enough of something called talent to be an actress." It may have had something to do with comparing herself to her Northwestern classmates, who at the time included Charlton Heston, Cloris Leachman and Patricia Neal. It didn't take long for Nixon to concentrate on writing. "Acting taught me how to write for the dramatic medium," she says. Broadcasting Nov 14 1983 103 Nixon views her craft as one of creation, rather than invention. Her stories, she says, are drawn from life. One about child abuse, on All My Children, for instance, was inspired by a psychiatrist friend who suggested she research the subject. Until then, Nixon said, she imagined child abusers were "criminals who belonged in prison." After researching, she learned that "these people are sick -98% of them were abused when they were children." And the current story about incest on Loving, Nixon added, was also the result of research, which showed it "is not just a problem in the ghetto, but in very upper middle class families" as well. Nixon insists that her use of such story lines is not to titilate but to inform. In the case of Loving, "our aim was to say there is help for these victims." And although such stories are now making their way into prime time, Nixon explains that daytime serials have the advantage of exploring an issue in greater depth. The difference between daytime and prime time, Nixon notes, is that with the former "we can show so many more facets."

On top of her "mandate to entertain," Nix- on sees her job as an opportunity to "educate" people, "or at least to expose people to life outside their four walls." Contrary to what clean-up- television advocates charge, "we're not trying to shock or scandalize." And an indication that the majority of the viewing public is on her side can be judged from the mail she receives. "We get more letters saying, 'If you never get Gregg and Jenny back again I'll never watch the show again,' " Nixon relates, "than 'How dare you do an incest story!' " As part of that mandate to both entertain and educate, the network ran a crawler during the child abuse story on AU My Children with a hot -line telephone number so people with a similar problem could find out where to seek help. If Nixon has set out to educate, she has, by her own account, also set out to help make peace. She recalls hearing a labor ne- gotiator tell a seminar audience several years ago that "when I sit down to negotiate, I make sure I don't bring out the baby pictures, because if I do, then they'll bring out their own, we'll become friends, and I won't be able to negotiate so well." But in television, Nixon believes-especially daytime serials -"we can bring out the baby pictures." And while Nixon realizes that "we're not going to make the rednecks like the gay libs," she believes that daytime serials, with their evolving story lines, can help "explain them to each other." Part of the reason Nixon said she wrote scenes about interracial ro- mance or premarital sex -when such topics were still considered taboo by the networks -was to "make people examine their prejudices" in the conviction that "it opens up windows." 

Agnes Eckardt Nixon -b. Dec. 10, 1927, Nashville; BA, speech, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., 1949; dialogue writer, General Mills Hour, Chicago, 1949; freelance writer, Studio One, Philco Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Somerset Maugham Theater, Armstrong Circle Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame and Cameo Theater, New York, 1946 -51; creator, Search for Tomorrow, 1951; co-creator, As The World Turns, 1957; head writer, Guiding Light, 1958 -65 and Another World, 1965 -69; creator, One Life to Live and All My Children, 1970; co-creator, Loving, 1983; m. Robert Nixon, April 6, 1951; children, Cathy, 31; Mary, 30; Robert, 29; Emily, 26. 

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