Agnes Eckhardt Nixon Essay - Critical Essays

Nixon, Agnes Eckhardt


Agnes Eckhardt Nixon 1927–

American television writer and producer.

Nixon is perhaps best known as the creator and head writer for the serials One Life to Live and All My Children. All My Children focuses on young love, and many young adults identify with the characters and their problems. The show has a strong following among college students and has been studied in several college courses.

The plots of both of these shows are realistic, based on Nixon's own experiences. Nixon's work on these serials is also indicative of her originality in both concept and production. Her inventiveness is particularly evident in All My Children. While daytime television programs are usually produced at considerably lower expense than nighttime television, nighttime production quality was introduced on this series when Tom and Erica's honeymoon was filmed on location in St. Croix.

Nixon began her career as a writer for Irna Phillips, whose traditional soap opera formula dominated the airwaves for more than thirty years. Nixon has updated this formula to include relevant social issues and, as she says, "compelling, believable characters the audience can identify with." She believes "that the way to entertain women is to make them think," and she often takes an instructive approach in her stories. She wrote a segment for The Guiding Light which dealt with the Pap test, informing women about uterine cancer. Nixon was also one of the first writers to provide continuing roles for black characters in her scripts.

Nixon has shown consistent determination to upgrade the standards of daytime drama. The quality of her work and the popularity of her shows has earned her the title "queen of the soaps." Her influence is noticeable throughout daytime television as an increasing number of writers adopt more realistic formats for their shows.


"Search for Tomorrow," which is a low-budgeted soaper, nevertheless should do a good job for its bankroller, Proctor & Gamble. Agnes Eckhardt, who is scripting the series, appears able to endow it with some fairly mature dramatic values….

On the [premiere] the episode eschewed the usual soap opera technique of presenting the entire dramatis personae. Instead it was played with only four of the central characters in three tight scenes. It started with an argument between Victor Barron, a domineering executive, and his son Victor, who prefers photography to his dad's contracting business and bridles under his father's domination. This was sensitively handled with the antagonists' views stated sharply and with validity.

"Television: 'Search for Tomorrow'," in Variety (copyright 1951, by Variety, Inc.), September 5, 1951, p. 41.

Agnes Eckhardt Nixon

Time after tedious time, when critics suffer an aridity of fresh, inventive phrases with which to denigrate a film, play or book, they fall back on "soap opera"; it has become the classic cliché of derogation….

[The] syndrome persists that soap opera is a Never-Never Land where hack writers and inferior producers, directors and actors serve melodramatic pap to a lunatic fringe of female children who grow older but never grow up….

What is the appeal of the soap operas? What causes them to have millions upon millions of faithful viewers, or, if you will, "addicts"?

For a serial to be successful it must have a compelling story. That story, in turn, must concern interesting, believable characters. And the fact that it is a continuous story, allowing the development of these characters in episode after episode, permits the audience to become deeply involved with what is happening to them.

Our detractors say this becomes a vicarious experience bordering on sickness, but ask the lady who watches one and you'll find it is the very normal empathetic response that a good tale, well told, has held from time immemorial…. This is what the soap opera gives us. There is always tomorrow. A tomorrow fraught with problems, tragedies and traumas, to be sure, with hate mixed with love and sorrow with joy. But how does that differ from life itself? There are more of humanity's horrors to be found in any issue of the daily newspaper than abound in all of Sudsville.

Perhaps it is not mere coincidence that Charles Dickens, one of the greatest creators of immortal literary characters, started his career as a writer of serialized stories. He knew, and demonstrated with genius, that for a public to stay with a story they had to care about the characters in it….

Though no soap writer suffers the grandiose delusion of being a Charles Dickens, certainly we learned from him, perhaps by osmosis rather than scholarly scrutiny, that the development of characters in depth, the audience's ability to follow their lives, to love them and hate them, is an intrinsic part of the serial's appeal to its audience. Certainly it is by this very hold that the soap opera has been able to do stories which have performed a public service to the national community in a way which no other kind of television entertainment could achieve.

As an example,...

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Harry F. Waters

Escapism, voyeurism, masochism, catharsis by comparison with others worse off—these are … what the soaps are selling. And if the daily bath of bathos packs a bit more tingle these days, so much the better. It may even provide an educational experience. Agnes Nixon, a refreshingly thoughtful writer who has been manufacturing soaps for fourteen years, likes to point out that episodes concerning alcoholism, adoption and breast cancer have drawn many grateful letters from those with similar problems. It may even be argued that soaps serve as a sort of television "Dear Abby" for the psychologically afflicted, or that they dispense their own brand of hope. "On soap operas there is always tomorrow," says Mrs. Nixon. "A tomorrow fraught with problems, tragedies and traumas, to be sure, but how does this differ from life itself?"

The difference, of course, is that life also has a light side…. (p. 104)

Harry F. Waters, "New Sins in Soapland," in Newsweek (copyright 1968, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXII, No. 24, December 9, 1968, pp. 100, 103-04.∗

Stephanie Harrington

A report in The Times heralding ABC-TV's new soap opera, "All My Children," was headlined: "Social Activism Grips Soap Opera; Heroine of Serial on ABC to Be a Mother for Peace."

Well, the show has been on the road for well over a month now, and the grip is still rather tentative.

The heroine, Amy Tyler—described in an ABC press release as "a liberal political activist dedicated to the peace movement, who married into a conservative family with considerable wealth and stature in the community"—has so far stuffed approximately one and a half envelopes. And the only other indications of her dedication to the peace movement have been her political arguments with her conservative in-laws … and the solicitous observations of Amy's own family, friends and doctor that all that exhausting peace work seems to be getting her on edge and that maybe she ought to take it easy for a while.

Well, we may not yet have seen very much of Amy's peace work (following the classical rules of Greek tragedy, all those unspeakable things, like gouging out one's eyes or working for peace, are accomplished offstage). But we do know what is really wearing her out. And it isn't the Moratorium. For, while she is for peace, and she is a mother, no one, not even her husband or the child himself, knows she is a mother—except for her sister and brother-in-law who adopted her illegitimate son when he was two weeks old.

Phillip, the son-nephew, is a high school senior of draft age, and he, his mother-aunt, father-uncle and aunt-mother are all very concerned about the war and his possibly having to fight in it. But his going into the Army is presented … as a ramification of his family problems rather than vice versa. (p. 21)

Everyone is, of course, horrified at the idea of his enlisting—particularly Aunt Amy, who has nightmares about it. Nightmares are one of the repetitive gimmicks that pass the time on soap operas and thereby enable them to drag on over the days, months and years....

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Beatrice Berg

Out there in Middle America, where the rate of addiction to soap opera is high, viewers of ABC's "One Life to Live" … have been getting regular five-minute doses of unrehearsed, spontaneous confrontations between real-life former dope addicts and the actress who plays Cathy Craig, "One Life"'s troubled teen-ager….

When Amy Levitt, who acts Cathy, began to interact with the ex-addicts the cameras turned, the resulting talk was much gutsier than the written dialogue usually heard on daytime TV….

Mrs. Agnes Nixon, writer of "One Life" …, claims that this is the first time a soap has blended fact with fiction. Since the start of the Odyssey House episodes, heart-rending letters...

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Terry Ann Knopf

For those of us who watch the soap operas, once the citadel of escapism, it is clear that we are living in an age in which even such places as Oakdale, Pine Valley, Henderson, Bay City and Somerset—all soap opera locales—can no longer remain completely aloof from the forces at work in our society…. But the question is: Just how far have we come?

Unfortunately, a closer look at the situation reveals that, despite some creeping social relevance, the soaps have yet to come to grips with reality in any meaningful way; that for too long they have been the perpetuators of outworn beliefs and values, reflecting a generally conservative bias; and that the networks presenting these shows still live in...

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Agnes Nixon

As the creator-writer of both "One Life To Live" and "All My Children," two soap operas of which Terry Ann Knopf was particularly critical in her … article, "The 'Good' Women Still Drink Sherry"—in which she hurled the indictment that "the soaps have yet to come to grips with reality in any meaningful way" [see excerpt above]—I am impelled to a counter-indictment. Ms. Knopf has either failed in a reporter's primary function of thoroughly researching her subject (in regard to the above mentioned programs) or she has deliberately ignored some basic facts about them in order to write a slanted story.

She first accused "All My Children" of not presenting the character of Amy Tyler in the role of a...

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Terry Ann Knopf

Given Ms. Nixon's involvement in the more creative aspects of television, I am especially dismayed by her remarks insofar as they reveal qualities all too commonly found among network officials—defensiveness and a lack of critical perspective. Despite her vigorous defense of Amy's peace activities on "All My Children," the show's attempt at social activism in this area was, at best, superficial. One also wonders why—given Ms. Nixon's and ABC's presumed commitment to presenting the peace issue—another actress wasn't found to replace Rosemary Prinz. Replacements for departing actors and actresses are a common practice on soaps….

The … point I made concerning the stigma attached to abortion on...

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Beth Gutcheon

[Soap] operas have come a long way…. Soap writers are increasingly using the serial form—as Charles Dickens once did—to educate audiences or lead them to question their insular attitudes in ways that little else in their lives may do. (p. 42)

"Search for Tomorrow" evolved a long romantic plot line featuring a mysterious character who was deaf and unable to speak…. When the suds settled, viewers had learned a good deal of sign language; they were also exposed in considerable depth to the ways in which families, schools, communities, and society at large discriminate against the handicapped….

"Search for Tomorrow," still doing business with the same old characters at the...

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Fergus M. Bordewich

Although soap opera aficionados would seem to be a minority among college students, there are nonetheless thousands of young people around the country who daily put aside their Sartre, Machiavelli and Freud—not to mention such obsolete writers as Fanon and Debray—to watch the moiling passions of middle-class America as portrayed on daytime TV. What is it about these slow-moving melodramas with their elasticized emotions that today's college students find so engrossing?…

[In] recent years the subject matter of daytime TV has changed and become much more relevant to the interests of young viewers. Into the world of frazzled passions and leaden drama, which could grip chiefly the bored housewife...

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Anthony Astrachan

The contrast between [the realism of "One Life to Live" and the classical canon of daytime television drama embodied in "As the World Turns"] shows that what James Thurber once called "Soapland," like American society as a whole, is torn between the need to keep up with changing realities and the desire to stick to tried-and-true formulas that have never expressed reality—to tell it like it isn't. The search for relevance has led daytime drama to deal with social issues like drugs, venereal disease and the Vietnam war, to take feminist positions on questions like abortion and women working, and to bring blacks and ethnics into the WASP population of Soapland….

Change and constancy, realism and...

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Rod Townley

Partly because of her concern for three-dimensional characters, Agnes Nixon's shows are among the most popular on daytime TV. (p. 13)

More than anyone else, Agnes Nixon has let reality into the claustrophobic sound studios of soap operas. Not too much reality, of course. Certain subjects, such as homosexuality, never come up in soap-opera conversation. Family anguish and romantic misalliances still dominate the plots. Yet, over the past couple of years, viewers have been exposed to information on VD, drug-rehabilitation centers, child abuse, Pap tests and racial discrimination. These subjects had all been treated on television before they surfaced on Mrs. Nixon's soaps, but in most cases she was the...

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R. E. Johnson, Jr.

A structuralist study of [All My Children] might begin by trying to reconstruct and describe one feature or phase of the relationship between the writer and the audience. Such a relationship we can call a model or paradigm. The analysis can then go on to describe various transformations of this model into other aspects of the writer's relationship to the reader. For example, let us say that the "principal" relationship obtaining between writer and audience is an exchange whereby the writer preserves his identity and/or his job by manipulating the viewer's sense of time. A transformation of this might be the familiar technique of granting the character total and exact recall of a scene that may have occurred...

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[Agnes Nixon has welded Irna] Phillips' home truths to such trendy themes as cervical cancer, racial prejudice and drug addiction. Nixon has at one time or another written almost every soap and created two: One Life to Live and All My Children, the thinking man's soap that has a 30% male audience. She is the soaps' crusader: All My Children went to Viet Nam and is now into women's liberation. After considerable tension, a young black couple have agreed to live in different cities for five days a week so they can pursue their different careers as doctor and social worker. Nixon's most memorable creation, however, was a traditional type, Rachel, the Circe of Another World. In 1966, when Nixon...

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Dan Wakefield

The "All My Children" phenomenon is part of a confluence of different forces that are making soap opera respectable….

I am not about to stake a theoretical claim that soap is the latest "art form of the future," destined to bury the novel, the feature film, the stage, the nighttime TV detective programs,… or in fact any other form of dramatic entertainment. But I do believe the television soap opera is a valid and important and, God knows, popular part of the spectrum of contemporary entertainment, and is worthy of discussion and appreciation as such, with all its built-in restrictions of time and production. The originality and excellence of "All My Children" make it not only a marvelous kind of...

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Manuela Soares

All My Children is a light-hearted soap—perhaps the only light-hearted soap on the air. It may also be characterized as a home-and-family soap, in the doctor-lawyer formula. (p. 33)

In its home-and-family orientation, All My Children very much resembles traditional soaps. But there are differences in tone. All My Children seldom succumbs to dark feelings of loneliness or instability (as does As the World Turns) or to sexual despair (as does Days of Our Lives). On All My Children, there is little serious evil. Bad characters like Phoebe, Erica, Mrs. Lum, or Benny Sago, tend to be fun, or funny. They do not ask much of us. For example, when Phoebe Tyler is...

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[Nixon's] inventive mind spins out a constant skein of exciting and relevant plots that have made All My Children the leading show in the daytime lineup. (p. 129)

And where do those ideas and themes come from? From life, from the world around us, as perceived by a writer highly attuned to the problems and passions that move us all. This, without doubt, is Agnes Nixon's most valuable asset and greatest talent, this finely tuned sensibility both to the moods of the time and to its stresses. If her invention sometimes seems boundless, it is nevertheless highly disciplined. Truth is the criterion against which she measures her fiction—the changing truths of our time and society, the eternal...

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