In Los Angeles recently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of All My Children, creator Agnes Nixon — aka the 82-year-old queen of daytime television — talked about her show’s controversial move to the west coast, the future of her other soap One Life to Live, and whether CBS made a mistake in canceling two of its daytime dramas.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: If you had to single out one crowning achievement in those 40 years, what would it be?
AGNES NIXON: All the socially relevant stuff, like the storyline about AIDS. The lesbian and gay story. Because of my having grown up in Nashville, Tenn., a very segregated city, being able to have integrated the show was to me the most important thing.
Have you had a chance to look at the new studio in Los Angeles for All My Children?
It’s three times as big as what we had in New York, which is so exciting. The sets are left up now. It’s just amazing. They’re more beautiful. The problem in New York was they had to be trucked back and forth every day.
When you heard ABC wanted to move the show out here, did you have any initial concerns?
Naturally, it was something new and I wondered. I was sad because it meant the crews wouldn’t be coming. And as I said, we’re a family. They’ve been, some of them, with us almost 40 years. For example, once I was getting ready to pay for my lunch (in the workplace cafeteria) and a voice behind me said, “You’re not paying for this lunch.” I turned around and saw a man, who said, “You helped me put my four kids through college. I’m buying this lunch.” That’s heartwarming. Those people didn’t get to come here.
Were you worried about Susan Lucci because her family is on the east coast?
She’s working here one week and doing I don’t know how many shows. They’re doing it movie style now, of course, which they have been for some time. I think Susan’s very satisfied. She’s staying here for one week and going home for two.
Because of the All My Children move and One Life to Live taking over new studios, a lot of your fans are worried about the future of those shows. Do they have reason to worry about One Life in particular?
I don’t think so. I certainly can’t speak for the network. First of all, as we’ve all said, it’s a great vote of confidence that the network moved the show out here. They’ve moved One Life into a studio and that’s much bigger for them than the one they had. They are really some great people there. …As long as people work hard and don’t take it for granted… If they keep telling a good story, I think they’ll be alright.
Can you recall when the tide began to turn for soaps?
I think the biggest change for me was when cable came in. That was when the pressure went up. We just don’t get the ratings today because it’s fractured. Yes, I think there has been emphasis on younger people, but life isn’t just made of younger people. Older people have tremendous effect on younger people. Young people’s problems are often caused by older people
When primetime soap operas like Desperate Housewives became all the rage, were you concerned they would impact daytime dramas?
It’s not the same kind of storytelling. It’s on once a week. The beauty of a soap, for me as a writer, is to go into the characters. I think daytime soaps are the form of entertainment that mirrors real life. It didn’t bother me because it just skimmed over what I write about — and I don’t mean to sound like an evangelist — which is sin and redemption. Not sin in a religious sense, but a person who can be bad, evil, whatever, and makes a turn. Nighttime can’t take the time and the depth to go into the characters’ makeup and what causes the drama that results.
Do you think soaps still have an impact today?
I think ours do. When Erica’s daughter, Bianca, came out as a lesbian, I got letters from gay women saying, “If only I had seen this show when I was a teenager.” Eden Riegel became one of the most popular young actors on daytime. I had the sense to wait, to know that there’d be a lot of people who were prejudiced, homophobic, so we had to wait until we could make her Erica’s daughter. You have to be sneaky sometimes, because viewers wanted to watch and see what Erica’s reaction would be.
What do you think the soaps have to do to stay relevant?
Follow the daily newspapers, what happens in the world. Remember the Donna Beck story? There was a piece in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Little Ladies of the Night” about teenagers who ran away from home and arrived at the bus station and the pimps were waiting for them. Eight weeks later, we had that story starting on All My Children. It’s what happens in life. I don’t think we can do Tiger Woods.
How did you feel about Guiding Light being canceled?
I was sad for them. This is going to sound puffed up maybe… but too many people think they’re writers and they’re not. There’s so many people who think it’s easy. The people I work with are so into character, into character building. I didn’t have time to watch Guiding Light. I knew some of the people there, who were very nice. I just thought it wasn’t necessary. If someone had a little more intelligence or understanding of the craft and the medium, it could have been saved.
And As the World Turns? How’d you feel about that?
The same. That was my job before I was head writer of Guiding Light. Irna Phillips gave me my first job out of college. I loved the show. But again, when you talk about the difference in those days… When Irna started As the World Turns, Nancy and Hugh had to have twin beds. They were married and they couldn’t be shown in a double bed together.
When you saw those cancellations, did it make you fear for the future of the genre?
No. I just thought, “We’ve got to work harder.” I don’t think storytelling is going out of style. I think the way it’s done can be improper or not interesting enough and certainly has to be slicker today. There’s just so much that has to be done quickly and still in depth.
How do you feel about the new trend to cut costs and do things cheaper?
I think that goes with the territory. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s a fact of life. You adjust to it and make it part of the journey.
Do you want to predict the health of the daytime drama? Will the genre still be around in 20 years?
I don’t know about all of them. There are not as many now as there used to be. There won’t be in a year. I can’t say about all, but I certainly think there’ll be some. What I’m saying is, storytelling will never go out of style. My kind of storytelling is geared toward the spoken word. It’s an ensemble effort. I say all the time that Susan Lucci has created Erica as much as any writer, including myself. But we have made sure that the audience knew and knows and re-learns that as many terrible things Erica may do, she suffers just as much herself because she has an acute abandonment complex.
Photo Credit: Louie Psihoyos/ABC