Another dose of Agnes

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for mentioning this clip to me – it’s a recent post by Michael Fairman,  a well-known soap journalist.

This is, shall we say, the expanded remix of what Fairman produced as a memorial tribute for Agnes Nixon at this year’s Daytime Emmys.

It’s quite moving to see so many people get so emotional about Agnes and, really, about the passing of an era.

It’s a lovely clip. It gets a bit syrupy at the end – how very daytime! – but much of the clip has some very moving emotions and reactions, real and authentic words from many of the people who loved Agnes Nixon and owed her a debt of gratitude.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Fairman years ago, on that trip where Guiding Light invited a number of bloggers to see the new production model and somehow decided to invite me. Really nice work, Michael.

Agnes Nixon: In tragedy and triumph

We learned Wednesday that Agnes Nixon died.

There’s not much I can tell you here that hasn’t been better said elsewhere. The New York Times published an excellent obituary.  Daytime Confidential and We Love Soaps have also paid tribute to Nixon. Many millions were impacted by the stories Nixon told, by the characters she created.

I had two thoughts when I heard about Agnes.

One was to really think about, and deeply appreciate, what she accomplished as a writer, as an artist. She rose from challenging beginnings and family tragedy and strife to become a successful working woman in the 1950s and 1960s, when such a thing was not common. Nixon was not just successful, but completely rocking it at a level that was unheard of at that time.

Even setting all the characters and creative achievements aside, she had few equals in ANY part of television. You had Lucille Ball, who owned Desilu for a time, and then you had people like Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon. They may not have owned their shows per se, but their services, their creative abilities, became a company and an empire.

Agnes Nixon and her work became so popular because, like the best writers, she wrote what she knew. You can look at an uber-modern 2016 show like “Transparent,” with its core family, the dreams and hopes and disappointments of those people, created and written by someone spilling much of their own life onto that canvas, and you can see the DNA of a writer like Agnes Nixon in those strands. Erica Kane was long rumored to be based on Agnes herself.

Agnes got the balance right, the magic alchemy that gets people involved in a story. So many of her characters – Phoebe, Myrtle and Opal come to mind – were people we all knew, and also, at the same time, people who were just a little bit bigger, broader and brighter than our neighbors and friends.

The other thought, of course, is that it truly is the end of an era.

Her legendary work moves toward memory, the same memories so many of us have as children when we first saw these shows.

I heard the news on Wednesday and heard the first notes of this music, and I got goosebumps hearing this. It took me back to the opening of that book, to the telling of that story, and of so many others.

The words that Nixon wrote for the show, which appeared in the photo album in the show’s opening, hearkened back to the days of Preston Bradley, and the spark that Bradley ignited in Irna Phillps – to entertain people, to inspire them, to comfort them. Agnes Nixon did all that and more.

The great and the least, the rich and the poor

The weak and the strong, in sickness and in health

In joy and sorrow, in tragedy and triumph

You are all my children. 

Saying it doesn’t make it true

The soap industry is an unusual one. Soaps are seen by millions every day, but most shows fly under the radar when it comes to the mainstream. As a result, we rarely hear the real deal about decision-making, creative decisions or any important research & development at any of the shows.

What we often get, instead, is a whole lotta spin. And what often happens is that if one person gives us a bit of spin, others start repeating it as gospel.

This happened recently when one of my favorite contenders for Mr. Eloquence, Brian Frons, said this:

“Some (soaps) have been on many years, so people feel the need to make sage-like statements about the future of the genre,” Frons says. “Nobody makes those statements when a sitcom or long-running drama dies. It’s the end of that program, and that’s the way we should look at it as well.”

I chalked this up to Frons and his usual wellsprings of empathy and intelligence. But then I picked up this week’s Soap Opera Digest and read this in an interview with Frank Valentini, executive producer of One Life to Live:

“People just love to say that daytime’s dying, so knock yourself out. Say it all you want; they’ve been saying that for the last ten years.”

I really like Frank Valentini. He’s a smart guy, OLTL has been an overall solid show during his tenure, and he knows what he’s talking about. So I was a bit disappointed to hear him chirp the company line…..especially since it’s not true.

Soaps may not be DYING, but only the most myopic person could believe they are still the same make and model as they were twenty or thirty years ago. Most shows averaged ten million viewers in their heyday during the 1970s and 1980s. We are now at a point where those shows have lost EIGHTY percent of their audience.

But still, so many big players in daytime seem to avoid the evidence of these changes. It reminds me a great deal of the music industry. Record labels had a pretty consistent relationship with consumers, but when the ways we listened to music changed, the record companies didn’t respond. They wanted us to continue to buy the music THEY wanted us to, in the format they made money on, at a price that became incredibly expensive. (In 2001, when I wrote a freelance article about the music industry, new CD’s by current artists were hovering at the $20 price level.)

What happened? Consumers embraced new technology. The record companies stuck their heads in the sand – and when they finally pulled them out, they realized that a huge chunk of that audience had used that technology to buy or trade music for free, effectively wiping them out of the process. Some companies have since embraced digital sales, and iTunes has definitely made a huge impact, but the fact remains that sales took a hit.

What continues to FRUSTRATE me immensely is that most mainstream soap folks have spent time pointing fingers and rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Few of the shows have tried to re-scale the shows to today’s audience and today’s economy. (Guiding Light did, but let’s face it – as much as I love that show, that was a shotgun wedding and an act of desperation to keep the show alive.)

If executives were keyed in, the VERY first thing they’d do is scale the shows back to half an hour. An hour a day is simply too big a time investment in this day and age. Almost every show has the fat to cut.

The second thing they’d do is stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and focus strongly on thirtysomething and fortysomething characters. That’s the audience who still has an emotional connection to these shows and the demographic that would be most likely to watch.

And at the risk of being a broken record, I’ll say it again: Soap operas are not telling stories for the people that have watched them or continue to watch them. They continue to tell stories to ADHD-addled adolescents, hoping that whatever drama plays out on screen will make them change the channel from Jersey Shore.

We don’t need caretakers and pallative care. Daytime doesn’t need to be a big hospice. What we DO need are bold, innovative, CREATIVE architects that can re-scale these stories and modernize the facade without destroying the heart and the soul of the tapestry.

It’s time for our creative and technical leaders in the industry to get out of their metaphorical K-cars and think of ways to keep this a profitable business at its current sustainable scale. We may have loved the huge budgets and even bigger hair, but baby, the eighties are over. There’s still life and creative heart in these stories, though. And most importantly – for whoever gets the proportions, the scale and the investment in balance – there’s still money to be made.