On Monday, January 5, 1970, a haughty teenager with a voluminous bouffant scoffed about her hometown, “Pine Valley isn’t exactly the corner of Hollywood and Vine.”
This scene, broadcast fifty years ago this week, marked the debut episode of the American daytime television soap opera, All My Children. More than forty-three years later, on the program’s final broadcast, the same character, the glamorous Erica Kane, repeated her observation, “Pine Valley . . . is still not the corner of Hollywood and Vine,” as she, and the All My Children audience, prepared to leave behind a world richer in significance than the fictional small town setting, and Erica’s attitude toward it, suggested. Today, the program’s fiftieth anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on Pine Valley and the communities of characters, creative professionals, and everyday viewers for whom it was an exceptionally meaningful place. Exploring the origins of All My Children, understanding its emergence within the histories of broadcast television, serialized storytelling, and popular forms speaking to and about women’s interests and concerns, reveals the important role that soap operas, an often dismissed form of television, has played in American cultural life.
All My Children’s launch on ABC in 1970 placed it at the center of developments in the US broadcast network television business, within which daytime soap opera and the network itself were especially important forces. Daytime soap operas, born in the 1930s, had transitioned from radio to television in the 1950s. While the programs’ corporate sponsors, that also owned the soaps and controlled their production, as well as the broadcast networks, were somewhat hesitant to risk their ample radio profits on the new medium, they made the right decision. By the mid-1950s television had established itself as the dominant national broadcasting medium and daytime television had emerged as an especially effective space for pitching domestic goods to women. The serialized nature of soap opera storytelling made the programs reliable attractions for viewers, and thus highly profitable for sponsor-owners. A corporation such as Procter & Gamble advertised many of its brands (such as the laundry and dish soaps that helped give soap opera its name) through the continuing daily stories it owned and produced.
In the 1960s, daytime programming began to prove itself especially lucrative for the “Big Three” networks that dominated US national broadcasting. CBS had pioneered the TV soap, but NBC and ABC recognized the value of the form and began to fill their daytime schedules with serialized dramas as well. ABC was the last to develop a daytime slate and thus was more willing to take chances in that space. Veering away from the sponsor-ownership system that had dominated since radio, ABC experimented with producing a soap opera in-house (General Hospital, (1963-present) and with licensing a soap from an independent producer (Dark Shadows from Dan Curtis Productions, 1966-1971). The network would then sell commercial slots during the programs to a range of advertisers.
The popularity of ABC’s new entries, along with the mounting successes of the other networks’ serials, made daytime television a major growth area for the industry. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, daytime soaps were the economic foundation of the booming network TV business. As the programs’ popularity grew, the networks were able to charge advertisers higher rates while keeping program production costs relatively low (in comparison to prime time), enabling massive profit margins, as high as 300% by the late 1970s.
The expansion of soap operas that began in the 1960s reached its peak in 1970. In its launch year, All My Children was one of nineteen daytime soaps, totaling nearly fifty hours of weekly programming, airing across the three networks. As an ABC entrant, it was represented as a “Now Soap Opera,” because it dealt with contemporary topics such as race relations, extra-marital sex, and the Vietnam War that attracted young and unexpected audiences, including teenagers and men. The baby boomers populating college campuses in the 1970s became vocal soap opera fans, and All My Children was a favorite serial amongst this group. Together with the rest of the ABC daytime line-up, the show made ABC the most profitable network by the early 1980s. It had the youngest daytime audience among the Big Three national networks, generating 25% of the network’s revenues and 50% of its profits.
All My Children’s debut was a central part of these developments, but its significance extends beyond the money it made. The intense investment of audiences in daytime soap opera points to the power of the stories they told. All My Children was one of a handful of network-era soap debuts that served as hinge-points between the legacy form inherited from radio and the future of daytime TV drama. The serial was the creation of Agnes Eckhardt Nixon, a liberal-leaning, Catholic mother of four with southern roots, raising her family just outside Philadelphia. Years earlier, Nixon had trained as a radio and then TV writer under the guidance of Irna Phillips, often considered the “mother” of the daytime serial drama. A pioneer of the form in radio of the 1930s, Phillips then helped to steer the soaps into the early TV industry in the late 1940s. Phillips innovated many of the key practices of soap opera storytelling, from systems for matching budgets with uses of contracted actors and sets to explorations of gender dynamics within fictional families.
Nixon had written with and for Phillips on several soaps and would draw upon already successful methods and themes to create One Life to Live in 1968, a breakthrough show because of its diverse characters and cast, and All My Children two years later. Unfailingly gracious and exceptionally savvy, Nixon understood the value in the storytelling structures Phillips had taught her. But she also strove to craft narratives suited to an era changed by the social movements and generational dynamics that differentiated the present, and her own politics, from Phillips’ past. The serials Nixon created brought anti-war activism and the struggles of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements into soap formulas.
While attention to social issues was a growing component of daytime drama in this era, Nixon’s soaps engaged such matters more boldly and thoroughly than their peers, and far more than much of prime-time television. In part, this was due to her insistence on having creative control. She and her husband, Robert, launched the company Creative Horizons to produce One Life To Live and All My Children at a moment when most soaps were still produced by sponsor-owners. As independent producers licensing their content to ABC, the Nixons may have had more freedom to shape the programs as they saw fit. While ABC would take ownership of both soaps in the mid-1970s, Nixon had established herself as the anchor of the network’s daytime schedule and retained an unusual degree of creative power. With this, Nixon was able to craft stories especially well-suited to the times and to the broadcast TV environment. These progressively tinged but politically “balanced” takes on controversial subjects, from interfaith marriages to racial passing, welcomed an array of audiences into the lives and concerns of the female characters at the center of the serial.
The early years of All My Children boldly combined these politicized tales with traditional soap opera themes, such as mother-child dynamics and young romantic love, that were themselves changing in the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s. The show’s first major story revealed the true parentage of the teenage Philip Brent, a character anticipating being drafted for the Vietnam war as he approached high school graduation. The revelation that peace activist Amy Tyler was Philip’s biological mother added an intensely felt personal layer to Amy’s political convictions about the war. Amy’s sister Ruth, a pillar of the community, had raised Philip as her own, given that the unwed Amy had become pregnant by a man she distrusted eighteen years earlier. When Philip did go to war, and was killed in action, even the respectable Ruth voiced anti-war views.
The storyline participated in a national conversation about both the generation gap and, most importantly, the war. Nixon was herself opposed to the war in Vietnam, but she recognized the need to present a politically balanced perspective, both for the sake of a good story that foregrounded the tension Amy was experiencing and to grant a sympathetic hearing for the conservative “silent majority” that still supported the war. Yet Nixon also created a narrative space for transformation. Amy’s status as a mother, Ruth’s as an adoptive mother, brought mothering and protesting the war into alignment, blending emotion-driven storytelling with a political position.
So too did Nixon’s determination to tackle a woman’s right to choose, two years before Roe v. Wade, with Erica Kane Martin’s abortion, a story line that would elevate that character to the status of a soap opera legend. In 1971, the teenage Erica was in college, married to medical student Jeff, and certain she did not want to have a baby. A vain and selfish character, Erica loved Jeff but married him largely for the security he provided. She was not the first sympathetic, “love to hate her” villainess of daytime soap opera, but she was an especially effective version of the character type. Her single mother, Mona, was an upstanding woman who understood Erica’s faults but supported her nonetheless, Nixon’s invitation to the audience to care about Erica as well. That audience accompanied Erica on her extended path to getting an abortion at a time when the legality of the procedure varied by state. Erica repeatedly and vociferously defended her right to decide the fate of her own body, even as other characters tried to convince her that abortion was wrong. She eventually succeeded at getting a legal abortion; crucially, however, she lied about having her husband’s approval for the procedure.
In such storylines, Nixon took strong political stands, while leaving room for conversation and moral complexity. Her early stances on social and political issues of the day were central to All My Children’s appeal, especially to young viewers finding something for themselves in a form long associated with their mothers’ generation. All My Children would sustain this engagement with controversial subject matter throughout its history, although its progressive stances had limits. Like most daytime drama, characters of color had minor roles prior to the 1980s. In the early 1980s she contemplated creating a romantic pair from the black Jesse Hubbard with the white Jenny Gardner, but instead made them dear friends involved with same-race partners. Yet, while Nixon’s involvement waxed and waned over the years, her hand is clearly visible in storylines about sexuality and feminism: in the mid 1990s, that included interracial romance, rape, and abortion, and in the 2000s, Erica’s daughter Bianca coming out as a lesbian. Smoothing the way for these liberal perspectives on these social issues were the time-tested principles of soap storytelling — nurturing the audience’s emotional connection to multi-dimensional characters, difficult family dynamics, and romantic love.
Eventually, All My Children stumbled. Daytime TV soaps in the United States, and all of broadcast network TV, declined in popularity and profitability from the later 1980s on. This trend accelerated in the 2000s as social, technological, and economic forces shrank the role of TV broadcasting in the media landscape. Over the years of its declining ratings, All My Children made narrative missteps, choices that seemingly violated the origins of the soap as a politically engaged, left-leaning space invested in women’s issues. Most egregious for many fans was the “undoing” of Erica’s 1971 abortion. In the mid-2000s, a nefarious doctor revealed that he had actually transferred Erica’s embryo to his own wife’s uterus (a medical procedure that was not possible then or now.) The audience was outraged, not merely by the excessive demand on their suspension of disbelief, but also by the show’s disregard for the historic significance of Erica’s 1971 abortion. While the program’s 2011 cancelation cannot be blamed on the “unabortion” plot, the story seemed to many to symbolize the disconnect between contemporary soap creators and network executives and the fans’ deep and abiding connection to Pine Valley.
The evolution of All My Children, and even its sad end, are worth our attention at this half-century mark. The serial offers important insights on the history of the daytime soap opera, about American television as a whole, and about the emergence of the female creative as a powerful industry figure willing to tackle issues of gender and sexuality. All My Children exemplified the impact of carefully told stories about well-developed characters, and the place of television drama in speaking to audiences about their changing world. The influence of Erica, of Pine Valley, of Agnes Nixon, and of daytime drama writ large remind us of the unique power of television and its long-running tales to help us grapple with who we are and what we value, and that stories about, by, and for women have long been central to these crucial cultural processes.
Elana Levine is professor of Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History (Duke, 2020).