At Penn ‘All My Children’ will live forever

Remember when Erica Kane faced down a bear? Or when Jesse died and then returned, very much alive, to reunite with his beloved Angie 20 years later? 

How about the countless and classic battles between Viki and Dorian in the town of Llanview? And that hot, troubled romance between Todd and Blair?

Those moments, and thousands of others that have occurred over the 40-plus years that the daytime dramas “All My Children” and “One Life to Life” have been on the air, are being carefully and permanently preserved by Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication (ASC), where virtually every script of the two programs resides.

The complete collection of those scripts, and the scripts for the short-lived show “Loving,” were a gift to Penn made by Agnes Nixon, the creator of the groundbreaking soap operas and one of the most prolific and respected writers of daytime drama in American history. She presented the shows’ early scripts to ASC in the 1980s and a trove of additional, more recent scripts, two years ago.

“The Annenberg School is very well-known, and I believe Penn wanted the scripts as a piece of history,” says Nixon, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and has set her dramas in fictional towns resembling communities in the Delaware Valley.

In the television world, Nixon did indeed make history, creating characters and situations that regularly broke social barriers, from the mid-1960s to today. And with the recent announcement by the ABC television network that it plans to cancel “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” in September 2011 and January 2012, respectively, the scripts archived at Penn are certain to become important artifacts for scholars and students of broadcast history.

Nixon says that the announcement of the shows’ cancellations was not a complete surprise to her because “there had been great rumors that the cost factor had become an issue.” She explains that ratings for daytime dramas have fallen over the past few decades, primarily because of cable television. 

“People watch more things during the day now, and that means less income from the advertisers for daytime dramas,” she says. “Meanwhile the cost of creating the shows doesn’t change. The unions don’t reduce their fees. You have to pay the actors and the writers. Bottom line, it’s money.”

So now Nixon, who is in her 80s and is still actively involved in the development of every episode of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” says she and her small writing staff are busy planning the final plot twists.

“We’re ending them but we aren’t ending them, if you know what I mean,” she says. “It’s possible that some other network might pick them up, so we are ending them with a tune-in-tomorrow attitude.”
But fans should expect to see long-lost characters return to Pine Valley and Llanview during the final episodes, she says. “We’ll have situations that will bring them back.”

Often called the queen of daytime drama, Nixon has been praised for daring to deal with sensitive social issues on her shows. “One Life to Live,” which began airing in 1968, was the first to feature racially and ethnically diverse characters in leading roles, including the controversial character Carla Gray, an African-American woman who spent the first six months of the show “passing” as white. Viewers did not find out she was black until she fell in love with a black doctor and the two kissed.

“Oh, there were a lot of people who didn’t like it,” says Nixon, adding that she enjoyed vexing racists. “I remember a station in Lubbock, Texas cancelled us.”

Over the years, Nixon introduced story lines in both “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” that dealt with thorny issues such as protests against the Vietnam War, abortion, gay rights, child abuse and AIDS.

Nixon says when she started writing for daytime shows (first for radio and then for television), network officials told her there was a difference between entertainment and public service. “But I knew you could do public service through entertainment,” she says. And changing minds through the lives of her characters made Nixon a trailblazer. 

In June of 2010, Nixon was presented with a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award for being “a pioneer who introduced social relevance to daytime, creating some of the most recognizable characters while advancing traditional storytelling through her vision, guidance and inspiration.”

She isn’t ready to quit, but Nixon says she’ll accept whatever fate has in store for “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”

“I worked very hard and I’m proud of what we did,” she says. “I feel sorry for the people who will be without jobs because of the cancellations, but that is life, and 41 years was a good run.”

"All My Children" scripts