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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

April 18, 2023: Soap Opera Studying: The First TV Soaps

[April 22nd will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the king of primetime soap operas, Aaron Spelling. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Spelling and other soap opera contexts, leading up to a crowd-sourced cliffhanger of a weekend post! So share your soapy responses and thoughts, you evil twins you!]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from the first three televised soap operas.

1)      Faraway Hill: The first televised soap was broadcast live once a week on the groundbreaking DuMont Television Network, aiming on Wednesdays between 9 and 9:30pm from October to December, 1946. An adaptation of an unfinished novel from creator and longtime TV writer and director David P. Lewis, Faraway Hill told the story of wealthy young widow Karen St. John (Flora Campbell) who moves away from New York to stay with relatives in the titular Kansas town and falls in love with her niece’s fiancé. While that plotline sounds like plenty of other soap opera stories, its show was quite strikingly experimental—as it aired live and featured no commercials, the show made no money for the network; Lewis’ goal, instead, was to “test the mind of the viewer.” An interesting way to frame the entirety of the new medium of television in that mid-1940s evolutionary moment.

2)      Highway to the Stars: The experiment seemed to be a success, as less than a year later DuMont’s flagship TV station, New York City’s WABD, aired another live, weekly nighttime soap opera, this time featuring commercials. That show was Highway to the Stars, which ran from August to October 1947 and starred Patricia Jones as a talented young singer trying to make it in the big city. As with Faraway Hill, Highway’s live broadcasts means that unfortunately no extant copies of episodes remain, so we can’t for example compare the two to see how the genre was evolving in these early years. But I do think it’s interesting to note how early this new TV genre tapped into one of the most iconic American stories, that perennial, Sister Carrie-like tale of a young woman traveling from her rural hometown to navigate the allure and challenges of the city. If Faraway dealt with the family melodrama that has so often defined soaps, Highway made clear that this new genre would likewise connect to more universal stories.

3)      These Are My Children: There’s no doubt that both Faraway and Highway have a strong claim to the title of “first TV soap opera”; but since they aired once a week and at night, it’s understandable that the daily daytime soap These Are My Children is often granted that title. The show aired live and for only 15 minutes, from 5-5:15 every weekday on Chicago’s WNBQ from January to March, 1949, so it certainly wasn’t yet the prerecorded, hour-long daily formula that came to define the daily soap opera genre. But These was created by Irna Phillips, as I wrote yesterday already well-established by this time as a pioneering figure in the soap opera genre, and was indeed closely based on prior radio soaps of hers like Painted Dreams. So it’s fair to say that These was the first full attempt to translate the genre from radio to television, and despite its short run (and runtime) thus represents an important watershed moment.

Next soap-post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other soap opera contexts or stories you’d share?

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