On This Day

Irna Phillips, Irna Phillips soap opera, Irma Phillips, Irna Phillips wgn
Museum of Broadcast Communications
Irna Phillips

On This Day: First TV Soap Opera Debuts

January 31, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 31, 1949, an NBC station in Chicago aired the first episode of Irna Phillips’ “These Are My Children,” the first daytime soap opera on a major television network.

“These Are My Children” Makes Soap Opera History

Aspiring actress Irna Phillips created the radio program “Painted Dreams,” considered to be the first soap opera, for WGN in Chicago in 1930. She created and wrote many other daytime serials over the next two decades, introducing features that have become soap opera clichés, such as cliffhanger endings, dramatic organ music and white-collar professionals as central characters.

Phillips was a prolific writer, who in the early 1940s was generating about two million words a year using unorthodox methods. “Rather than face the typewriter herself, Phillips each morning sat at a card table in her Chicago living room with a predetermined story line and dictated dialogue to her secretary, changing accents or vocal styles for each character,” according to the Paley Center for Media.

Most daytime serials were sponsored by companies that sold products designed for housewives, such as cosmetic companies and manufacturers of household cleaning products (most of Phillips’ were funded by Procter & Gamble). The close association between these shows and soap products led to the name “soap opera.”

In 1949, NBC gave Phillips her first television show, airing 15-minute episodes every weekday. The show, “These Are My Children,” focused on Mrs. Henehan, an Irish widow who oversaw a boarding house with her children. It lasted just 24 days, as it was panned by critics and “apparently cancelled because AT&T could no longer supply the cable required to transmit the show,” according to Memorable TV.

Though the show was a failure, it was the first time that a daytime soap opera appeared on a major television network. Over the next several years, televised soap operas such as Roy Winsor’s “Search for Tomorrow” and “Love of Life,” and Phillips’ television adaptation of “The Guiding Light” became popular. By the 1960s, most soap operas appeared on television.

Phillips continued working on soap operas until 1973, the year of her death. She created or co-created such hits as “As the World Turns,” “Another World” and “Days of our Lives.”

“Her contributions to one format are unprecedented in television history,” says Museum of Broadcast Communications. “Television comedy had many parents … But the soap opera had only one mother and she was it. She founded an entire industry based on her techniques, beliefs and the ongoing, interlocking stories that she dreamed.”

The Soap Opera Genre

Since their inception, soap operas have been associated with lowbrow entertainment. “Particularly in the United States, the connotation of ‘soap opera’ as a degraded cultural and aesthetic form is inextricably bound to the gendered nature of its appeals and of its target audience,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications writes.

However, this stereotype belies the fact that soaps are “one of the most narratively complex genres,” which according to the museum, “requires considerable knowledge by its viewers.”

The popularity of soap operas began to fade in the late 1980s because more women began to join the workforce. “Gone were the days when women were supposedly duty-bound to remain home and take care of the house and kids; it was becoming necessary in many households to have two sources of income,” writes Dan Kroll for Soap Central.

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