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The History of Procter & Gamble’s Soap Opera Involvement: Part Three

Irna PhillipsIrna Phillips

The story of soap opera, from its beginnings on radio through the success of television, is very closely associated with the Procter & Gamble name. But what started on radio eventually made its way to TV — changing the whole ballgame.

Soap Opera Flourishes on Television

The company’s involvement with radio soaps was explored in the first installment of this series and in part two, the transition from radio to TV was examined. Now TV has replaced the radio soaps — and the company’s involvement expands.

“By 1956, radio had pretty much faded away,” recalled Bob Short, the legendary executive who oversaw much of P&G’s success, “and I was transferred to the TV operation. In 1958, I became the manager of the TV department. P&G Productions is a subsidiary of the Procter & Gamble Company and it functions as a production company [Author’s Note: As of 2013, Procter & Gamble Productions no longer exists].

“At one time I had four or five supervisors working for me. They lived in Cincinnati and they spent a lot of time wherever the shows were being produced or in meetings with writers in various places. Ed Trach was one of my supervisors for five years, and he worked very closely with Irna Phillips.

“The actual production was in New York. The business and creative control was out of Cincinnati — the hiring of the major talent, the writers, and producers, and directors, and the leads, and so on.”

Trach recalled, “I came to Procter & Gamble in 1958, right out of the Yale School of Drama where I majored in playwriting and directing. It turned out to be a tremendous background for me in coming into this new world. And my role was, simply — for the first few months — to learn and then to be a player along with the others; to ask questions, to propose alternatives, to enter a debate on one side or another or a third side. It was a very stimulating and creatively-challenging environment to be in.”

TV Takes Over

Television was king, radio was dead, and Procter & Gamble was carrying the soap opera torch. The new medium had replaced the old, and the new executives were leading the way. Robert Wehling, a former senior executive comments, “Bill Ramsey was retired by the early 1960s. His career was essentially a radio serial career, with Bob Short and Ed Trach being the key architects of our television period.”

“I was a supervising producer on 10 or 11 shows over the years, but mostly on As The World Turns,” explained Trach. “And I was responsible for putting Another World on the air for P&G and also a show called Somerset which was on the air for six years. I was also involved and responsible for expanding Search for Tomorrow to a half-hour and Guiding Light to an hour and World Turns to an hour.”

Perhaps the secret of P&G’s success with soaps was in the characters and stories the company presented to its audience. “The guiding principle always was to tell a good story with identifiable, believable characters” noted Short. “Do it with good taste and don’t do anything for a sensational nature, just for the shock effect.”

The Inner Workings of Soap Opera Story Meetings

Ed Trach described the story meetings with great fondness. “In the early days, we usually met with my boss, Bob Short. We’d be in a room — Bob Short would be there, Irna Phillips, usually Ted Corday, who was delightful to work with. And we would begin discussing the various characters.

“The nature of the story meeting itself was more like a shrink session, where you are analyzing the motives, emotions, patterns of behavior, and so on of each of the characters and the repercussions of any given action and the ripple effects that it would have on the other members of the family or any other characters that touched their lives. Through it all, we would emerge with a storyline that we felt would compel the audience to watch.

“Procter & Gamble, perhaps more than any other producer,” continued Trach, “always took the side of the writer. There’s nothing more important than a writer who is passionately committed to a given idea. And very often we would be mediating disputes with the New York contingent, who wanted this or that, and Irna, who wanted something else. If we got to the point of an impasse, we would always side with Irna.

“And in terms of who had the final say, I think Irna knew that she worked for Procter & Gamble. And she valued, and I think respected, what our position was, which was essentially supportive. But if it ever came to any dispute where we might not agree, we would tell her our concerns and let her do it her way,” recalls Trach.

He continued, “The network wasn’t involved and, to that extent, life was much simpler then. The network entrusted us entirely to produce the show and deliver it to them. And this went on for many, many years — the first 20 years or so.

Networks Come Into Play

“Then when they got into the act, that’s when a lot of things began to happen which made the process more complicated. You had the ideas of one or two network people sitting in and then it became political, because the network could, in a sense, ask or demand, not that we would respond, but they could make it very difficult if you would not change a writer or a producer or a director or not introduce a particular kind of story development and so on. All done in a manner of trying to be helpful, of course, but nonetheless, they’re just more voices.”

A legendary legacy came to an end with the retirement of Bob Short in 1982, but P&G was still in good hands — Ed Trach’s. “I took over Bob’s position in 1982. I was the Executive in Charge of Production for six P&G shows.” When Trach left the company in 1994, it truly was the end of a remarkable and glorious era.

Looking back, Robert Wehling comments, “We helped get the genre started. We also helped with the development and nurturing of a number of writers who ultimately played a role, not only with the radio soaps but in the transition to television. Irna Phillips being among them. I think both from a development, nurturing standpoint and in that critical transition period to television, we played a key role.”

Bob Short adds, “When you stop and think about it, almost every successful soap has had its antecedents with P&G — I mean the talent.”

Sadly, P&G-produced soap operas are no more. The cancellation of As The World Turns in 2010 saw the end of a great soap opera dynasty. But when history recounts the great soap operas of the past, the Procter & Gamble name will be there, right along with them.

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