The story of soap opera, from its beginnings on radio through the success of television, is very closely associated with the Procter & Gamble name. It’s a combination of having the right team in place.
Starts on the Page: Soap Opera Writers
In the first installment of this series, the evolution from cooking shows to provide content to 15-minute stories and the supervisors who oversaw them was explored.
With its supervisors in place, P&G joined forces with soap operas’ greatest creator, Irna Phillips. Their partnership was an incredibly successful one and pretty much guaranteed P&G’s success in the soap world.
“Irna Phillips was a character,” remembered Bob Short, the legendary executive who oversaw much of P&G’s success. “She was really a remarkable talent.”
Short and Phillips, along with the late Edward Trach, P&G’s other legendary executive who joined the company during the television years, became the triumvirate that brought Procter & Gamble its greatest successes in the soap opera world.
Trach regarded Short with the utmost respect. “Bob Short is one of the giants in the business, along with Irna Phillips because he, at Procter & Gamble, blazed the trail which in effect set up the form and made it successful.”
The Issues With Television
The advent of television brought its own difficulties for the soap opera format. Bob Short recalled, “When television started, the whole question about daytime was quite controversial in the trade and there was a lot of debate about it in Cincinnati within the company as to whether we could do in daytime television what we had done in radio.
“At that time, no one thought of doing anything but trying to make a 15-minute TV soap. There was much debate as to whether anyone would watch because, at that time, the focus was on the housewife. There was one school of thought that daytime television serials would never work because women were too busy in the home or out shopping.
“If they did work,” continued Short, “it would create havoc and destroy the home life of families.
“There was a lot of back and forth about it. But finally, the decision was made to try it and that’s when the decision was made to put on The First Hundred Years. That was in 1950 and it lasted about a year. Search for Tomorrow started in 1951. I think The First Hundred Years went off about the time that Search went on. Search for Tomorrow was successful and so was Love of Life and that’s what led to the move of The Guiding Light into TV.”
That was a pretty controversial move at the time. Radio was radio, TV was TV — The Guding Light helped show what was really possible. “There was also a lot of discussion on whether the radio shows could be transferred to television,” shares Short. “In fact, a big part of the problem at the beginning was concern that the actors would not be able to handle memorization of the parts five days a week.
“It was one of those things where we finally decided to try it. For a long time, we used teleprompters. The shows were all live and what we found, for the most part, was that everybody loved the live medium. We used a lot of Broadway people.”
Short continued, “The Guiding Light was converted to TV in 1952 and we continued the radio show for a while using the same script, the same actors, and the same director. We taped the read-through for the TV show the day before — that was the radio show. There were some cuts, of course, but essentially it was the same show.
“I had an overlap in my own career between radio and TV because I handled the Guiding Light transition. It was an unusual experience. I was supervising the show, but I continued to supervise the radio show reporting to Bill Ramsey, and I supervised the television show reporting to Bill Craig. Somebody once said something about serving two masters. It was quite a balancing act. I had the strong support of Irna Phillips. Irna was a rock at that time. Both Ramsey and Craig realized that Irna knew what she was doing and so it worked fine.”
A Pivotal Year For the Soap Opera
“1952 was a critical year,” explains Robert Wehling, former senior executive. “We were simulcasting The Guiding Light on both radio and television. At that time, Procter & Gamble and the other major advertisers had been solely sponsoring soaps.
“We decided, both for cost reasons and to extend our reach, to begin to co-sponsor programs as opposed to single-sponsor shows. So that started the emergence of a soap opera brought to you by six or seven brands as opposed to one brand. The singular association of a show with a brand began to decline in the 1950s, beginning in 1952.”
Wehling continued, “As the television programs took off, listening to radio soaps began to decline. But we hung in with it until 1955. And in 1955, we ceased the production of radio soaps and concentrated on television.”
Bob Short, who was becoming comfortable in the new medium, still felt for his radio roots. “Bill Ramsey never had any television responsibility other than, after radio died, the last two years he was there he was in charge of commercial production. He hated to see radio go, as we all did.”
In the last installment of this series, find out about the television takeover — and what happened for the company as it expanded.