On January 31, 1949, the first TV daytime soap opera, “These Are My Children,” premiered on NBC in Chicago. It was created by Irna Phillips, later known as the “Queen of the Soaps.” Although the show only aired for 24 days before being canceled, “These Are My Children” paved the way for a new popular TV genre. Phillips went on to create successful daytime TV soap operas and mentor others, like “One Life to Live” creator Agnes Nixon, who further popularized the genre. Daytime soap operas on television became a major part of 20th-century women’s entertainment and American culture.
When NBC gave Phillips her first television show, she had already been a prolific soap opera writer for radio since the 1930s. An aspiring actress, she created the radio program “Painted Dreams” for WGN in Chicago in 1930. This show is considered the first soap opera. Phillips wrote every episode of the series and also starred as the two lead characters on the show, Mother Moynihan and Sue Morton.
By the early 1940s, Phillips continued to pioneer the soap opera genre by implementing cliffhangers, melodramatic background music and relatable middle-class main characters into her stories. Sponsored mostly by Procter & Gamble, her stories were designed to sell items like household products and cosmetics to women. The close connection between the programs and the soap products advertised throughout each show led to the name for the genre: soap opera.
In 1949, NBC gave Phillips “These Are My Children,” that aired as 15-minute episodes every weekday at 5 pm. The story centered around the story of Mrs. Henehan, an Irish widow who oversaw a boarding house with her children. Despite Phillips’ writing talent, critics and audiences were not quite ready for this genre. The show only aired for 24 days. The Television World paper wrote, “There is no space on television for this type of program.” However, Phillips refused to give up on her quest to bring the soap opera genre to TV.
Her persistence paid off. By the 1950s, television soap operas like “Search For Tomorrow” and “Love of Life,” as well as Phillips’ “Guiding Light,” became popular daytime shows. In 1956, Phillips co-created “As The World Turns” with the assistance of her protégé, Nixon, who would become known as the “grande dame of daytime drama.” “As The World Turns” was one of the first two daytime serials to run for 30 minutes. It became the most-watched daytime drama for from 1958 to 1978. Phillips continued to create or co-create soap opera hits, including “Another World” and “Days of Our Lives,” until her death in 1973.