How To: Build a "Dynasty"

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YOU WILL NEED
Leadership skills
Innovative ideas
Worshipful subjects
Descendants to carry on your dream

First, Found Your Empire
Irna Phillips wanted to be a Hollywood star, but her acting coaches felt she had a face meant more for radio. Fortunately for Irna, this was 1930, back when radio-acting jobs were plentiful and didn't necessarily involve the words "prairie," "home" or "companion." She went to work for Chicago's WGN station, where, less than a year later, she was asked to develop a 15-minute daily program about a family. The result was "Painted Dreams," which followed the loves and adventures of a wise Irish matriarch, her grown daughter and young, female border. Still trying to break into showbiz, Phillips provided the voice for the mother and several other minor characters, but her skill at concocting elaborate stories and tortured love lives would quickly eclipse her acting credentials. Within a few years, Phillips was in-demand throughout the radio world. By 1943, she had five programs on the air, was pulling in a salary equivalent to more than $2 million, and was writing more than 2 million words a year. Her melodramas, sponsored by cleaning product companies like Proctor and Gamble and aimed at housewives ages 18-49, became known as "soap operas."

Second, Solidify Your Power
Beyond simply creating daytime entertainment's longest-lasting genre, Phillips also pioneered nearly every convention and cliché that went along with it. Her soap operas featured organ music to punctuate dramatic moments, she pioneered the open-ended serialized style and weekly cliffhanger ending that kept listeners coming back for more, she even created the first medical melodrama—inspired by her own chronic hypochondria that prompted near daily visits to doctors and hospitals. And, in 1937, she created a particular drama that would go on to become the world's longest running entertainment program and the world's longest continuous story—"The Guiding Light." Originally, the "guiding light" in question was the lamp in the study of a small-town reverend, which served as a beacon to his frequently emotionally beleaguered parishioners. On "The Guiding Light," Phillips pioneered what was to become another standard part of soap opera fare, plots that tied directly to pressing (and salacious) social concerns. Phillips wrote to the leaders of organizations like the Red Cross, Child Welfare, and The American Legion to find out what social problems they wanted to educate her audience about. Often, the organizations actually sent her individual case histories, which she wove into the plots. In fact, during the 1940s, "The Guiding Light" featured radio's first (and soap history's first of many) illegitimate pregnancy. When soap operas made the jump to television, Irna Phillips went with them. "The Guiding Light" hit the boob tube in 1952, where the plot transitioned into a completely unrelated story about the lives of a German-American family living in a Las Angeles suburb and introduced the first scheming, prima-donna character, former model and occasional husband-killer Meta Bauer.

Dynasty.gifThird, Hand The Reigns To A New Generation
Despite her success, Phillips wasn't completely at home in the television genre. When NBC attempted to run the first color TV broadcast of "The Guiding Light" in 1953, Phillips deliberately set the entire episode in a surgical ward, where nearly everything—from props, to costumes, to the walls—was either black or white. The episode was a flop and Phillips ended up single-handedly pushing back the adoption of regular color broadcasting by almost a decade. But while Phillips may not have been totally comfortable in the television world, her heirs certainly were. Throughout her career, Phillips employed various assistant writers who later went on to create famous and long-running soaps of their own. In fact, nearly every soap on daytime TV today was created by Phillips or by one of her disciples.

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February 6, 2007 - 3:51am
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