Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peyton Place, based on a best-selling novel that had already received an award-winning film adaptation, gained a large audience as the first hit primetime television serial. The series shocked audiences with its frank exploration of sex and personal intrigue in a New England town.

Summary of Event

The television series Peyton Place Peyton Place (Metalious) was based on the 1956 Grace Metalious novel of the same name and was set in the New England town of Peyton Place. Eighteen years prior to the events portrayed on the television program, series character Constance Mackenzie, now owner of the Peyton Place Bookstore, had engaged in premarital sex. Allison Mackenzie was the child produced by that affair. Constance had always kept from Allison the truth about her conception but, in the series, Allison always appeared to be on the verge of discovering it. To complicate matters, the father turned up in Peyton Place after spending the last eighteen years in prison and, at about the same time, so did Dr. Michael Rossi, who witnessed the birth of Allison while still a medical student. Also in town was Rodney Harrington, son of a wealthy industrialist, who was tricked into marrying his supposedly pregnant girlfriend, Betty, even though he had already fallen in love with Allison. The cast included a number of other characters at any given time, and in any half-hour episode a dozen characters might appear in separate scenes. Peyton Place (television program) Television;dramas [kw]Peyton Place Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime Television (Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969) [kw]Drama to Nighttime Television, Peyton Place Brings Serial (Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969) [kw]Television, Peyton Place Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime (Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969) Peyton Place (television program) Television;dramas [g]North America;Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969: Peyton Place Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime Television[08200] [g]United States;Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969: Peyton Place Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime Television[08200] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 15, 1964-June 2, 1969: Peyton Place Brings Serial Drama to Nighttime Television[08200] Farrow, Mia O’Neal, Ryan Malone, Dorothy Samish, Adrian Monash, Paul Metalious, Grace

The production crew of Peyton Place took pains to produce a lifelike, authentic set, because they believed that the content of the show was lifelike. They often referred to Peyton Place as “a town of the mind.” Although many critics called the series a soap opera, the production crew preferred the term “TV novel,” because the characters grew as the episodes accumulated.

The show certainly was not realistic, even if individual elements were lifelike. The town of Peyton Place, as The New York Times observed, had “no Jews, no Negroes, no bigotry, no religious or political division.” The problems in Peyton Place revolved around murder, adultery, premarital sex, dating, social status, and illegitimacy. These circumstances occurred in everyday life but not to the extent that they did in the lives of the characters on Peyton Place. Although it avoided many controversies, the show challenged accepted conventions. Sexual activity Television;sexual content frequently was implied, and double entendre was used regularly. The action on the show was viewed by many people in the context of the popular novel from which the show took its name. The novel had been much more explicit in its sexuality. On the other hand, many conventions were respected. Villains were always punished, justice was always done, character was improved by adversity, and steady progress seemed to be made toward solving most problems.

Peyton Place used a serial format. At first broadcast twice a week, it moved to three nights a week beginning in June, 1965, before dropping back to two nights a week in September, 1966. This series format allowed the show to achieve realistic effects as the audience got to know the characters over a long period of time. The audience could gain an intimate connection with the characters via a shared history.

One of the most appealing characters was Allison Mackenzie, played by Mia Farrow, only nineteen years old when the show went on the air in 1964. Farrow viewed her character as typifying a vulnerable part of every person. She played Allison as something of a wallflower.

Farrow came to performing naturally. Her father, John, was a writer and film director, and her mother was Maureen O’Sullivan, an actor. Although Farrow once considered becoming a nun, she gave up the idea when she secured her mother’s aid in getting a part in an Off-Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895, pb. 1899). She was with the touring company of that production when asked to take the role of Allison Mackenzie.

Variety magazine commented on her performance in the role by calling attention to her “pensive, soft quality,” while network executive Adrian Samish called her “a female Billy Budd.” Soon known to millions of viewers for her long, loose blond hair as well as her acting skill, Farrow became thoroughly identified with her character. Allison Mackenzie, however, was written out of the show by August, 1966.

Ryan O’Neal played the character of Rodney Harrington, son of a wealthy, lecherous industrialist. O’Neal’s real-life family had moved around the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe, following the film industry. While O’Neal was in high school, his family was in Germany. Rather than attend the rather strict U.S. Army School, O’Neal wangled a job from Kirk Douglas Productions, which was making a series for German television. After returning to Hollywood, O’Neal got several bit parts on various television series and finally got his big chance when he was recommended for a role on Empire by Richard Egan, who starred in that Western series. As a result of his exposure on Empire, O’Neal was offered his Peyton Place role.

As Rodney Harrington, O’Neal was popular with the fans of the show. To satisfy their demands, he appeared in almost all of the 514 episodes filmed. This very demanding schedule was not appealing to O’Neal, who said, “the key to success on Peyton Place was to learn your lines quickly. We worked five days a week grinding out ninety minutes of TV each week.”

Dorothy Malone received top billing on the show and proved to be popular with the public in her role as Constance Mackenzie. Malone was an experienced Hollywood actor who had won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in Written on the Wind (1956).

The continuing saga of Peyton Place and its citizens became regular multiweekly fare for up to sixty million viewers. In February, 1969, the show began airing only once a week, and the last episode was broadcast on June 2, 1969. The show was revived as a daytime serial from 1972 to 1974.

Significance

Peyton Place made a distinct impact on the television industry. It claims the distinction of introducing the soap opera Soap operas Television;soap operas , or continuing melodramatic serial, to nighttime television. Although there had been other shows that revolved around a continuing cast of characters, this was the first to have a continuing story line that dealt with adult situations. The format caught on quickly with the viewing public.

During the 1964-1965 television season, Peyton Place was broadcast twice a week. The episodes always rated in the top twenty shows for popularity on their respective nights. When the show was broadcast three times a week, beginning in June, 1965, it met with equal success. The ability of the show to make such an impact was enhanced by the popularity of the novel on which it was based. The novel had also been made into a successful film in 1957.

Despite this preparation, some executives at the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC) feared that the traditional soap-opera genre, though it had been a staple of radio and daytime television, would not translate well to nighttime television. The scriptwriters for Peyton Place took care to see that it succeeded. Although it brought to prime time all the twists of plot and steamy romance previously played out on daytime soap operas, the action was speeded up. Unlike the older soap operas, in which nothing ever happened quickly, Peyton Place had subplots that developed rapidly. This approach attracted an average of sixty million viewers to each episode, according to the Nielsen ratings.

With ABC making a success of Peyton Place, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) were quick to follow suit. CBS planned to bring a spin-off from its successful daytime soap opera As the World Turns to a nighttime slot. NBC converted its popular Dr. Kildare show, which went on the air on September 28, 1961, to a serial format. Not resting on its laurels, ABC planned The Girl from Peyton Place as a spin-off to fill yet more evenings but later dropped the plans.

Members of the ABC production crew all agreed that Peyton Place was a radical departure for television. As to whether that departure was desirable, there was disagreement. The National Association for Better Radio and Television said, “Peyton Place is an obvious exploitation of the sordid and tasteless elements of Grace Metalious’s novel, and a monument to ABC’s search for ratings, regardless of the social impact of unrelieved sex and sin.” At any rate, Peyton Place ran for five seasons and left the air only to return as a daytime soap opera that ran for two and one-half years on NBC. During the last two years of its daytime run, Peyton Place had a difficult time maintaining an audience.

Peyton Place also had an impact on some of its performers. Whether on radio or daytime television, soap operas have provided a good showcase for talent. Relative newcomers introduced to television by Peyton Place included Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Christopher Connelly, Barbara Parkins, and Mariette Hartley. Mia Farrow progressed to a film career, featuring most prominently in films by Woody Allen, including Another Woman (1988), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). She also starred in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Secret Ceremony (1968). Ryan O’Neal became a leading man, starring in Love Story (1970) and its sequel Oliver’s Story (1978), Paper Moon (1973), and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), among many others.

Perhaps the most important impact of Peyton Place was on the content of television shows generally. ABC had been on the bottom in ratings when it began implementing a strategy of including greater sexual content in its shows. Critics called Peyton Place “a sex comic strip” and “a happy combination of sex, sin, and soap.” The producers of Peyton Place believed the show to be maligned by these characterizations. Instead of sex, they thought the show portrayed realism, truthfulness, and moral enlightenment. Executive producer Paul Monash said Peyton Place was “a cautionary tale with a high moral intention.” Samish commented, “We are in the business of gathering the largest audience we can. We don’t seek the freedom of drama. . . . I feel we have all the freedom I want.”

Without a doubt, the novel Peyton Place used the greater freedom usually accorded to print, as compared with television, to be much more graphic in its sexual content, though it was relatively mild by the standards of later decades. By the standards of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Peyton Place was far from a “sex comic strip.”

Paul Monash, who also wrote novels and teleplays, evaluated the difference between the television show and the novel this way: “The novel is a negativistic attack on the town written by someone who knew it well and hated it. The TV series is a love affair with the town.” He went on to say that Peyton Place was a moral show, although the moral guidelines were self-imposed. Monash saw the success of the program not in titillating viewers but in offering a cast that audiences could like as people.

This may have been true, but the show did break new ground in program content. Prior to Peyton Place, there were few even veiled hints about sex and sexuality on television. Married couples were shown in twin beds and, even then, men’s pajamas were buttoned at the neck. Teenage and premarital sex most often progressed no further than a good-night kiss at the front door with the porch light on. The public was already reading descriptions of sexuality that were much more graphic, and the theater was much more open about the subject. It was only a question of time until the changing public taste and demand created a television show that reflected these changes. Peyton Place was the show that opened the gate for this change. By the 1980’s, such nighttime dramas as Dallas and Dynasty were on the air with far more scandalous subject matter. Peyton Place (television program) Television;dramas

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckman, Peter. All for Love: A Study in Soap Opera. Salem, N.H.: Salem House, 1984. Soap opera is the most popular of all television genres, yet it is often derided by critics, so some fans feel ashamed of enjoying it. This book tells what is right about soap opera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassata, Mary, and Thomas Skill. Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-in American Serial Drama. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing, 1983. Although the title mentions daytime programming, the material in the book applies to all serial dramas on television. There is a good discussion of how serial dramas set and maintain a mood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. An analysis of how television functions, through power plays made by small groups of top executives, writers, producers, and agents. Gitlin looks at what makes good shows good and why some catch on while others fail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Fred, and Stan Goldstein. Prime-Time Television. New York: Crown, 1983. Combines text and pictures to present a vivid history of television from 1948 to 1983. Almost every program or series on the air for at least one season is included in this comprehensive work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendler, Jane. Best-Sellers and Their Film Adaptations in Postwar America: “From Here to Eternity,” “Sayonara,” “Giant,” “Auntie Mame,” “Peyton Place.” New York: P. Lang, 2001. Study of five best-selling, sexually frank novels that were adapted into popular films after World War II. Details the American cultural reaction to the film version of Peyton Place and explains the context in which the decision was made to bring it to the small screen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luckett, Moya. “A Moral Crisis in Prime Time: Peyton Place and the Rise of the Single Girl.” In Television, History, and American Culture: Feminist Critical Essays, edited by Mary Beth Haralovich and Lauren Rabinovitz. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Reads the representation of unmarried women in Peyton Place from a feminist point of view and in the context of changing representations of women in television generally. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, John E., ed. American History, American Television. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Television is presented here both as a force in recent social history and as a matter to be studied. This collection of essays came out of Columbia University’s Seminar on Cinema, but they all relate to television. This book deals with a wide range of topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Brian G., ed. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Attempts to explain to viewers how and why television shows fall into a limited number of formats. The cross-fertilizing of formats, or genres, is discussed. Genres from police shows to church services are discussed.

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