Auds in lather over primetime sudsers

40 years ago 'Peyton' aided Alphabet as 'Housewives' does today

And you thought “Desperate Housewives” was the most sizzling thing to ever unsettle suburbia.

The same network, ABC, did it exactly 40 years ago with “Peyton Place.” The black and white primetime soap, based on Grace Metalious’ scandalous bestseller, offered two half-hour episodes every week.

Variety’s frontpage headline in September 1964 said it all: “In Dayton they all dig Peyton.”

The paper’s lead story reported on the ratings rout the nighttime sudser had given to the competish in just two outings.

“It’s the most talked about, most publicized and (thanks to its twice a week positioning and unrelieved theme of sex and sin) unquestionably the most viewed program in all of TV.”

Naturally, 40 years ago the competition was not nearly as unbuttoned and uninhibited as so many shows today. “Peyton Place” was playing in the same primetime pool as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gomer Pyle” and “Gilligan’s Island” while “Housewives” is surrounded by titillation of all kinds.

The “Peyton Place” ratings victory over NBC’s “Hazel” and CBS’s “Petticoat Junction,” Variety suggested, “would appear to indicate that the program which appeals to the libido has a marked edge over one that’s made for laughs.”

Go figure.

The strong numbers of its two debut episodes that first week led producer Paul Monash to proclaim that the raw material of the soap was “in the mainstream of American morality.”

Variety’s review of the show, which appeared in the Sept. 23 issue and was penned by Les Brown, hit the nail on the head:

“Its cup runs over with the ripening sex urge in teenage kids, wretched marriages, illegitimate offspring, adultery and assorted other concupiscent adventures.”

Brown went on to praise the performances (Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, et al.) and the knowledgeable direction (Walter Doniger, Ted Post), concluding: “Lest it be thought strictly a woman’s dish, who’s to deny that men dig sex.”

The show ran for five seasons, sometimes with three original episodes a week. The Alphabet never aired a repeat of any of the 514 episodes during its entire primetime firstrun.

Variety also noted that copies of Metalious’ eponymous potboiler were jumping off drugstore shelves after “Peyton Place” premiered, another indication it would become a pop culture phenom.

As for imitators, Variety soon noted that Hollywood producers were all scurrying to come up with similar evening soaps for the next season.

Cloning was part of the game even then.

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