If the realistic "All in the Family" had begun to push the envelope of prime-time convention six years earlier, the satirical "Soap" appeared ready to tear and toss it. But when the first two episodes were screened by affiliates in the spring, jaws dropped over its raunchy content. A June Newsweek article that referred to it as a "sex farce" and implied it featured a scene of a priest being seduced in a confessional (it didn't) took the concern out of the boardroom and onto Main Street. Parent and religious groups organized letter-writing campaigns.
» 'Soap,' 'Benson' actor Robert Guillaume dead at age 89
Affiliate protests and advertiser boycotts were announced. For good measure, the National Gay Task Force and a group called the International Union of Gay Athletes weighed in with their own concerns about the show's gay twentysomething character Jodie (Billy Crystal), whose lover was a pro football player.
Network censors also took issue with the show's content, leading to frequent producer battles. A leaked internal report, famously known as "the 'Soap' memo," was reprinted in its entirety in the Los Angeles Times on June 27, nearly three months before the serie's premiere. ("The substitution of Oreos for the traditional [Communion] wafer is unacceptable.")
Not helping: The summer of 1977 marked the phasing out of the short-lived (and much-maligned) Family Hour, which the FCC had mandated in 1975 to establish "safe haven" time slots for viewers. All bets related to prime-time content now seemed off.
By the comedy's Sept. 13 premiere, aired with a warning, ABC had cut its advertising rates for the show, and 18 affiliates had washed their hands, saying no prime time "Soap." (It ran in their late-night hours.)
But the scandal, and the coverage, paid off. Helped by a stellar lead-in (a one-hour "Happy Days" followed by the second-season premiere of "Three's Company," launched earlier that year), "Soap" opened as a hit. And it stayed one.
The watchdog concern continued — future topics would include rape, impotence, cult brainwashing, student-teacher sex and an exorcism — but network and affiliate nervousness eased. Early mixed reviews, which seemed to conflate the content with the controversy, grew to admiring praise. ABC had its respected adult hit.
"Soap" was created by Susan Harris, who five seasons earlier had written the scandalous abortion episode of "Maude." She wrote or co-wrote every episode of the show's first — and best — season. (Distraught yet admiring mother to gay son caught wearing one of her dresses: "Oh, you wear it belted!") The rare 1970s series with a female showrunner — Harris, along with husband Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas — "Soap" ran four seasons and 85 episodes. It won Emmys for Damon and her TV husband, Richard Mulligan, and made stars of Crystal and stage vet Robert Guillaume as malcontent butler Benson DuBois, who also won an Emmy and went on to star in a hit spinoff.
An often-discussed film version to tie up loose ends never materialized. But "Soap" lived on. In 2013 it was named by the Writers Guild of America as one of TV's 101 best-written TV series.