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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Evil twins, split personalities - soap operas have created all sorts of tricks to keep viewers hooked. Now ABC's "All My Children" has introduced a transgender character. Tomorrow, it will go a step further. In New York, Richard Hake of member station WNYC visited the set.

RICHARD HAKE: The massive warehouse-like studio on the west side of Manhattan is divided up into tiny half-living rooms, bedrooms, offices and hospital rooms - sets that are familiar on any daytime soap opera. But what's not so familiar is the cast in this scene.

Unidentified Man #1: Here we go, folks. Quiet, please, for taping. Stand by. Five, four, three...

HAKE: Seven transgender people - five women and two men - are about to make television history.

(Soundbite of theme music, "All My Children")

HAKE: They're all portraying themselves in a group therapy-style scene with transgender character Zoe, who was introduced from "All My Children" back in December. The show executive producer, Julie Hanan Carruthers, says ABC wanted to show the character's transition from male to female.

Ms. JULIE HANAN CARRUTHERS (Producer, "All My Children"): It's not a smooth ride. And so in order to accurately portray it, we're showing all the ugly sides, as well as the sides that anyone would be proud to see.

Unidentified Man #2: Here we go, you guys. One.

Unidentified Man #3: Okay, places please.

Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible) left into the hallway.

HAKE: Carruthers says "All My Children" has historically risked tackling controversial issues with some initial resistance from the network. But this storyline got a different response right from the start.

Ms. CARRUTHERS: The sales department supported it. The publicity department supported it. The actors couldn't clamor fast enough to say, am I going to be part of the story?

HAKE: But is mainstream America ready to support it? Here's another television show - CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Talk Show Host): This is it. ABC's got one called "All My Children." Are you familiar with that?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LETTERMAN: And they're going to introduce a transgender character to the plot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAKE: "All My Children" executive producer Hanan Carruthers says her show is making the unfamiliar familiar.

Ms. CARRUTHERS: My hope is that all those people that were snickering tune in to snicker at us and find themselves caught up in a very compassionate story of a human soul.

Mr. JEFFREY CARLSON (Actor, "All my Children"): (As Zoe) Scream at me, you're a boy, damn it. Hit me with every slur he was able to pop into your head as I walked in.

HAKE: Actors Jeffrey Carlson, who plays the trans character Zoe, and Eden Riegel as Bianca, rehearse a scene. In the brightly lighted make-up room...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: I'm getting sprayed. I'm turning from Jeffrey into Zoe...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: ...getting the rollers pulled out of my hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAKE: Carlson says he's succeeding in getting the role right, as he can see in the mail he's been getting from viewers.

Mr. CARLSON: I do get things, like, I wouldn't think I was going to like this, but...Or, I'm from here, or this is my religious belief, but they all come with their but. And it's usually, I love her, or I wanted to help her, or I'm glad I know more about this.

HAKE: ABC consulted with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which provided the staff member to help with the script. "All My Children" won three GLAAD Media awards for introducing the first regularly-appearing lesbian character six years ago, played Riegel.

Ms. EDEN RIEGEL (Actress, "All My Children"): It doesn't even like it could have possibly ever been a groundbreaking story because it just seemed so - it's like breathing. It's like the most natural thing in the world that the character on a soap would come out of the closet. And yet, when we did, it was a really, really big deal.

Unidentified Man #4: Ed, this is also a standby for Erica, Jack and Sean and Colby.

Ms. SUSAN LUCCI (Actress, "All My Children): Historically, it really is that "All My Children" has been about.

HAKE: Susan Lucci has been playing Erica Kane on the show for almost 31 years.

Ms. LUCCI: Erica Kane had the first legal abortion on television.

(Soundbite of banging)

HAKE: Jennifer Boylan is an English professor at Colby College and the author of the bestseller, "She Is Not Home." She's appearing as herself with six other transgender people in this episode of "All My Children," where scripts won't be used in a type of group therapy scene.

Mr. CARLSON: It's reality TV in a way, which is to say you've got real transgender people telling their stories. That's very powerful, and it's never been done before.

(Soundbite of banging)

HAKE: But can a television character change people's perceptions and force acceptance?

Mr. JIM COLUCCI (TV Writer; Author, "Will and Grace: Fabulously Uncensored"): It's always that age-old question: Does TV mirror life or does it change life? And I think it's both.

HAKE: TV writer Jim Colucci is the author of "Will and Grace: Fabulously Uncensored." He says NBC took a risk by introducing that controversial show at the time, but knew exactly what it was doing.

Mr. COLUCCI: To get the kind of numbers that a network show needs to succeed, it has to appeal to everybody. That's what broadcasting means. And so the idea was - and it's true - "Will and Grace" was watched across America.

HAKE: Soaps have been going after that broad appeal all these years. And "All My Children" is trying to continue that with the transgender character, whether for sensationalism or for education. Or maybe both.

For NPR News...

Unidentified Man #5: Out.

Unidentified Man #6: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #5: We're going to do it one more time.

HAKE: I'm Richard Hake in New York.

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