Soap Operas

views updated May 23 2018

Soap Operas

In the 1930s, advertisers such as Procter & Gamble sought sponsorship of daily radio programming targeted to homemakers, who controlled the household purse strings for cleaning and other household product purchases. Daytime serial dramas soon answered this call, focusing melodramatically on women, multi-generational families, and romantic intrigue in live, 15-minute shows. Although derogatory at first, the term "soap opera" was eventually embraced and is now the genre's customary designation.

The first soap opera, Painted Dreams, was developed in 1931 for WGN radio in Chicago by Irna Phillips, who would go on to become the most prolific creator of soap operas for both radio and television. The program aired without specific product association until content changes were made to accommodate Montgomery Ward & Co., the show's first sponsor. Phillips employed the same enticements to secure advertisers for her other serial inventions, and the genre's characteristic sponsor ties were established. Phillips' Today's Children, sponsored by Pillsbury, evolved into the first network soap opera when NBC began airing it nationwide in 1933.

Understanding that women often performed their domestic chores while listening to radio and were, consequently, all the more inclined to buy and use merchandise that could be casually promoted within a program, Procter & Gamble (P&G) initiated its first soap opera, Ma Perkins, in 1933. Other P&G ventures, including The O'Neills (1935), The Guiding Light (1937), and Kitty Keene (1937), soon followed.

Once television became a feature of the domestic landscape after World War II, soap operas gradually faded from the radio airwaves and took up residence on the small screen. The Guiding Light, a Phillips creation, ran simultaneously on both media for several years and remained in CBS's lineup at the end of the twentieth century. While radio soaps shifted to tape before they faded, television soaps were, until the late 1950s, presented live. The decade saw myriad TV soaps begin and end abruptly, but several in addition to Guiding Light, including Roy Winsor's Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life and Phillips' As the World Turns, exhibited staying power. By the 1960s, soap operas were the only television genre whose production was still owned and managed by sponsors, with P&G dominating the field (other shows had shifted to running "spots" by a variety of advertisers). As a by-product of the shift to television, an extra measure of redundancy and "backstory" exposition was added to the soap opera formula in order to accommodate viewers' tendency to turn or step away from the screen momentarily in attending to their household tasks. When added to the genre's open, serial form, this element further ingrained feminine domesticity into the very fabric of the soap opera.

The tried-and-true ability of soaps to target the preferred audience of women, aged 18-49, was unmatched by any other type of programming. Younger viewers became "hooked" on their shows by watching with their mothers after school, during the summer, and on holidays, and were then counted upon to become loyal viewers for the next three decades. With the lucrative, Baby Boom generation of women coming of age in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, soap producers geared up to capture a new crop of female consumers.

When As the World Turns (CBS) featured the teenaged elopement of Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker in the late 1950s, the strategy of the "summer storyline" was inaugurated. Since that time, soaps have made special efforts to highlight and write for younger characters during the summer months in order to attract high school and college students at home during their breaks. New soaps with new angles also attempted to snare these viewers. ABC's Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, emerged in the mid-1960s to beguile a largely cult audience with vampires, witches, and werewolves for half a decade, creating a fandom which has lingered far longer than the program. Additionally, by the end of the decade, most soaps had expanded to a half-hour format.

The summer storyline became more of a year-round prospect in the 1970s, as Agnes Nixon's All My Children (ABC) and William Bell's The Young and the Restless (CBS) were devised with Baby Boomers in mind. Meanwhile, NBC's Another World, a 1964 co-creation of Phillips and Bell, emerged in 1975 as the first soap to make 60 minutes the industry standard.

In the late 1970s, General Hospital evolved into a winner for ABC when ratings increased dramatically due to executive producer Gloria Monty's decision to pair teenaged "soap babe" Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis) with bad boy "soap hunk" Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary)—a courtship that clicked into full gear after the writers realized the enormous popularity of the couple and recontextualized Luke's previous rape of Laura as a "seduction." Luke and Laura became soap opera's first "super couple," and were promoted in a newfangled fantasy and adventure-oriented "ice princess" story. NBC's Days of Our Lives, a 1960s creation of Irna Phillips, Ted Corday, and Alan Chase, followed suit with super couples such as Bo and Hope and fantasy scenarios of its own. When Luke and Laura finally wed during the November ratings sweeps of 1981, in excess of 30 million viewers tuned in, the largest audience ever to view an episode of any daytime soap opera.

Although Luke's "rape redemption" fueled controversy, taboo topics were addressed on soaps in the 1970s and 1980s as an integral part of the campaign to lure Baby Boomers. Roger Thorpe's rape of wife Holly was the groundbreaking issue on Guiding Light. The writers who penned it, Jerome and Bridget Dobson, followed with a similar story on As the World Turns, where General Hospital's former scribe, Douglas Marland, eventually took the reigns and conceived socially conscious tales about bulimia, incest, and homosexuality. Another World, which tackled addiction, abortion, and alcoholism under the leadership of Irna Phillips, William Bell and, later, Harding Lemay, went on to offer the first AIDS story in the late 1980s.

As much as they tried, soaps that were caught behind the curve during the youth boom soon experienced downturns in popularity and have never completely recovered. Procter & Gamble, the only sponsor to still produce its own soaps in the late 1980s, was especially hard hit, and one of its properties, Search For Tomorrow, switched from CBS to NBC before going under in 1986. P&G's Guiding Light, Another World, and As the World Turns also struggled with their aging viewerships. The 1980s saw efforts to reach other specific demographics with NBC's Generations, targeted primarily to African-Americans, and Christian Broadcasting Network's Another Life, geared to Christian viewers. Neither achieved long-term success.

Another feature of the 1970s and 1980s was the rise of the prime time soap opera. Although Peyton Place (ABC) had attempted such a temporal shift in the 1960s, launching the film careers of Ryan O'Neill and Mia Farrow but little else, it was not until the late 1970s and Lorimar's saga of an oil dynasty in Dallas, headed by the infamous J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), that the idea finally caught on. Unlike Peyton Place, which offered two episodes per week, Dallas's once-a-week format proved more palatable to prime time viewers, and the CBS series became immensely popular, enduring for a decade. It's worldwide appeal was even more staggering, and when a 1980 season-ending cliffhanger posed the question, "Who shot J.R.?," massive, global speculation ensued. Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes' scholarly study of this international phenomenon, published in The Export of Meaning, demonstrates how popular texts can be interpreted in numerous ways according to culture, nationality, and other aspects of identity. CBS later added other serial sagas to its lineup, including Falcon Crest and Knot's Landing —a Dallas spinoff. But it was Aaron Spelling's Dynasty that answered the challenge for ABC, resonating 1980s' narcissism and opulence and dishing up "soap vixen" Alexis Carrington who, owing to Joan Collins' brazenly camp portrayal, emerged as a cult favorite. Moreover, other nighttime formats began exhibiting seriality and other soap opera conventions as the genre's influence was seen in domestic dramas such as thirtysomething, law enforcement, legal, and medical shows such as Hill Street Blues, L. A. Law, and St. Elsewhere, and "dramedies" such as Moonlighting.

By the 1980s, academic study of daytime soap operas had evolved from statistical audience surveys and content analyses such as those contained in Mary Cassata and Thomas Skill's Life on Daytime Television, to critical analyses of soap opera texts and the potential identifications of viewing subjects such as those found in Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance and Robert Allen's Speaking of Soap Opera. Despite their denigration in the larger culture, a feature attendant to most any "feminine" genre from romance novels to film melodrama, soaps were found to provide central female characters through whom women in the audience might seek affirmation and empowerment. Although some scholars found many aspects of these representations lacking, the genre's serial form, its emphasis on and elevation of the domestic sphere, and its focus on feminine subjects, were considered by most to be positive and noteworthy traits.

As the 1990s loomed, soaps began to undergo a period of transition, seeking to retain their audience of Baby Boomers while attracting the younger, MTV generation of viewers. Jerome and Bridget Dobson's 1984 creation for NBC, Santa Barbara, took its lesson from Dynasty and delivered a spirit of camp postmodernism to daytime. While proving a huge success overseas, the soap failed to capture the domestic demographics the network was hoping for and suffered cancellation nine years later. All My Children's devilish "soap diva" Erica Kane and the actress playing her, Susan Lucci, became household names, as multiple onscreen marriages for Erica and offscreen Emmy losses for Lucci were grist for the publicity mill.

In the late 1980s, another Agnes Nixon soap, One Life to Live (ABC), had endeavored to replicate General Hospital's winning fantasy adventures by depicting unconventional journeys to the Old West and to a lost city called "Eterna." Under the management of former movie producer Linda Gottlieb and mystery novelist Michael Malone, the program shifted to hard-hitting realism in the 1990s. Stories involving the town of Llanview's homophobic response to a gay teen, Billy Douglas, and the brutal gang rape of a college student by three fraternity brothers led by Todd Manning (Roger Howarth), emerged from the collaboration. Controversy ensued when Howarth's charisma with fans led creators to orchestrate Todd's redemption, much to the chagrin of Howarth, who found himself braving screams of "rape me, Todd," from overly ardent admirers. All My Children followed One Life to Live's homophobia story with its own tale of a popular teacher who nearly loses his job after revealing his homosexuality during a classroom lecture.

General Hospital adopted a similar tone of verisimilitude during this decade, largely as a result of headwriter Claire Labine's heart-wrenching tales of a child's tragic death, her gift of a healthy heart to an ailing cousin, and a middle-aged woman's battle with breast cancer. The most risky and significant decision during Labine's tenure was to have teenager Robin Scorpio (Kimberly McCullough), who had literally grown up on the program, contract the AIDS virus by engaging in unprotected sex with her boyfriend, Stone. Stone subsequently suffered and died of the dread disease before the eyes of both Robin and viewers. These dark stories garnered General Hospital critical acclaim but endangered the program's healthy ratings, as the incoming generation of fans seemed more stimulated by fantasy and escape than by tragedy and catharsis.

Meanwhile, it was NBC's long-running Days of Our Lives, under the creative leadership of executive producer Ken Corday and innovative writer James Reilly, which appeared to discover the key unlocking the devotion of this new generation. Taking a lead from Dark Shadows, Reilly conjured up Gothic fantasy scenarios, camp "supervillains," never-ending "super triangles," and bizarre sagas involving premature burial and demon possession. This latter escapade required the soap's most beloved diva, Marlena Evans (Diedre Hall), to levitate and morph into wild animals. While many longtime fans could not tolerate the program's drastic change in tone and jumped ship, teens gravitated to its postmodern panache and rushed aboard. While Young and the Restless gained and retained the number one spot in ratings during the late 1980s and 1990s, warranting the addition of a second Bell soap, The Bold and the Beautiful, to CBS's lineup, Days of Our Lives mounted a serious challenge to this ratings leader and at one point surpassed it in terms of demographics—the advertisers' target group of younger women. After a few years, ratings and demographics for Days of Our Lives dipped a bit, but its producers seemed not to question whether the "formula" they had concocted might prove to be a short term fix rather than a long term remedy.

Days of Our Lives was very influential in the 1990s, with many programs endeavoring to emulate it and refusing to relinquish their future audience to any other soap or network. Even more than during the Baby Boom influx, "youthification" became the order of the day. Multi-generational or Baby Boom-centered soap operas had become scarce in prime time, with only NBC's Sisters breaking out as an instance of both. Most remarkable had been Aaron Spelling's groundbreaking creations for FOX, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, which demonstrated that it was possible for soaps to focus almost exclusively on teens and/or twenty-somethings and be successful in prime time. Late in the decade, Party of Five (FOX) and Dawson's Creek (WB) extended this trend. Despite differences in potential audience and format, some daytime powers hoped they could corner the youth market in similar fashion. With the children of the Baby Boom generation, the Baby Boomlets, lying in wait and nearly as numerous as their parents, there appeared to be no turning back. Although some had predicted that Boomers would dominate the culture well into and even beyond their middle age, the trajectory of soap operas responding to the advertisers' increasing concern with demographics, as opposed to household ratings, portended otherwise.

Most deliberate in its campaign was NBC, making Days of Our Lives its standard bearer and pressuring its only other soap, Another World, to "backburner" and eventually fire much of its over-forty cast while adopting a decidedly more outrageous tone. The network then picked up Aaron Spelling's first daytime offering, the virtually uni-generational Sunset Beach, to complete its menu. After writer James Reilly departed Days of Our Lives, the network hired him to develop a new daytime venture. Another World, whose ratings continued to spiral downward after the loss of its veteran performers, was the likely candidate for replacement by the new Reilly soap. The fact that Procter & Gamble was a "middle man" for Another World did not help its chances, and NBC's contract disputes with Days of Our Lives, which was threatening a move to another network, offered the ailing World its only glimmer of salvation as the millenium approached. Sadly though, Another World was cancelled during the summer of 1999.

Meanwhile, the traditional Procter & Gamble soaps on CBS, As the World Turns and Guiding Light, were not surviving this period unscathed. The former escorted many of its veterans to the chopping block and was inundated with young, inexperienced performers. The latter bore its own spates of downsizing and had taken to featuring otherworldly stories, including an especially controversial one in which popular diva Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer) was cloned.

Despite the tenuous success of Days of Our Lives, daytime soap operas realized an overall decline in viewership during the 1990s. Competition with the O.J. Simpson trial, more abundant offerings on cable, and the fact that more and more women were in the work force, all had an impact. Although many working women videotaped or "time-shifted" their soaps, advertisers refused to pay for viewers who were apt to fast-forward through ads. Still, avid fans had become more active and, indeed, interactive, establishing communities on the Internet in which they could discuss the latest storylines, root for their favorite "core" characters, families, and/or super couples, or lament some of the genre's more flagrant lapses in logic, including resurrections from the dead, multiple recasts, and the "rapid aging syndrome" in which children are ushered off to boarding school only to return six months later, ten years older, and ripe for romance in a summer teen storyline. Online soap operas such as The Spot also sprang up.

Accordingly, during this decade, scholars engaged in cultural studies and other approaches to media analysis turned their attention to soap opera viewers, exploring their interpretations and activities in fan groups, clubs, and Internet forums. In Soap Opera and Women's Talk, Mary E. Brown argues that female audiences recognize their subordination through negotiating and celebrating the genre's feminine emphasis, while in a study entitled "'No Politics Here,"' Christine Scodari examines soap opera "cyberfandom" and bemoans ruptures in the audience attendant to creators' "youthification" efforts and the genre's postmodern turn.

Despite their attempts to enthrall succeeding generations of viewers with controversial and/or outlandish subject matter, some research, such as Mumford's Love and Ideology in the Afternoon, maintains that daytime soaps have persisted in their essential conservatism. While many programs welcome African-American and Hispanic characters and viewers, race is still a thorny issue. Soapland's black women and white men have occasionally fallen in love across racial lines, but when Another World tried to reverse that equation by developing a flirtation between Caucasian diva Felicia Gallant (Linda Dano) and a handsome black suitor, a backlash apparently prevented the story from moving beyond the initial stages. Similarly, Soap Opera Digest received disagreeable letters from fans of Young and the Restless in response to a blossoming romance between African-American Neil and Caucasian Victoria. Another World's plan to make race an explicit component of a trial in which an African-American cop accused a popular—and white—"hunk" of raping her, was buried under the negative fallout of fans whose sensibilities it violated. And, although soap opera's focus on female viewers would seem to warrant the overturning of double standards, serious romances between older women and younger men remain taboo. Only one—Vanessa and Matt of Guiding Light —was evident in the late 1990s. As soaps became more devoted to younger segments of the audience, such stories were apt to be seen as inimical to commercial goals and, therefore, inadvisable. Moreover, while soaps may depict women in career roles, the workplace continues to serve as a stage upon which women are seen "catfighting" with one another for the love of a man rather than seeking professional accomplishment for its own sake.

Still, soap opera's ongoing focus on human relationships and the "feminine" is exceptional and laudable. Adapted to a plethora of international cultures, featured in numerous fan magazines, celebrated at the Daytime Emmys and Soap Opera Digest Awards, and lampooned in movies (Soapdish, Tootsie) and television (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Soap, The Carol Burnett Show), the genre endures as a highly accommodating and exportable staple of American popular culture.

—Christine Scodari

Further Reading:

Allen, Robert. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Blumenthal, Danielle. Women and Soap Opera: A Cultural Feminist Perspective. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1997.

Brown, Mary E. Soap Operas and Women's Talk: The Pleasure of Resistance. Newbury Park, California, Sage, 1994.

Cassata, Mary, and Thomas Skill, editors. Life on Daytime Television. Norwood, New Jersey, Ablex, 1983.

Liebes, Tamar, and Elihu Katz. The Export of Meaning: Cross-cultural Readings of "Dallas." New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon, 1982.

Mumford, Laura. Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Museum of Television and Radio, editors. Worlds without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Scodari, Christine. "'No Politics Here': Age and Gender in Soap Opera 'Cyberfandom."' Women's Studies in Communication. Fall 1998, 168-187.

Waggett, Gerard. Soap Opera Encyclopedia. New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1997.

Soap Operas

views updated Jun 08 2018


Daytime serials, or soap operas as they are better known, have a form and structure that separates them from other television genres. Rather than beginning and ending within the space of thirty to sixty minutes, soap operas never really begin or end. The stories continually unfold year after year at a slower pace than other genres and without episodic resolution. Soap operas leave unanswered questions at commercial breaks, they include flashbacks and repetition as a device to clue viewers in on elements they may have missed and to prompt further contemplation, and there are no reruns. In other words, a soap opera is a never-ending story that does not abide by traditional television rules.

One of the biggest nighttime soap operas in the early 1980s was Dynasty, which dramatized events surrounding the wealthy Carrington family and featured the actors (left to right) Kathleen Beller, Pamela Sue Martin, Joan Collins, Linda Evans, and John Forsythe. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Soap operas began on the radio in the 1930s as a device to sell soap products to women. Sponsors created programming to air between their product commercials. In 1940, there were sixty-four soap operas on the radio that ran fifteen minutes each. Guiding Light, which debuted on the radio in 1937 and on television in 1952, was the only soap opera to make the change from radio to television.

By the 1980s, each of the three major networks had more airtime dedicated to daytime serials (210 to 240 minutes) than to prime-time programming (180 minutes). Indeed, prime-time programming included a number of its own serials such as Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing. Although audiences eventually declined and several soap operas were canceled, including NBC's Another World (which aired for thirty-five years), by the end of the 1990s, eleven serials were broadcast daily.

One reason for the apparent decline in viewers was the introduction of videocassette recorders (VCRs), which allowed viewers to decide when to watch. Although nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population reported videotaping soap operas in 1996, VCR viewers have not generally been included in audience ratings because advertisers assume the viewers do not watch the commercials. In response to the viewers' need for alternative viewing times coupled with the advertisers' need to show commercials, a new cable network was launched on January 24, 2000, in Los Angeles and New York. Soap Net runs current ABC soap operas three times a day along with reruns of older soap operas that are no longer on the air. By June 2000, SoapNet was available in select cities across the United States and through DirecTV. New technology continues to affect soap operas. The introduction of the Internet brought more of a sense of community among soap opera fans who discuss the serials online.

The audience for soap operas has always been mostly women. However, in the United States, the percentage of male viewers increased to about 25 percent in the 1990s. The percentage of teenage viewers also increased over time. African Americans represent nearly 27 percent of the viewers for some soap operas, although they comprise only 12.8 percent of the total U.S. population.

Other than the occasional content analysis, academics paid little attention to soap operas until the early 1980s, when feminists began to defend the decidedly female genre. Feminists challenged academics to examine what made soap operas so popular with women. Tania Modleski (1983) argued that women were attracted to soap operas because they followed a feminine rather than a masculine narrative. She defined the feminine narrative of soap operas as stories that are (1) nonlinear, which means they have no clear beginning, middle, and end, (2) based on dialogue rather than action, (3) contain numerous interruptions, and (4) disperse the attention and loyalties of the viewers. Modleski also argued that unlike masculine narrative, in which the climax is resolution, the ultimate resolution is constantly yet to come in soap operas. Pleasure comes from anticipation rather than resolution.

Content is another defining element of soap operas, in which the elements of conflict and family are central. The ratio of male characters to female characters is approximately equal, similar to that of the United States, whereas in prime-time television male characters have outnumbered female characters as much as three to one. Although the number of African-American characters on soap operas has increased, research has found that those characters are less likely to have intimate contact than white characters. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, serial writers and producers introduced more social issues, such as interracial romance, mental illness, homosexuality, AIDS, abortion, and alcohol and drug addiction. Health issues have long been a part of soap operas, particularly women's health issues, such as breast cancer and systemic lupus erythematosus.

Sexual content has been a controversial mainstay of soap operas since the 1970s. The frequency of sexual behaviors on daytime serials is greater than that on prime-time television. According to a 1996 content analysis by Bradley Greenberg and Rick Busselle, sexual portrayals substantially increased during the 1980s, slightly decreased by the early 1990s, and increased again in the mid-1990s. As Katherine Heintz-Knowles reported in a 1996 Kaiser Family Foundation study, until the mid-1990s, talk about sex was more prevalent than actual depictions of sexual behavior. Although early studies found that consequences for sexual behavior were rarely shown, discussions about planning for and the consequences of sexual behavior increased in the 1990s. Yet, even with the increase, those discussions remain infrequent. Some studies have found that a majority of the portrayals of sexual behaviors are socially responsible because they are in the context of a healthy, committed relationship. Other studies have found that messages about sex are contradictory.

A 1983 book by Muriel Cantor and Suzanne Pingree reported that in the early 1980s, violence on soap operas was less frequent than in prime time. In addition, it was mainly verbal, between men and women, and between family members or lovers. In contrast, in prime time it was mostly between men who were strangers, and it was physical. Soap opera depictions of rape that start off as socially responsible and then send mixed messages when the rapist is redeemed, have drawn a lot of fire from critics. Extreme physical aggression that is rewarded in relationships has also been criticized, although aggressive sexual contact has decreased, according to research.

Although soap operas are shown all over the world, the content is not necessarily all the same. Soap operas in North America focus more on the rich, whereas soap operas in Great Britain focus more on the working class. Soap operas in Latin American (where they are called "telenovelas") are used as educational tools for issues such as family planning. The introduction of soap operas from North America and Latin America prompted several countries around the world to produce their own serials. These serials, however, are not simply copies; they reflect more of their own cultural values and social norms. Content is not the only difference in soap operas produced around the world. In Latin America, Japan, and China, the serials are often finite, even though they run for long periods of time.

Robert Allen (1995) claims that content analyses of soap operas are meaningless because any potential implication of daytime serials must be derived from the entirety of the serial (something that cannot occur until a show is cancelled) rather than in small chunks. Allen and others have also argued that the structural characteristics that make soap operas "open" allow viewers to make multiple interpretations of story content. According to this reasoning, in order to understand how viewers might be affected by soap operas, it is necessary to understand the interpretations that they make. Research from this perspective has proposed that women are empowered by watching soap operas. Moreover, it has found that how viewers identify with and perceive characters has an influence on how they are affected by those characters and their actions. Finally, it concludes that some viewers are affected by the more obvious message of the content, whereas others negotiate their own meanings for the content and are therefore affected differently.

Traditional research about the effect of soap operas on viewers usually looks at the amount of time that viewers spend watching soap operas in relation to how viewers might be affected by soap opera content. This research has found that viewers who watch a large amount of soap operas overestimate the number of divorces, illegitimate children, pregnancies, extramarital affairs, and cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the real world, as well as the amount of crime. Other research has found that women who are depressed spend more time watching soap operas than others; viewers who watch a large amount of soap operas believe single mothers live a much better life than they really do; and soap operas can effectively promote health concerns and practices when tied to a public-service announcement.

See also:Attachment To Media Characters; Dependence On Media; Gender and the Media; Health Communication; Sex and the Media; Violence In the Media, Attraction To; Violence In the Media, History of Research On.


Allen, Robert C., ed. (1995). To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World. London: Routledge.

Brown, Mary Ellen. (1994). Soap Opera and Women's Talk: The Pleasure of Resistance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Cantor, Muriel, and Pingree, Suzanne. (1983). The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Cassata, Mary, and Skill, Thomas. (1983). Life on Daytime Television. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Frentz, Suzanne, ed. (1992). Staying Tuned: Contemporary Soap Opera Criticism. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Greenberg, Bradley S., and Busselle, Rick W. (1996). "Soap Operas and Sexual Activity: A Decade Later." Journal of Communication 46:153-160.

Heintz-Knowles, Katherine. (1996). Sexual Activity on Daytime Soap Operas: A Content Analysis of Five Weeks of Television Programming. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Klingle, Renee Storm, and Aune, Krystyna Strzyzewski. (1994). "Effects of a Daytime Serial and a Public Service Announcement in Promoting Cognitions, Attitudes, and Behaviors Related to Bone-Marrow Testing." Health Communication 6(3):225-245.

Larson, Mary Strom. (1996). "Sex Roles and Soap Operas: What Adolescents Learn About Single Motherhood." Sex Roles 35:97-110.

Larson, Stephanie Greco. (1991). "Television's Mixed Messages: Sexual Content on All My Children." Communication Quarterly 39(2):156-163.

Lowry, Dennis T., and Towles, David E. (1989). "Soap Opera Portrayals of Sex, Contraception, and Sexually Transmitted Diseases." Journal of Communication 39(2):76-83.

Modleski, Tania. (1983). "The Rhythms of Reception: Daytime Television and Women's Work." In Regarding Television: Critical Approaches, ed. E. Ann Kaplan. Fredrick, MD: University Publications of America.

Museum of Television and Radio. (1997). Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

RenÉe A. Botta

Soap Operas

views updated Jun 08 2018

Soap Operas

Since the first soap opera aired on Chicago's WGN radio in the early 1930s, serial dramas have attracted hundreds of millions of fans, eager to escape the everyday problems of real life by immersing themselves in the far more dramatic ups and downs of their soap-opera heroes. Although soaps were originally designed to appeal to housewives (the name "soap opera" comes from the household products that were often the main advertisers), modern soap audiences include everyone from business executives to college football players.

In the 1800s, well before the invention of radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), writers like Charles Dickens (1812–1870) created a kind of soap opera, stories full of twists and turns and plenty of melodrama that were published in magazines and newspapers in serial form, that is, divided into parts and published a part at a time. "Cliff-hanger" endings, in which the hero or heroine was left in a dangerous and suspenseful position, were common in these stories. The tense endings served to keep readers eagerly awaiting the next episode to find out what would happen.

After World War I (1914–18), the first radio stations began broadcasting programs that could reach listeners nationwide. By 1930, several networks had formed to create programming for these stations. Programmers filled the evening hours, when families were gathered around the radio, but daytime hours were thought to be largely unprofitable. Then a Dayton, Ohio, schoolteacher named Irna Phillips (1901–1972) approached Chicago radio station WGN with her idea for a fifteen-minute daily serial drama called Painted Dreams. The networks seized upon the idea. Soon the airwaves were filled with dozens of the new daytime "soap operas." Shows like Betty and Bob, Just Plain Bill, The Romance of Helen Trent, and Ma Perkins attracted an audience of forty million listeners, almost double the twenty-first century television soap audience. People living through the economic hardship of the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) could afford few diversions. Listening to the radio cost little. Audiences welcomed the escape that soap operas offered with their tales of overcoming disaster and tragedy.

The arrival of television in the American home in the 1950s was a new opportunity for soap-opera development. Some programs, like Guiding Light, simply moved from radio to television, while others, like Search for Tomorrow, The Edge of Night, and As the World Turns, were created for the new medium. Although many women had held jobs during World War II (1939–45), they had been expected to return home once the men had returned from war. Many of the housewives of the 1950s were bored and isolated. They welcomed the distraction of the serial dramas on their new television sets.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, soap-opera plots revolved around the problems and complications of family life. Plots twisted and turned around topics like the difficulty of finding and keeping love, affairs outside of marriage, and the troubles involved in raising children. By the 1960s, a changing society was beginning to demand more from its soaps. In the early 1960s, the popularity of prime-time doctor shows led to the creation of soaps like The Doctors (1963) and General Hospital (1963). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, soaps began to seek out younger audiences. Youth-oriented story lines and a focus on social issues became important. All My Children (1970) and One Life to Live (1968) were introduced on ABC as soap operas with content that was socially and politically important. In the 1980s, soaps expanded beyond the limits of daytime television with popular prime-time soaps like Dallas (1978–91) and Dynasty (1981–89). Prime-time soaps have continued to be popular; indeed, most prime-time dramas have begun to lure audiences back with continuing story lines.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, social issues, from alcoholism and drug abuse to gay rights, have continued to be a major part of soap-opera story-line development. In an effort to draw in more viewers, soaps have racially integrated their casts. Most formerly all-white shows now have at least a few regular cast members who are African American, Asian, and Latino. Some have even researched ways they can appeal to a broader audience, such as the General Hospital spin-off, Port Charles (1997). In 2000, Port Charles began to use the telenovella format, popular in Latino soaps. In the telenovella format, stories are completed within a shorter time period. Many critics still insist, however, that soaps still do not really represent people of color and only confront social issues in a shallow and conservative way.

This shallowness of the soaps, along with their melodrama and reliance on such unlikely plot devices as evil twins, faked deaths, and amnesia, have led to a series of soap spoofs, some of which became almost as popular as the soaps they satirized. In the late 1970s, two series, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976–78) and Soap (1977–81), poked fun at the unlikely plot twists and emotionalism of the soaps while exploring some social and relationship issues of their own. The 1991 comedy film, Soapdish, focuses on the soap opera–like lives of the cast and crew of a popular soap.

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Anger, Dorothy. Other Worlds: Society Seen Through Soap Opera. Peter-borough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999.

Birnback, Lisa. "The Daze of Our Lives: Soap Watching Is a Real-Life Drama on Campus." Rolling Stone (October 1, 1981): pp. 33–36.

Cantor, Muriel G., and Suzanne Pingree. The Soap Opera. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1983.

Cottle, Michelle. "Color TV: How Soaps Are Integrating America." TheNew Republic (August 27, 2001): pp. 25–29.

Cox, James H. The Great Radio Soap Operas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.

Museum of Television and Radio Staff. Worlds Without End: The Art andHistory of the Soap Opera. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Soap Operas

views updated May 29 2018


SOAP OPERAS are serialized dramas that were presented, usually daily, first on radio and then on television. The name was derived from the fact that manufacturers of soaps and other household products, most notably Procter and Gamble, were frequent sponsors of these programs. The soap opera is broadcasting's unique contribution to Western storytelling art. Although serialized stories had existed prior to the soap opera in printed fiction, comic strips, and movies, none of these forms exhibited the durability of the soap opera. The Guiding Light, for example, started on radio in 1937 and moved to television in 1952. Still airing original episodes in 2002 after nearly seventy years, The Guiding Light is the longest story ever told in human history.

Credit for the first soap opera usually goes to Irna Phillips, who created Painted Dreams for WGN radio in Chicago in 1930. The first national soap was Betty and Bob, created by Frank and Anne Hummert for NBC radio in 1932. Both Phillips and the Hummerts provided a wide variety of soaps for network radio over the next several years; only Phillips, however, would make the transition to television. After many decades, the Phillips-created serials As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, and Days of Our Lives were still on the air.

Although broadcasting was an industry dominated by men for most of its early history, the soap opera was designed for women and women were frequently employed to create, produce, and write them. Besides Irna Phillips and Anne Hummert, other prolific soap opera artists included Elaine Carrington (Pepper Young's Family, Red Adams); Agnes Nixon (All My Children, One Life to Live); and Lee Phillip Bell (with her husband, William Bell, The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful). As gender roles changed significantly in the latter half of the twentieth century, the principal audience for soap operas—women who were at home during the day—began to diminish. In the 1970s, many soap operas were redesigned to attract younger viewers and college students. By the 1980s, soap operas like General Hospital were achieving high ratings among these younger viewers as well as among men. While early soap stories focused almost exclusively on romance and domestic home life, from the mid-1970s soaps often borrowed from other genres, integrating glamorous on-location settings and even elements of science fiction. The soap operas of Agnes Nixon became known in the 1970s and 1980s for their frank depiction of social issues in stories about rape, abortion, infertility, depression, child abuse, AIDS, and a variety of other controversial topics.

The problematic future of the genre became clear in the 1980s with the introduction of the daytime talk and audience participation shows. A soap opera is expensive and labor intensive to produce, requiring a very large cast and a production schedule that runs five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The daytime talk show is, by contrast, simple, inexpensive, and amenable to reruns. While the daytime talk show virtually knocked the game show out of the morning and afternoon network schedules, about a dozen soap operas remained on the air. Several long-running soaps have ceased production since 1980, however, and competition from cable has brought overall ratings of the genre down considerably.

The first soap opera on network television, Faraway Hill, ran on the Dumont network in 1946 as an evening series. As had been the case in radio, however, the TV soap quickly settled into the daytime schedule. It was not until ABC introduced Peyton Place in 1964 that a serious attempt to return the soap to prime time was launched. Like a daytime soap, Peyton Place ran multiple episodes per week (up to three); had a huge cast of over one hundred; and did not broadcast reruns, even during the summer. Despite the commercial success of the series, however, the idea was not imitated again for years. In 1978, Dallas (CBS, 1978–1991) ushered in the era of the prime-time soap opera. Dallas employed multiple ongoing story lines and end-of-episode cliffhangers and, within a few years, became the most-watched series on TV. More prime-time soap operas were introduced over the next few years, including Knots Landing (CBS, 1979–1993), Dynasty (ABC, 1981–1989), and Falcon Crest (CBS, 1981–1990). Although the prime-time soap had begun to wane by the 1990s, its influence was felt in nearly all genres of fictional television series. Before the advent of the prime-time soap, most series episodes were totally self-contained, with little or no reference to events that had happened in previous episodes. Since then, most series have employed some continuing elements from episode to episode.

The soap opera has also become a significant presence on cable. In 2000, Disney/ABC introduced SoapNet, a channel devoted to reruns of daytime and prime-time serials, and another soap channel was expected from Columbia TriStar Television. The Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo offer imported soap operas, telenovelas, which play to very large audiences. Even MTV, the youth-oriented cable channel, introduced its own soap opera, Undressed, in 1999.


Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Stedman, Raymond William. The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

Worlds without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. New York: Abrams, 1997.


See alsoRadio ; Television: Programming and Influence .

soap opera

views updated May 29 2018

soap opera. Nothing to do with opera. Term to describe long-running, often daily or several-times-weekly serial on TV and radio, e.g. (in Britain) Coronation Street, EastEnders, The Archers. Genre originated in USA on commercial radio and was sponsored by a firm—soap manufacturer, for instance—wishing to advertise its product. Irreverently, one could claim The Ring as the biggest soap opera in the world.

soap opera

views updated Jun 08 2018

soap op·er·a • n. a television or radio drama series dealing typically with daily events in the lives of the same group of characters.