The Short History of Soap Operas


Soap operas, or “soaps,” are scripted and serialized dramas that are usually aired regularly first on radio, and then television. They used to dominate every American household during the daytime slot until it experienced a steady decline during the 21st century. The term “soap opera” is so named as the first dramas of the past were sponsored by soap manufacturers.

Defining Characteristics and Storylines in Soap Operas

The emphasis on family life, interpersonal interactions, and emotional issues is a defining feature of the soap opera genre. The majority of soap operas center on huge families or a cast of individuals who reside or work in a certain place. Chance occurrences, coincidences, and dramatic conclusions are frequent plot devices.

In contrast to those in the UK and Australia, which typically have more accessible characters situated in working-class surroundings and containing humorous elements, US soap operas frequently feature gorgeous and wealthy individuals. British soap operas frequently aim for realism and emphasize their geographic setting as a distinguishing trait.

Romance, covert relationships, and other dramatic events are frequent themes in soap operas. Characters frequently have affairs, run into enigmatic strangers, fall in love, and do bad things. In soap operas, a character’s demise is not necessarily final, and the plotlines are sometimes interrupted by unforeseen occasions like weddings, pregnancies, and funerals.

Action and physical stunts are uncommon in soap operas since they are expensive to produce and take a lot of time to film. Instead of being seen on screen, these occurrences are frequently mentioned in conversation.

Evolution of Scripted Dramas: From Radio to Television

Scripted dramas first found their popularity in radio, spearheaded by programs like Painted Dreams during the 1930s to 1940s.

When soap operas made their transition to television, the first true daytime TV soap opera was These Are My Children (1949). Since then, soap operas had become a part of the everyday routine of most American households. But they became particularly popular with housewives, the demographic that soap operas sponsors paid the most for.

The Longevity and Impact of Soap Operas in Broadcasting

Many of the most successful soap operas had the tendency to stay on the air for very long. For instance, Guiding Light began on the radio during the 1930s and made its transition to television in 1952. The show continued until its cancellation in 2009, making Guiding Light the longest-running soap opera for 57 years (or 72 years if you count its previous years on the radio).

While men dominated TV broadcasting during much of its early years, soap operas were specifically targeted for women, and women were often hired to produce shows, and then write and act in them. Most notable and prolific figures that shaped the early days of soaps were Irna Philips (Painted Dreams and Guiding Light), Anne Hummert (Just Plain Bill), Agnes Nixon (All My Children), and Lee Philip Bell together with her husband William Bell (The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless).

The Emergence of Primetime and Daytime Soap Operas

The first soap on the prime-time slot was Faraway Hill which was aired by the now-defunct Dumont Network in 1946. But it was not long before daytime soap found itself a place on the daytime block. In 1964 ABC made a successful attempt to bring back the soap on prime time with Peyton Place. But despite the success of the series, it was never followed by another prime-time soap from ABC or from other TV networks.

Adapting Soap Operas to the Changing Times: The Shift to Younger Viewers

But when gender roles began to experience a major shift during the latter half of the 20th century, soap operas were beginning to lose their dominance on daytime TV. More and more women began to work away from home for most of the day, thus the soap opera’s main audience started to diminish.

However, producers still stuck around by reinventing soap operas that were specifically aimed to attract younger viewers. By the 1980s, dramas like General Hospital, Dallas and Dynasty enjoyed high ratings as its viewership increased – most of them young adults, even including men.

Decline of Soap Operas in the 1980s and Beyond

But by the 1980s, it became clear that soap operas were on a downward trend. The advent of cable and satellite television offered a variety of programs and channels. TV networks began to devote their daytime programming to talk shows, game shows, and court shows which were definitely cost-effective to produce than scripted soap operas. By then, only about less than a dozen soap operas were still being aired. Plus, the competition from cable and satellite TV and the growing popularity of “reality TV” dealt a severe blow to the soap opera’s ratings. By the early 2000’s, most soap operas – including the long-running ones –  were canceled. Since then, producers have attempted to revive old soaps (such as All My Children) presenting a newer cast.

The first daytime soap opera in the US was “These Are My Children” in 1949. The format quickly became popular in the early 1950s and was joined by game shows, sitcom reruns, and talk shows. In 1988, H. Wesley Kenney, an executive producer of “General Hospital,” explained that soap operas become a part of the viewer’s family, and they become emotionally involved. Many soap operas established specific environments for their stories, such as hospitals or law practices. In contrast, some soap operas, such as “Dark Shadows,” “Port Charles,” and “Passions,” featured supernatural characters and dealt with fantasy and horror storylines.

The longest-running soap opera, “Guiding Light,” started as a radio drama in 1937 and transferred to television in 1952. Most soap operas originally aired as 15-minute installments each weekday, but by the end of the 1960s, all soap operas were half-hour episodes. By the 1980s, most soap operas were an hour long. Currently, three of the four US soap operas air one-hour episodes each weekday, with the exception of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which still airs 30-minute episodes.

Soap operas were originally broadcast live from the studio, but by the 1970s, nearly all soap operas were taped. Los Angeles became a viable alternative to New York for soap opera production in the 1960s and 1970s. Port Charles experimented with running 13-week story arcs, but the idea was not widely adopted. Soap operas are not generally rerun by their networks but are occasionally rebroadcast elsewhere. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily resulted in reruns being broadcast during the spring and summer of 2020.

The decline of soap operas can be attributed to several factors, including the rise of women in the workforce and changes in viewing habits among young adults, who are not as familiar with the long and complex storylines of soap operas. The rise of cable and the Internet has provided alternative sources of entertainment during the day, while the growth of reality television has displaced soap operas as the dominant form of melodrama. The cost of production and declining advertising during the Great Recession have also impacted soap operas, which are more expensive to produce compared to talk shows, game shows, and court shows. Decisions made by producers, such as clichéd plots, a lack of diversity, and the elimination of core families, have also been cited as reasons for the decline of the genre.

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