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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.