A soap opera is an ongoing, episodic work of fiction, usually broadcast on television or radio. This genre of TV and radio entertainment has been in existence long enough for audiences to recognize them simply by the term soap. What differentiates a soap from other television drama programs is their open-ended nature. Plots run concurrently, and lead into further developments: there is rarely a need to "wrap things up", although soaps that run in series for only part of the year tend to bring things to a dramatic cliffhanger.
The soap opera form first developed on American radio in the 1920s, and expanded into television starting in the 1940s, and is normally shown during the daytime, hence the alternative name, daytime serial. The first concerted effort to air continuing drama occurred in 1946 on the DuMont television series Faraway Hill. Soap operas, in their present format, were introduced to television in 1950. Two long-running soaps, Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life, first started broadcasts in 1951.
The term "soap opera" originated from the fact that when these serial dramas were aired on daytime radio, the commercials aired during the shows were largely aimed at housewives. Many of the products sold during these commercials were laundry and cleaning items. This specific type of radio drama came to be associated with these particular commercials, and this gave rise to the term "soap opera" — a melodramatic story that aired commercials for soap products. Though soap operas are still sponsored by companies such as Procter & Gamble, the diverse demographic groups that soap operas attract have caused other advertisements for such things as acne medication and birth control, appealing to a much younger audience.
Soap opera characteristics
Most soaps follow the lives of a group of characters who live or work in a particular place. The storylines follow the day-to-day lives of these characters, who seem similar to ordinary people on the street — except that soap opera characters are usually more handsome, beautiful, seductive, and richer than the typical person watching the TV show. Soap operas take everyday, ordinary lives and exaggerate them to a degree where they are still believable, yet they are more dramatic.
Romances, secret relationships, extra-marital affairs, and genuine love has been the basis for the vast majority of soap operas. The most memorable soap opera characters, and the most compelling and popular storylines, have usually involved a romance between two characters, of the sort often presented in paperback romance novels. Soap opera storylines weave intricate, convoluted, sometimes confusing tales of characters who have affairs, meet mysterious strangers and fall in love, are swept off their feet by dashing (yet treacherous) lovers, sneak behind their lovers' backs, and engage in other forms of adultery that keep their audiences returning to find out who is sleeping with whom, who has betrayed whom, who is having a baby, who is related to each other, and so on.
Remarkable (sometimes unbelievable) coincidences are used to enhance the drama in most soap operas. For example, if a young woman in a soap secretly has a single sexual encounter with her boyfriend back in high school, this forbidden affair will certainly come back to haunt her several years later...usually at the very moment that it would cause the most harm (such as on the day of her wedding). Previously-unknown (and often evil) twins regularly emerge, and unexpected calamities disrupt weddings with unusual frequency. Much like comic books—another popular form of linear storytelling—a character's death is not guaranteed to be permanent without an on-camera corpse, and sometimes not even then.
In addition, the musical soundtrack used for a soap opera uses a style that instantly identifies it as belonging to soap operas. Soaps aired during the golden age of radio usually used organs to produce most of their music (because they were cheaper than full-blown orchestras). The organists from the radio serials moved over to television, and were heard on some serials as late as the 1970s.
Like the storylines themselves, soap opera soundtracks were overblown and melodramatic. An instantly recognizable characteristic of a soap (one that has been spoofed and imitated many times) consists of a scene where a lovely woman tells her husband or boyfriend that she no longer loves him, for she has been seeing someone else...and at that moment, a single, blaring organ chord resonates on the soundtrack, emphasizing this dramatic moment. Organ music has been abandoned on the serials for thirty years now and pre-recorded music has largely taken its place, with pianos and violins substituted for the blaring organ chord of yore.
Characteristics of American soaps today
More recently, two American soap operas (Passions and Days of Our Lives) currently involve some supernatural or science fiction element in one of their ongoing storylines. This can include an alien character, or a vampire character (most infamously seen on Port Charles). Often, these characters are isolated in only one of the ongoing storyline "threads", which can seemingly allow a fan to ignore them if they do not like that element, a form of fanon.
American soap operas since the 1980s have shared many common visual elements that set them apart dramatically from other shows:
- Overhead spotlighting, or back lighting is often placed directly over the heads of all the actors in the forground, causing an unnatural shadowing of their features along with a highlighting of their hair. Back lighting was always a standard technique of film and television lighting; while most current productions now deemphasise this somewhat unnatural look, it persist in soap operas
- Almost always the rooms in a house have heavy use of deep stained wood wall panels and furniture, along with many elements of brown leather furniture. This creates an overall "brown" look which is very noticeable, and is supposed to be associated with the wealth of the characters portrayed.
- The video quality of a soap opera is usually lower then comparable prime time television shows of the time, due to the lower budgets and quicker production times involved. This is due to the fact that the shows are recorded on videotape and not on film like primetime productions.
Soaps in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, soap operas are one of the most popular genres, most being broadcast during prime time. Unlike the rich, glamorous and good-looking characters typical of US soap operas, most UK soaps focus on working-class communities. The most popular is ITV's Coronation Street, which regularly attracts the highest viewing figures for any programme.
As in the USA, soap operas began on radio and consequently were associated with the BBC. The BBC continues to broadcast one of the earlier radio "soap opera" programmes in Britain, the ever popular Archers, on Radio 4. It has been running since 1951 nationally. It continues to attract over five million listeners, or roughly 25% of the radio listening population of the UK at that time of the evening.
In the 1960s, Coronation Street set the trend and other popular soaps included Emergency - Ward 10 (ITV), Compact (about the staff of a women's magazine) and The Newcomers (about the upheaval caused by a large firm setting up a plant in a small town (both BBC). One of the most successful was Crossroads, put out by ITV at teatime, but none lasted as long as Corrie, until the arrival of ITV's Emmerdale Farm, later Emmerdale, which had a similar northern setting (but in Yorkshire instead of Lancashire). The only other competition, Crossroads, set in a Birmingham (England) motel, was discontinued, briefly revived, and discontinued again. When Channel 4 launched in 1982 it came complete with the Liverpool based Brookside that over the next decade re-defined the UK television soap. In 1985, the London based soap opera EastEnders debuted and was a near instant success with viewers and critics alike. Critics talked about the downfall of Coronation Street, but this was put to rest in 1994 when the two serials were scheduled opposite each other, with Corrie winning handily. For the better part of ten years, the show has shared the number one position with Coronation Street, but the ratings for EastEnders reached an all-time low as of late 2004, allowing Corrie to regain the top spot.
Daytime soaps were unknown until the 1970s because there was virtually no daytime television in the UK. ITV introduced General Hospital, which later transferred to a prime time slot, and Scottish Television had Take the High Road, which lasted for over twenty years. However, it was with the influx of Australian programmes such as The Young Doctors and eventually, Neighbours, that the soap boom really began.
Unlike US daytime soaps which have almost always been shown five episodes a week, Monday through Friday, the UK soaps usually only aired on two nights of the week (with the exception of Crossroads, which began as a five day a week soap opera, but was later reduced). In 1989, things started to change when Coronation Street began airing three times a week (later expanding further to four in 1996), a trend which was soon followed by rival EastEnders in 1994 and Emmerdale in 1997. 1991 saw the BBC launch the disasterous El Dorado to alternate with Eastenders but it only lasted a year. In 1997, the UK's first five-days-a-week soap, Family Affairs, debuted. Today, Coronation Street (which began screening two episodes on Monday nights in 2002), Family Affairs and Hollyoaks all produce five episodes a week, while EastEnders screens four. In 2004, Emmerdale began screening six episodes a week leading to the concern that soap operas in the UK were at saturation level.
Soaps in the United States
The American soap opera The Guiding Light started as a radio drama in January 1937 and subsequently transferred to television. With the exception of several years in the late 1940s when Irna Phillips was in dispute with Procter and Gamble, The Guiding Light has been heard or seen every weekday since it started, making it the longest story ever told. Other American soaps that have been telecast for more than thirty years (and are still in rotation) include As the World Turns, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, One Life to Live, All My Children, and The Young and the Restless. Due to the shows' longevities, it is not uncommon for multiple actors to play a single character over the span of many years. It is also not uncommon for a single actor to play several characters on other shows over the years. Actors such as Robin Mattson and Michael Sabatino have played no less than six soap roles.
In the USA soaps are mainly broadcast during daytime. In the beginning, the serials were broadcast as fifteen-minute installments each weekday. In 1956, the first half-hour soaps debuted, and all of the soaps broadcast half-hour episodes by the end of the 1960s. When the soap opera hit a fever pitch in the 1970s, popular demand had the shows, one by one, expanded to an hour in length (one show, Another World, even expanded to ninety minutes for a short time). More than half of the serials (and all of the hour-long serials on the air today) expanded to the new time format by 1980. Today, eight out of the nine American serials air sixty-minute episodes each weekday.
The USA soap opera Port Charles used the practice of running 13-week "story arcs", in which the main events of the arc are played out and wrapped up over the 13 weeks, although some storylines did continue over more than one arc.
The Golden Age of American television
Many soaps, in the beginning of television, found their niches in telling stories in certain environments. The Doctors and General Hospital, in the beginning, told stories almost exclusively from inside the confines of a hospital. As the World Turns dealt heavily with Chris Hughes's law practice and the travails of his wife Nancy who, when she tired of being "the loyal housewife" in the 1970s, became one of the first older women on the serials to become a working woman. The Guiding Light dealt with Bert Bauer (Charita Bauer) and her endless marital troubles. When her status moved to that of the caring mother and town matriarch, her children's marital troubles were then put on display. Search for Tomorrow told the story, for the most part, through the eyes of one woman only: the heroine, Joanne (Mary Stuart). Even when stories revolved around other characters, she was almost always a main fixture in their storylines. Days of Our Lives first told the stories of Dr. Tom Horton and his steadfast wife Alice. In later years, the show branched out and told the stories of their five children.
American soaps: for the evening, too
Prime time serials were just as popular as those in daytime. The first real prime time soap opera was Peyton Place (1964-1969), based in part on the original 1957 movie (which was itself taken from the 1956 novel). The structure of the series (its episodic plots and running story arcs) would set the mold for the prime time serials of the 1980s when the format reached its pinnacle.
The most successful prime time serials of the 1980s included Dallas, Dynasty, and Knots Landing. There were some shows in the decades that followed such as Beverly Hills 90210, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, E.R., and The West Wing that did not officially fit the category of prime time serials.
The soap opera's distinctive open plot structure and complex continuity was eventually adopted in major American prime time television programs. The first significant one was Hill Street Blues produced by Steven Bochco which featured many elements borrowed by soap operas such as an ensemble cast, multi-episode storylines and extensive character development over the course of the series. The success of this series soon gave rise to a variety of other serious drama and science fiction series which took much the same elements to structure their own storylines.
Current American daytime television schedule
The daytime serials in America air five days a week, Monday through Friday. Local affiliates have the right to air the serials whenever they wish, but this is how the networks schedule them. All times are Eastern* (subtract one hour for Central and Pacific time zones).
- *Guiding Light airs at 10 a.m. in some markets in the East, while some local affiliates do not air it at all.
|12:30 PM||1:00 PM||1:30 PM||2:00 PM||2:30 PM||3:00 PM||3:30 PM|
|ABC||Local Programming||All My Children||One Life to Live||General Hospital|
|CBS||The Young and the Restless||The Bold and The Beautiful||As the World Turns||Guiding Light|
|NBC||Local Programming||Days of Our Lives||Passions||Local Programming|
A few soap opera spoofs have been made. Two of the most famous U.S. spoofs were Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. On British television, comedian Victoria Wood a long-running spoof soap entitled Acorn Antiques features on her sketch show (loosely based on ITV's Crossroads). In the United States, Carol Burnett frequently ran a soap opera spoof on her show, called As the Stomach Turns, modeled in name after As the World Turns. Dramatic coincidences and missed cues (parodying a time in which soaps were broadcast live) were seen frequently, as well as the melodramatic welling of organ music, which was a staple on American serials until the 1970s.
- history of radio
- list of soap operas
- radio theater
- The World of Soap Themes http://www.wost.org