A pregnant woman has been kidnapped but managed to break away from her captors. She hides in a cavern and has a “talk” with her unborn child. “Don’t worry, I’ll never let them get their hands on you! ” she promises her baby. Just then she clutches her belly and screams, “Oh no! Not now! ” She is in full-blown labor, and she is all alone! Her screams have alerted her captors as to where she is hiding! The camera zeros in on her terrorized face, contorted in pain and the music swells… just another day on a soap opera called “Passions”.
In this paper I’ve decided to look at the genre of Soap Operas. The term “soap opera” was invented by the American press in the 1930s to refer to the very popular genre of serialized radio dramas, which, by 1940, was responsible for nearly 90% of all commercially sponsored daytime broadcast hours. The “soap” in soap opera referred to their sponsorship by manufacturers of household cleaning products, while “opera” suggested an ironic nod to high art. These stories always take the form of serials.
A serial is a story told through a series of installments. Unlike other “series” on TV in which one story line doesn’t usually carry over into the next weeks’ tale, each episode is its own story. The soap opera usually relies on the viewer’s previous knowledge of the facts to enjoy each program. Each episode always leaves plotlines hanging to be picked up in the next one. Characters can undergo change as well. They can grow older and even die, leaving pasts and memories they can rely on to enrich their characters.
In a sense, soaps are not merely telling a story in segments, but each episode doles out a piece of the story in regular installments so that all the viewers are on the “same page” at the same time. Examples of some of the more popular U. S. soap operas that have been ongoing for many years are “General Hospital,” “All My Children,” and, “The Guiding Light. ” The story lines of many of these daytime dramas are shaped by the writers, but also fan mail, market research, and of course, the weekly ratings.
In addition, the network, whose profits depend upon advertising revenues, and the show’s sponsor, all have something to say about the direction of the scripts. The term “soap opera” seems to be at odds with itself, as if the events of everyday life were being lifted to a higher, operatic form. Even today, to refer to a movie or book as a “soap opera” is to see it as less than worthy. In the U. S. the soap opera has always been a “woman’s genre”, and was commonly seen as interesting only to working class women with a lower level of education.
The notion of a stereotyped “housewife” who lets the dishes pile up and the kids run wild because she must see “her soap” is some people’s idea of amusing truth. The soap opera is a complex TV drama that depends on the knowledge of its audience to move forward, and the fact that it has been enjoyed for over 50 years by a broad spectrum of viewers proves this stereotype to be untrue. In the late 20s and early 1930s commercial radio broadcasters tried to bring the listening public and the advertisers together for everyone’s mutual benefit. They targeted their prime consumer market, women between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.
There was no way of measuring the audience back then, so it took several years for broadcasters and advertisers to realize the potential of the new soap opera genre. By 1937, however, the soap opera dominated the daytime commercial radio schedule and had become a very important feature for attracting such large corporate sponsors as Procter and Gamble, Pillsbury, American Home Products, and General Foods. Most network soap operas were produced by ad agencies, and some were even owned by the sponsors. In the late 1940s TV began to be the medium of choice for sponsors. Procter and Gamble produced the first network TV soap opera in 1950.
It didn’t last too long. The big differences in producing a TV show as opposed to radio became apparent. Radio relied upon the listener’s imagination, while TV had to provide the visuals. Productions costs were two or three times greater. Actors had to act, not just read their lines. Producing fifteen minutes of TV drama each weekday proved much more complicated than radio. Along with that, no one was sure that the main target audience, women working in the home, could stop and watch. Radio could be listened to while doing other things, even in other rooms. By 1951-1952 the switch had been successfully made.
Three daytime serials were introduced: “Search for Tomorrow”, “Love of Life”, and “The Guiding Light”. The genre of the radio soaps quickly became a thing of the past. The fifteen-minute story quickly expanded to thirty minutes, because it was cheaper to produce one 30-minute show as opposed to two 15-minute shows. Up until the early 1960s most soap operas revolved around a main family, with its members and plot lines all stemming from their relationships and down-home wisdom. In 1963 both NBC and ABC launched soaps with medical settings and themes: “The Doctors” and “General Hospital”, respectively.
They were very popular, and took the location of some of the action, plot lines out of the home and into a medical setting. This was a rich landscape of plotlines having to do with patient’s emotional challenges and doctors and nurses creating a “professional family” as the basis for the show’s community of characters. Medical settings also made it easier to bring into the story line some current social issues. The cast of NBC’s Days of Our Lives dealt with, in the 1960s, a variety of problems including medical, emotional, sexual, and psychiatric in the show’s first years. It was a hit!
Hospitals are wonderful settings for incorporating new stories and the meeting of new characters as patients and personnel, bringing with them social issues. If any of these issues proved to be “too hot” for the audience, they could just simply “kill off” that character! Even many soaps that weren’t seated in hospital settings had doctors and nurses among their central characters. The sponsors understood that once a soap found its “niche” audience those viewers tended to be among TV’s most loyal. Competition was fierce among the three networks, and the race was on to come up with a soap opera “with a difference”.
One such excursion was a most unusual daytime soap called “Dark Shadows. ” This show was an over the top gothic serial, complete with scary mansion, and a two hundred year old vampire named Barnabus. It ran for five years and continues to have a cult following. During this innovative period in soaps, Agnes Nixon, who was up until this point a dialogue writer for and the head writer of, “The Guiding Light,” presented ABC with the idea of a soap that would highlight ethnic differences, which was unheard of until this point. “One Life to Live,” which started its run in 1968, ran its story line around the Lord family.
They were a wealthy WASP family whose patriarch, Victor Lord, owned a newspaper. But instead of concentrating only on the Lords, the plot line had them establish ties with three working-class and “ethnic” families: the Irish-American Rileys, the Polish-American Woleks, and after a while, the Jewish-American Siegels. Differences were woven into the plotlines mainly in terms of romances between the characters. Another of Nixon’s soaps, “All My Children,” on ABC, which started in 1970, tackled some of the thorny issues around the Vietnam War.
When one of the characters was presumed killed in action in Vietnam, at his funeral his weeping mother gave an anti-war speech. Considering the longevity of soaps, from their early incarnations on radio, to today’s modern versions, there had to come a time when new approaches were sought. The show, “All My Children,” was constructed around a wealthy family and its matriarch, Phoebe Tyler, played by actress Ruth Warwick. As previously mentioned, the writers kept the story line moving forward by stressing the romances between its younger cast members.
The demographic, the producers, and the sponsors were aiming for were women under the age of fifty. “All My Children,” used younger characters and brought socially relevant topics into scrip lines to keep more youthful viewers interested. At the same time the older viewers were falling out of the target audience. Age-wise, the older characters were being placed in more peripheral roles to keep them watching, but clearly, the sponsors had the younger audience in its sight, and the older audience became “peripheral” too.
CBS, whose most popular soaps by the early 1970s, like,”Search for Tomorrow,” “Love of Life,” “The Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns,” “Secret Storm,” and “The Edge of Night,” were all reaching their second or third decade on the air. Their audience was leaving, or “aging out” of the “quality” demographic range. It came to either the use of some of the innovations that the other networks had already started in motion, or face losing their sponsors. In response to this problem, CBS launched a new soap called, “The Young and the Restless.
” As the name implies, it was about young adults in their twenties and their romantic endeavors, thus “restless”. It was the first of many “Hollywood” soaps. It was shot in Hollywood, as some others were too, by that point, and had a Hollywood “look”. Elaborate sets and lighting, very attractive young actors dressed in hi-fashion, right out of the glamour magazines with plot lines almost exclusively based on their sex lives. As we all know, sex sells, and it was a remarkable success, leading to the creation of the “slick” soaps we see today.
The competition among the three major networks for the soap audience was high. With all the hours donated to airing these programs, some had programming up to ten hours daily, the audience had reached an extraordinary twenty million. The rating for said shows would predict what the revenues in ad would be each week, and the race for greater ratings became fierce. At their inception, soaps were the creative brainchildren of the writers, with feedback from fan mail, market research, and the weekly Nielsen ratings, which, back in the 1970s was a national sample of 12 television households.
In addition the network was and still is, in large, part the show’s owner. By then, the pressure on the writers to grab the target audience was great. To offer plots that would sustain the audience’s interest, without reruns, or summers off, which was a formidable job, which made these broadcast writers (largely women, then and now) some of the highest paid writers in the industry. Because of this pressure, the soap opera format has been in a state of adjustment from the mid 1960s until the present.
If a new head writer is called in to boast sagging rating on a particular show, she is often handcuffed by the fact that the viewers really know the characters in a way that she probably doesn’t, and they know just what that character is capable of. So her creative license is very limited, and if she oversteps it, she’ll surely hear from the fans, the most devoted and vocal among TV viewers. The idea to cancel an existing soap is thought about long and hard. To replace it with a new one is a major expense, and could take up to a year to “find” its audience.
Audiences who have spent many years watching and knowing their favorite soaps are not easily won over to a new one. By the late 1970s and early 1980s many women had gone to work outside the home and were unable to keep up with their “stories”. In answer to that problem many publications, and magazines surfaced to keep them abreast of the latest story lines and character changes, along with more gossipy items and letters to the editor, where readers responded to story development. Soap Opera Digest, today, claims a readership of four million.
The fans ate it up and a pop culture was formed by public appearances by soap stars, and soap opera “conventions. ” An independent study suggests that up to three million college students are regular viewers as well. All this success spawned the creation and success of the night time soaps like, “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” and its spin-off, “Knot’s Landing. ” It produced the “serialization” of a primetime drama in the 1980s, which in turn produced programs like, “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “L. A. Law. ”
From the 1930s to the 1970s, the advertisers could count on an expanding audience for their programming, most of whom were women working at home raising their children. But then American women began to work outside the home in record numbers for peacetime America and daytime viewing began to shrink. Even with the advent of VCRs, those numbers that recorded then later watched programming did not figure into ratings data. The advertisers did not count those as ad-worthy, because they figured most people watching recorded programming don’t look at the ads.
In recent years, with the advent of cable access channels, many commercial free, the advertisers have thrown their money behind cheaply produced but widely watched talk shows such as “Montel Williams,” “Ricki Lake,” and “Jerry Springer. ” Recently, imported serials, which are less expensive to import and show than putting together new, local ones, have become a business bonanza to sponsors looking to spark an international, or ethnic but local consumer base. It works the other way around, too, with NBC’s, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” set in the fashion industry, attracting a substantial international following.
Even though it’s been poked fun at and looked down upon from its inception by some, the soap opera has proved to be the most lasting advertising vehicle ever invented. It’s the most popular genre of TV drama worldwide today. It has staying power like no other form of television, and has garnered more viewers worldwide for longer than any other broadcast medium.Stories about our own place, time, and social situations always evoke our deepest feelings, and no medium does it better than the soap opera.