Soap opera

From Academic Kids

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The first TIME cover devoted to soap operas: Dated January 12, 1976, Bill Hayes and Susan Seaforth Hayes of Days of Our Lives are featured with the headline "Soap Operas: Sex and suffering in the afternoon".

A soap opera is an ongoing, episodic work of fiction, usually broadcast on television or radio and most recently on mobile phones. 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.


Development of the "soap opera"

The soap opera form first developed on US 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 1949. 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

Plots and storylines

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 plausible, yet 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. A good example of a death that seemed to be permanent was Dr. Taylor Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful, who had flatlined on-camera and even had a funeral. When actress Hunter Tylo returned to the show in 2005, the "flatlining" was explained away with the revelation that Taylor had actually gone into a coma.

"Soap music"

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. For most of the 1970s and continuing through the latter part of the 1990s, full orchestras performed the underscore. Today, however, soap music performances have, in a sense, come full circle from keyboard to keyboard as it is almost entirely done by synthesizers, thereby avoiding the high cost of using orchestras.

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 & 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, the shows purely known in the vernacular as soap operas are 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

Joanne, the heroine of Search for Tomorrow, in the .
Joanne, the heroine of Search for Tomorrow, in the 1970s.

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. The primetime soaps of the 1990's focus on younger people such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Dawson's Creek. In the late 90's and early 00's, cable is where a lot of the new primetime soaps could be found, like Sex and The City and Queer As Folk. Currently, the primetime soap seems to be making a comeback with The O.C. and Desperate Housewives. Housewives is the first primetime soap since the 1985-1986 season to been in the top ten for the overall season.

Certain other shows also started to have soap opera themes. that followed such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, E.R., and The West Wing, Friends and Cheers 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.

Characteristics of American soaps today

While U.S. soaps stay true to the original soap opera ideal to a large extent, many storyline and filming techniques set them apart from soap operas in other countries.

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 krypto-revisionism.

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Martha Byrne from As the World Turns, exhibiting the effects of back lighting on one's hair.

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; and while it was, for the most part, abandoned in the mid-to-late-eighties due to its somewhat unnatural look, it persists in soap operas
  • The rooms in a house often use 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 than 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.

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 local time* (subtract one hour for all other time zones).

*Guiding Light airs at 10 a.m. in some markets in the East, while some local CBS affiliates do not air it at all.
*In some markets, Days of our Lives and Passions air on NBC affiliates with a one-hour difference either earlier or later (this stemmed from a 1990s agreement that many affiliates switch the timeslots of Days of Our Lives and Another World, which previously occupied the slot Passions now holds).
*The scheduling of other soaps is at the discretion of your local station, so check your local listings for exact times in your area.
 12:30 PM1:00 PM1:30 PM2:00 PM2:30 PM3:00 PM3:30 PM
ABCLocal ProgrammingAll My Children Missing image

One Life to Live Missing image

General Hospital Missing image

CBSThe Young and the Restless Missing image

The Bold and the Beautiful Missing image

As the World Turns Missing image

Guiding Light Missing image

NBCLocal ProgrammingDays of Our Lives Missing image

Passions Missing image

Local Programming

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.

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Coronation Street has been a popular soap opera in the United Kingdom since the show was first aired in 1960.

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), and on the BBC 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). During the 1960s Corrie's main rival was Crossroads, which started in 1964 and was broadcast by ITV at teatime. Crossroads was set in a Birmingham (England) motel and while popular, the show's purported low technical standard and bad acting was much mocked. It lasted until 1988, was briefly revived in 2001 with a mostly new cast, but was discontinued again a short time later due to unsatisfactory ratings. A later rival to Corrie was ITV's Emmerdale Farm (later renamed Emmerdale) which began in 1972 and had a similar northern setting (but in Yorkshire instead of Lancashire). 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.

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Family Affairs is the flagship soap on five, and has aired five episodes a week since its debut in 1997.

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 and Home and Away, that the soap boom really began. 1992 saw the BBC launch the disastrous Eldorado to alternate with Eastenders but it only lasted a year, but this failure did not stop the ever increasing prominence that soap operas would have in UK schedules.

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. In 1997, Family Affairs debuted as a five-days-a-week soap. 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 Australia

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Lara Sacher (Serena Bishop) and Damien Bodie (Dylan Timmins) in a 2005 episode of the Australian soap Neighbours

While not having nearly as many soap operas as the United States or the UK, Australia has had quite a number of well known soap operas, some which have gained cult followings in the UK and other countries.

The first successful wave of Australian evening soap operas started in the late 1960s with Bellbird produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This rural-based serial was a moderate success but built-up a consistent and loyal viewer base. The first big soap opera hit in Australia was the sex-melodrama Number 96 which began in March 1972, screening on Network Ten. Number 96 brought such rarely explored topics as homosexuality, adultery, drug use, rape-within-marriage and racism into Australian living rooms en masse. By 1973 it had become Australia's highest-rating show. In 1974 the sexed-up antics of Number 96 prompted the creation of The Box, which rivaled it in terms of nudity and sexual situations. Produced by Crawford Productions, many critics considered The Box to be a more slickly produced and better written show than Number 96. Meanwhile in 1974 the Reg Grundy Organisation created its first soap opera, and significantly Australia's first teen soap opera, Class of '74. Its attempts to hint at the sex and sin shown more openly on Number 96 and The Box meant it came under intense scrutiny of the Broadcasting Control Board who vetted scripts and altered whole storylines. By 1975 both Number 96 and The Box, perhaps as a reaction to declining ratings for both shows, de-emphasised the sex and nudity moving more in the direction of comedy. Class of '74 was renamed Class of '75 for its second year but ratings dwindled and this year would also be its last.

A feature film version of Bellbird entitled Country Town was produced in 1971 not by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation but by two of the show's stars, Gary Gray and Terry McDermott. Number 96 and The Box also had feature film versions, both of which had the same title as the series, released in 1974 and 1975 respectively. As Australian television was in black and white until 1975 these theatrical releases all had the novelty of being in colour. The film versions of Number 96 and The Box also allowed more explicit nudity than could be shown on television at that time.

Launched on the Nine Network in late 1976 was The Sullivans, a series chronicaling the affects of World War II on a working-class Melbourne family. Produced by Crawford's this show was a ratings success and attracted many positive reviews. At around the same time Grundy's created a new teen-oriented soap, The Young Doctors, which also screened on Channel Nine starting late 1976. This show eschewed the sex and sin of Number 96 and The Box instead emphasising light-weight storylines and romance. It was also popular but unlike The Sullivans it was not a success with critics. Meanwhile in 1977 Number 96 would re-introduce nudity, with several much-publicised full-frontal nude scenes featured in an attempt to boost the show's plummeting ratings.

After Bellbird, Number 96 and The Box were all cancelled within four months of one another in late 1977 several new soap operas were launched. Two of the most successful of these were Cop Shop (1977-1984) which was a meld of soap opera and police drama, and The Restless Years (1977-1981) which was another teen soap from Grundy's. The Young Doctors and The Sullivans ran on Nine until 1982. Thereafter Channel Nine attempted many new soap operas but few lasted more than six months. By 1991 Nine had still failed to find a successful new soap opera. At this time they launched Chances, a series that would resurrect the sex and melodrama of Number 96 and The Box in an attempt to improve the show's chances of ratings success. It did not turn out to be a major ratings success, although the increasingly bizarre storylines were much-discussed.

Subsequent to this wave, several Australian soap operas found international success. In the UK daytime screenings of The Young Doctors, The Sullivans, Grundy's melodramatic family saga Sons and Daughters (1981-1987) and Neighbours (1985-) achieved significant success. Neighbours was subsequently moved to a prime-time slot. Grundy's Prisoner (1979-1986) began screening in the United States in 1979 and achieved high ratings in many regions, however only the first three years of the series would be screened in the US. Prisoner was also screened in late-night timeslots in the UK beginning in the late 1980s, achieving enduring cult success there. In the late 1990s Channel Five repeated Prisoner. As of 2005 Five are running late-night repeats of Sons and Daughters.

Other shows to achieve varying levels of international success include E Street (1989-1993), Paradise Beach (1993-1994), Pacific Drive (1995-1997). Channel Seven's Home and Away (1988-), a teen soap developed as a rival to Neighbours, has also achieved significant and enduring success on UK television.

The only two soaps that are still being broadcast in Australia are Neighbours and Home and Away, both which continue to be broadcast in the United Kingdom. Neighbours, which is currently celebrating it's 20th Anniversary, was aired in the US channel Oxygen in March of 2004. Unfortunately, it was shown opposite to much more well known soaps like All My Children and The Young and The Restless, and was cancelled shortly afterwards.

Currently there is a new Australian soap opera entitled Headland in production which is to air sometime in 2005. It was originally intended as a spin off of Home and Away, but will now be developed as a stand-alone series.

Soap parodies

See also

External links

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