The term "soap opera" was coined by the American press in the 1930s to denote the extraordinarily popular genre of serialized domestic radio dramas, which, by 1940, represented some 90% of all commercially-sponsored daytime broadcast hours. The "soap" in soap opera alluded to their sponsorship by manufacturers of household cleaning products; while "opera" suggested an ironic incongruity between the domestic narrative concerns of the daytime serial and the most elevated of dramatic forms. In the United States, the term continues to be applied primarily to the approximately fifty hours each week of daytime serial television drama broadcast by ABC, NBC, and CBS, but the meanings of the term, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, exceed this generic designation.

The defining quality of the soap opera form is its seriality. A serial narrative is a story told through a series of individual, narratively linked installments. Unlike episodic television programs, in which there is no narrative linkage between episodes and each episode tells a more or less self-contained story, the viewer's understanding of and pleasure in any given serial installment is predicated, to some degree, upon his or her knowledge of what has happened in previous episodes. Furthermore, each serial episode always leaves narrative loose ends for the next episode to take up. The viewer's relationship with serial characters is also different from those in episodic television. In the latter, characters cannot undergo changes that transcend any given episode, and they seldom reference events from previous episodes. Serial characters do change across episodes (they age and even die), and they possess both histories and memories. Serial television is not merely narratively segmented, its episodes are designed to be parceled out in regular installments, so that both the telling of the serial story and its reception by viewers is institutionally regulated. (This generalization obviously does not anticipate the use of the video tape recorder to "time shift" viewing).

Soap operas are of two basic narrative types: "open" soap operas, in which there is no end point toward which the action of the narrative moves; and "closed" soap operas, in which, no matter how attenuated the process, the narrative does eventually close. Examples of the open soap opera would include all U.S. daytime serials (General Hospital, All My Children, The Guiding Light, etc.), the wave of primetime U.S. soaps in the 1980s (Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest), such British serials as Coronation Street, EastEnders, and Brookside), and most Australian serials (Neighbours, Home and Away, A Country Practice). The closed soap opera is more common in Latin America, where it dominates primetime programming from Mexico to Chile. These telenovelas are broadcast nightly and may stretch over three or four months and hundreds of episodes. They are, however, designed eventually to end, and it is the anticipation of closure in both the design and reception of the closed soap opera that makes it fundamentally different from the open form.

In the United States, at least, the term "soap opera" has never been value-neutral. As noted above, the term itself signals an aesthetic and cultural incongruity: the events of everyday life elevated to the subject matter of an operatic form. To call a film, novel, or play a "soap opera" is to label it as culturally and aesthetic inconsequential and unworthy. When in the early 1990s the fabric of domestic life amongst the British royal family began to unravel, the press around the world began to refer to the situation as a "royal soap opera," which immediately framed it as tawdry, sensational, and undignified.

Particularly in the United States, the connotation of "soap opera" as a degraded cultural and aesthetic form is inextricably bound to the gendered nature of its appeals and of its target audience. The soap opera always has been a "woman's" genre, and, it has frequently been assumed (mainly by those who have never watched soap operas), of interest primarily or exclusively to uncultured working-class women with simple tastes and limited capacities. Thus the soap opera has been the most easily parodied of all broadcasting genres, and its presumed audience most easily stereotyped as the working-class "housewife" who allows the dishes to pile up and the children to run amuck because of her "addiction" to soap operas. Despite the fact that the soap opera is demonstrably one of the most narratively complex genres of television drama whose enjoyment requires considerable knowledge by its viewers, and despite the fact that its appeals for half a century have cut across social and demographic categories, the term continues to carry this sexist and classist baggage.

What most Americans have known as soap opera for more than half a century began as one of the hundreds of new programming forms tried out by commercial radio broadcasters in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as both local stations and the newly-formed networks attempted to marry the needs of advertisers with the listening interests of consumers. Specifically, broadcasters hoped to interest manufacturers of household cleaners, food products, and toiletries in the possibility of using daytime radio to reach their prime consumer market: women between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.

As the World Turns

In 1930, the manager of Chicago radio station WGN approached first a detergent company and then a margarine manufacturer with a proposal for a new type of program: a daily, fifteen-minute serialized drama set in the home of an Irish-American widow and her young unmarried daughter. Irna Phillips, who had recently left her job as a speech teacher to try her hand at radio, was assigned to write Painted Dreams, as the show was called, and play two of its three regular parts. The plots Phillips wrote revolved around morning conversations "Mother" Moynihan had with her daughter and their female boarder before the two young women went to their jobs at a hotel.

The antecedents of Painted Dreams and the dozens of other soap operas launched in the early 1930s are varied. The soap opera continued the tradition of women's domestic fiction of the nineteenth century, which had also been sustained in magazine stories of the 1920s and 1930s. It also drew upon the conventions of the "woman's film" of the 1930s. The frequent homilies and admonitions offered by "Mother" Moynihan and her matriarchal counterparts on other early soap operas echoed those presented on the many advice programs commercial broadcasters presented in the early 1930s in response to the unprecedented social and economic dislocation experienced by American families as a result of the Great Depression. The serial narrative format of the early soap opera was almost certainly inspired by the primetime success of Amos 'n' Andy, the comic radio serial about "black" life on the south side of Chicago (the show was written and performed by two white men), which by 1930 was the most popular radio show to that time.

In the absence of systematic audience measurement, 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 crucial network programming strategy for attracting such large corporate sponsors as Procter and Gamble, Pillsbury, American Home Products, and General Foods. Most network soap operas were produced by advertising agencies, and some were owned by the sponsoring client.

Irna Phillips created and wrote some of the most successful radio soap operas in the 1930s and 1940s, including Today's Children (1932), The Guiding Light (1937), and Woman in White (1938). Her chief competition came from the husband-wife team of Frank and Anne Hummert, who were responsible for nearly half the soap operas introduced between 1932 and 1937, including Ma Perkins (1933) and The Romance of Helen Trent (1933).

On the eve of World War II, listeners could choose from among sixty-four daytime serials broadcast each week. During the war, so important had soap operas become in maintaining product recognition among consumers that Procter and Gamble continued to advertise Dreft detergent on its soap operas--despite the fact that the sale of it and other synthetic laundry detergents had been suspended for the duration. Soap operas continued to dominate daytime ratings and schedules in the immediate post-war period. In 1948 the ten highest-rated daytime programs were all soap operas, and of the top thirty daytime shows all but five were soaps. The most popular non-serial daytime program, Arthur Godfrey, could manage only twelfth place.

As television began to supplant radio as a national advertising medium in the late 1940s, the same companies that owned or sponsored radio soap operas looked to the new medium as a means of introducing new products and exploiting pent-up consumer demand. Procter and Gamble, which established its own radio soap opera production subsidiary in 1940, produced the first network television soap opera in 1950. The First Hundred Years ran for only two and demonstrated some of the problems of transplanting the radio genre to television. Everything that was left to the listener's imagination in the radio soap had to be given visual form on television. Production costs were two to three times that of a radio serial. Actors had to act and not merely read their lines. The complexity and uncertainty of producing fifteen minutes of live television drama each weekday was vastly greater than was the case on radio. Furthermore, it was unclear in 1950 if the primary target audience for soap operas--women working in the home--could integrate the viewing of soaps into their daily routines. One could listen to a radio soap while doing other things, even in another room; television soaps required some degree of visual attention.

By the 1951-52 television season, broadcasters had demonstrated television's ability to attract daytime audiences, principally through the variety-talk format. CBS led the way in adapting the radio serial to television, introducing four daytime serials. The success of three of them, Search for Tomorrow, Love of Life (both produced by Roy Winsor), and The Guiding Light, established the soap opera as a regular part of network television daytime programming and CBS as the early leader in the genre. The Guiding Light was the first radio soap opera to make the transition to television, and one of only two to do so successfully (The other was The Brighter Day, which ran for eight years). Between its television debut in 1952 and 1956 The Guiding Light was broadcast on both radio and television.

By the early 1960s, the radio soap opera--along with most aspects of network radio more generally--was a thing of the past, and "soap opera" in the United States now meant "television soap opera." The last network radio soap operas went off the air in November 1960. Still, television soap operas continued many of the conventions of their radio predecessors: live, week-daily episodes of fifteen minutes, an unseen voice-over announcer to introduce and close each episode, organ music to provide a theme and punctuate the most dramatic moments, and each episode ending on an unresolved narrative moment with a "cliffhanger" ending on Friday to draw the audience back on Monday.

The thirty-minute soap opera was not introduced until 1956, with the debut of Irna Phillips's new soap for Procter and Gamble and CBS, As the World Turns. With an equivalent running time of two feature films each week, As the World Turns expanded the community of characters, slowed the narrative pace, emphasized the exploration of character, utilized multiple cameras to better capture facial expressions and reactions, and built its appeal less on individual action than on exploring the network of relationships among members of two extended families: the Lowells and the Hughes. Although it took some months to catch on with audiences, As the World Turns demonstrated that viewers would watch a week-daily half-hour soap. Its ratings success plus the enormous cost savings of producing one half-hour program rather than two fifteen-minute ones persuaded producers that the thirty-minute soap opera was the format of the future. The fifteen-minute soap was phased out, and all new soap operas introduced after 1956 were at least thirty-minutes in length.

CBS's hegemony in soap operas was not challenged until 1963. None of the several half-hour soaps NBC introduced in the wake of As the World Turns' popularity made the slightest dent in CBS's ratings. However, in April of 1963 both NBC and ABC launched soaps with medical settings and themes: The Doctors and General Hospital, respectively. These were not the first medical television soaps, but they were the first to sustain audience interest over time, and the first soaps produced by either network to achieve ratings even approaching those of the CBS serials. Their popularity also spawned the sub-genre of the medical soap, in which the hospital replaces the home as the locus of action, plot lines center on the medical and emotional challenges patients present doctors and nurses, and the biological family is replaced or paralleled by the professional family as the structuring basis for the show's community of characters.

The therapeutic orientation of medical soaps also provided an excellent rationale for introducing a host of contemporary, sometimes controversial social issues, which Irna Phillips and a few other writers believed soap audiences in the mid-1960s were prepared to accept as a part of the soap opera's moral universe. Days of Our Lives (co-created for NBC in 1965 by Irna Phillips and Ted Corday, the first director of As the World Turns) presented Dr. Tom Horton (played by film actor Macdonald Carey) and his colleagues at University Hospital with a host of medical, emotional, sexual, and psychiatric problems in the show's first years, including incest, impotence, amnesia, illegitimacy, and murder as a result of temporary insanity. This strategy made Days of Our Lives a breakthrough hit for NBC, and it anchored its daytime line-up through the late 1960s.

Medical soaps are particularly well-suited to meet the unique narrative demands of the "never-ending" stories American soap operas tell. Their hospital settings provide opportunities for the intersection of professional and personal dramas. They also allow for the limitless introduction of new characters as hospital patients and personnel. The constant admission of new patients to the medical soap's hospitals facilitates the admission to the soap community of a succession of medical, personal, and social issues which can be attached to those patients. If audience response warrants, the patient can be "cured" and admitted to the central cohort of community members. If not, or if the social issue the patient represents proves to be too controversial, he or she can die or be discharged--both from the hospital and from the narrative. Such has been the appeal (to audiences and writers alike) of the medical soap, that many non-medical soaps have included doctors and nurses among their central characters and nurses' stations among their standing sets. Among them has been As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, Search for Tomorrow, and Ryan's Hope.

The latter half of the 1960s was a key period in the history of U.S. daytime soap operas. By 1965 both the popularity and profitability of the television soap opera had been amply demonstrated. Soaps proved unrivaled in attracting female viewers aged between eighteen and forty-nine--the demographic group responsible for making most of the non-durable good purchasing decisions in U.S. Production costs were a fraction of those for primetime drama, and once a new soap "found" its audience, broadcasters and advertisers knew that those viewers would be among television's most loyal. For the first time CBS faced competition for the available daytime audience. With the success of Another World (another Irna Phillips vehicle launched in 1964), Days of Our Lives and The Doctors, by 1966 NBC had a creditable line-up across the key afternoon time-slots.

This competition sparked a period of unprecedented experimentation with the genre, as all three networks assumed that audiences would seek out a soap opera "with a difference." As the network with the most to gain (and the least to lose) by program innovation, ABC's new soaps represented the most radical departures from the genre's thirty-five-year-old formula. Believing that daytime audiences would also watch soaps during primetime, in September 1964 ABC introduced Peyton Place, a twice-weekly half-hour prime-time serial based on the best-selling 1957 novel by Grace Metalious and its successful film adaptation. Shot on film and starring film actress Dorothy Malone, Peyton Place was one of ABC's biggest primetime hits of the 1964-65 television season and made stars of newcomers Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal. The show's ratings dropped after its first two seasons, however, and in terms of daytime soap longevity its run was relatively brief: five years.

In 1966 ABC launched the most unusual daytime soap ever presented on American television. Dark Shadows was an over-the-top gothic serial, replete with a spooky mansion setting, young governess (lifted directly from Henry James's The Turn of the Screw), and two-hundred-year-old vampire. Broadcast in most markets in the late afternoon in order to catch high school students as well as adult women, Dark Shadows became something of a cult hit in its first season, and it did succeed in attracting to the soap opera form an audience of teenage viewers (male and female) and college students who were not addressed by more mainstream soaps. The show was too camp for most of those mainstream soap viewers, however, and it was canceled after five years.

ABC's most durable innovations in the soap opera genre during this period, however, took the form of two new mainstream soap operas, both created by Irna Phillips's protégé, Agnes Nixon. Nixon, who had apprenticed to Phillips for more than a decade as dialogue writer for most of her soaps and head writer of The Guiding Light, sold ABC on the idea of new soap that would foreground rather than suppress class and ethnic difference. One Life to Live, which debuted in 1968, centered initially on the family of wealthy WASP newspaper owner Victor Lord, but established the Lords in relation to three working-class and ethnically "marked" families: the Irish-American Rileys, the Polish-American Woleks, and after a year or two, the Jewish-American Siegels. Ethnic and class difference was played out primarily in terms of romantic entanglements.

Where most soap operas still avoided controversial social issues, Nixon exploited some of the social tensions then swirling through American society in the late 1960s. In 1969 One Life to Live introduced a black character who denied her racial identity (only to proudly proclaim it some months and dozens of episodes later). The following year when a teenage character is discovered to be a drug addict, she is sent to a "real life" treatment center in New York, where the character interacts with actual patients.

Some of this sense of social "relevance" also found its way into Nixon's next venture for ABC, All My Children, which debuted in 1970. It was the first soap opera to write the Vietnam War into its stories, with one character drafted and (presumably) killed in action. Despite an anti-war speech delivered by his grieving mother, the political force of the plot line was blunted by the discovery that he was not really killed at all.

Even before One Life to Live broke new ground in its representation of class, race, and ethnicity, CBS gestured (rather tentatively, as it turns out) in the direction of social realism in response to the growing ratings success of NBC and ABC's soaps. Love Is a Many Splendored Thing had been a successful 1955 film, with William Holden playing an American journalist working in Asia who falls in love with a young Eurasian woman, played by Jennifer Jones. Irna Phillips wrote the soap opera as a sequel to the film, in which the couple's daughter moves to San Francisco and falls in love with a local doctor. Love Is a Many Splendored Thing debuted on 18 September 1967, its inaugural story (indeed, its very premise) concerning the social implications of this interracial romance. After only a few months, CBS, fearing protests from sponsors and audience groups, demanded that Phillips write her Eurasian heroine out of the show. She refused to do so and angrily resigned. Rather than cancel the show, however, CBS hired new writers, who refocused it on three young, white characters (played by Donna Mills, David Birney, and Leslie Charleson).

What the replacement writers of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing did in a desperate attempt to save a wounded show, Agnes Nixon did in a very premeditated fashion some thirty months later in All My Children. As its name suggests, All My Children was, like many radio and tv soaps before it, structured around a matriarch, the wealthy Phoebe Tyler (Ruth Warwick), but to a greater degree than its predecessors, it emphasized the romantic relationships among its "children." Nixon realized that after nearly two decades of television soaps, many in the viewing audience were aging out of the prime demographic group most sought by soap's sponsors and owners: women under the age of fifty. All My Children used young adult characters and a regular injection of social controversy to appeal to viewers at the other end of the demographic spectrum. It was a tactic very much in tune with ABC's overall programming strategy in the 1960s, which also resulted in The Flintstones and American Bandstand. All My Children was the first soap opera whose organizational structure addressed what was to become the form's perennial demographic dilemma: how to keep the existing audience while adding younger recruits to it.

The problem of the "aging out" of a given soap opera's audience was particularly acute for CBS, whose leading soaps were by the early 1970s entering their second or third decade (Search for Tomorrow, Love of Life, The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Secret Storm, and The Edge of Night were all launched between 1951 and 1957). Consequently a troubling proportion of CBS's soap audience was aging out of the "quality" demographic range. Thus for the first time CBS found itself in the position of having to respond to the other networks' soap opera innovations. As its name rather baldly announces, The Young and the Restless was based upon the premise that a soap opera about the sexual intrigues of attractive characters in their twenties would attract an audience of women also in their twenties. Devised for CBS by another of Irna Phillips's students, William Bell, and launched in 1973, The Young and the Restless is what might be called the first "Hollywood" soap. Not only was it shot in Hollywood (as some other soaps already were), it borrowed something of the "look" of a Hollywood film (particularly in its use of elaborate sets and high-key lighting), peopled Genoa City with soap opera's most conspicuously attractive citizens, dressed them in fashion-magazine wardrobes, and kept its plots focused on sex and its attendant problems and complications. The formula was almost immediately successful, and The Young and the Restless has remained one of the most popular soap operas for more than twenty years. It is also the stylistic progenitor of such recent "slick" soaps as Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful.

The early 1970s saw intense competition among the three networks for soap opera viewers. By this time, ABC, CBS, and NBC all had full slates of afternoon soap operas (at one point in this period the three networks were airing ten hours of soaps every weekday), and the aggregate daily audience for soap operas had reached twenty million. With a four-fold difference in ad rates between low-rated and high-rated soaps and the latter having the potential of attracting $500,000 in ad revenue each week, soap operas became driven by the Nielsen ratings like never before.

The way in which these ratings pressures affected the writing of soap opera narratives speaks to the genre's unique mode of production. Since the days of radio soap operas, effective power over the creation and maintenance of each soap opera narrative world has been vested in the show's head writer. She (and to a greater degree than in any other form of television programming, the head writers of soap operas have been female) charts the narrative course for the soap opera over a six month period and in doing so determines the immediate (and sometimes permanent) fates of each character, the nature of each intersecting plot line, and the speed with which each plot line moves toward some (however tentative) resolution. She then supervises the segmentation of this overall plot outline into weekly and then daily portions, usually assigning the actual writing of each episode to one of a team of script writers ("dialoguers" as they are called in the business). The scripts then go back to the head writer for her approval before becoming the basis for each episode's actual production.



All My Children

The long-term narrative trajectory of a soap opera is subject to adjustment as feedback is received from viewers by way of fan letters, market research, and, of course, the weekly Nielsen ratings figures, which in the 1970s were based on a national sample of some 1200 television households. Looking over the head writer's shoulder, of course, is the network, whose profitability depends upon advertising revenues, and the show's sponsor, who frequently was (and in the case of four soaps today, still is) the show's owner.

By the early 1970s, head writers were under enormous pressure to attain the highest ratings possible, "win" the ratings race against the competition in the show's time slot, target the show's plots at the demographic group of most value to advertisers, take into account the production-budget implications of any plot developments (new sets or exterior shooting, for example), and maintain audience interest every week without pauses for summer hiatus or reruns. These pressures--and the financial stakes producing them--made soap opera head writers among the highest paid writers in broadcasting (and the most highly paid women in the industry), but they also meant that, like the manager of a baseball team, she became the scapegoat if her "team" did not win.

If the mid- and late-1960s were periods of experimentation with the soap opera form itself, the early 1970s launched the era of incessant adjustments within the form--an era that has lasted to the present. Although individual soap operas attempted to establish defining differences from other soaps (in the early 1970s As the World Turns was centered on the extended Hughes family; The Young and the Restless was sexy and visually striking; The Edge of Night maintained elements of the police and courtroom drama; General Hospital foregrounded medical issues; etc.), to some degree all soap opera meta-narratives over the past twenty-five years have drawn upon common sets of tactical options, oscillating between opposed terms within each set: fantasy versus everyday life, a focus on individual character/actor "stars" versus the diffusion of interest across the larger soap opera community, social "relevance" versus more "traditional" soap opera narrative concerns of family and romance, an emphasis on one sensational plotline versus spreading the show's narrative energy across several plotlines at different stages of resolution, attempting to attract younger viewers by concentrating on younger characters versus attempting to maintain the more adult viewer's interest through characters and plots presumably more to her liking.

At any given moment, the world of any given soap opera is in part the result of narrative decisions that have been made along all of these parameters, mediated, of course, by the history of that particular soap opera's "world" and the personalities of the characters who inhabit it. Any head writer brought in to improve the flagging ratings of an ongoing soap is constrained in her exercise of these options by the fact that many of the show's viewers have a better sense of who the show's characters are and what is plausible to happen to them than she does. And being among the most vocal and devoted of all television viewers, soap opera fans are quick to respond when they feel a new head writer has driven the soap's narrative off-course.

Despite the constant internal adjustments being made in any given soap opera, individual shows have demonstrated remarkable resilience and overall soap operas exhibit infinitely greater stability than any primetime genre. 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 January 1937, making it the longest story ever told. Of the ten currently running network soap operas (1995), eight have been on the air for more than twenty years, five for more than thirty years, and two (The Guiding Light and As the World Turns) survive from the 1950s.

Although long-running soap operas have been canceled (Love of Life and Search for Tomorrow were both canceled in the 1980s after thirty-year runs) and others have come and gone, the incentive to keep an established soap going is considerable in light of the expense and risk of replacing it with a new soap opera, which can take a year or more to "find" its audience. Viewers who have invested years in watching a particular soap are not easily lured to a new one, or, for that matter, to a competing soap on another network. In the mid-1970s, rather than replacing failing half-hour soaps with new ones, NBC began extending some of its existing soaps to a full hour (Days of our Lives and Another World were the first to be expanded in 1976). Eight of the ten currently running soap operas are one hour in length.

In the 1980s, despite daytime soap operas' struggles to maintain audience in the face of declining overall viewership, the soap opera became more "visible" in the United States as a programming genre and cultural phenomenon than at any point in its history. Soap operas had always been "visible" to its large and loyal audience. By the 1980s some fifty million persons in the United States "followed" one or more soap operas, including two-thirds of all women living in homes with televisions. As a cultural phenomenon, however, for thirty years the watching of soap operas had for the most part occurred undetected on the radar screen of public notice and comment. Ironically, soap opera viewing became the basis for a public fan culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s in part because more and more of the soap opera audience was unavailable during the day to watch. As increasing numbers of soap opera viewing women entered the paid workforce in the 1970s, they obviously found it difficult to "keep up" with the plots of their favorite soaps. A new genre of mass-market magazine emerged in response to this need. By 1982 ten new magazines had been launched that addressed the soap opera fan. For the occasional viewer they contained plot synopses of all current soaps. For them and for more regular viewers, they also featured profiles of soap opera actors, "behind-the-scenes" articles on soap opera production, and letters-to-the-editor columns in which readers could respond to particular soap characters and plot developments. Soap Opera Digest, which began in 1975, had a circulation of 850,000 copies by 1990 and claimed a readership of four million. Soap opera magazines became an important focus of soap fan culture in the 1980s--a culture that was recognized (and exploited) by soap producers through their sponsorship or encouragement of public appearances by soap opera actors and more recently of soap opera "conventions."

Soaps and soap viewing also became more culturally "visible" in the 1980s as viewer demographics changed. By the beginning of the decade, fully thirty percent of the audience for soap operas was made up of groups outside the core demographic group of eighteen to forty-nine year-old women, including substantial numbers of teenage boys and girls (up to fifteen percent of the total audience for some soaps) and adult men (particularly those over fifty). Under-reported by the Nielsen ratings, soap opera viewing by some three million college students was confirmed by independent research in 1982.

The 1980s also was the decade in which the serial narrative form of the daytime soap opera became an important feature of primetime programming as well. The program that sparked the primetime soap boom of the 1980s was Dallas. Debuting in April 1978, Dallas was for its first year a one-hour episodic series concerning a wealthy but rough-edged Texas oil family. It was the enormous popularity of the "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger episode at the end of the second season (21 March 1980) and the first episode the following season (21 November 1980--the largest audience for any American television series to that time) that persuaded producers to transform the show into a full-blown serial.

Dallas not only borrowed the serial form from daytime soaps, but also the structuring device of the extended family (the Ewings), complete with patriarch, matriarch, good son, bad son, and in-laws--all of whom lived in the same Texas-sized house. The kinship and romance plots that could be generated around these core family members were, it was believed by the show's producers, the basis for attracting female viewers, while Ewing Oil's boardroom intrigues would draw adult males, accustomed to finding "masculine" genres (westerns, crime, and legal dramas) during Dallas's Sunday 10:00 P.M. time slot. By 1982 Dallas was one of the most popular programs in television history. It spawned direct imitators (most notably Dynasty and Falcon Crest), and a spin-off (Knot's Landing). Its success in adapting the daytime serial form to fit the requirements of the weekly one-hour format and the different demographics of the primetime audience prompted the "serialization" of a host of primetime dramas in the 1980s--the most successful among them Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law.

Dallas and Dynasty were also the first American serials (daytime or primetime) to be successfully marketed internationally. Dallas was broadcast in fifty-seven countries where it was seen by 300 million viewers. These two serials were particularly popular in western Europe, so much so that they provoked debates in a number of countries over American cultural imperialism and the appropriateness of state broadcasting systems spending public money to acquire American soap operas rather than to produce domestic drama. Producers in several European countries launched their own direct imitations of these slick American soaps, among them the German Schwarzwaldklinik and the French serial Chateauvallon.

But even as soap opera viewing came out of the closet in the 1980s and critics spoke (usually derisively) of the "soapoperafication" of primetime, daytime soaps struggled to deal with the compound blows struck by continuing changes in occupational patterns among women, the transformation of television technology (with the advent of the video tape recorder, satellite distribution of programming, and cable television), and the rise of competing, and less expensive, program forms. Between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1970s, broadcasters and advertisers could count on a stable (and, throughout much of this period, expanding) audience for soap operas among what industry trade papers always referred to as "housewives": women working in the home, many of them caring for small children. But with the end of the post-war "baby boom," American women joined the paid workforce in numbers unprecedented in peacetime. In 1977 the number of daytime households using television ("HUTs" in ratings terminology) began to decline and with it the aggregate audience for soap operas. Although daytime viewing figures have fluctuated somewhat since then, the trend over the past twenty years is clear: the audience for network programming in general and daytime programming specifically is shrinking.

In large measure the overall drop in network viewing figures is attributable to changes in television technology, especially the extraordinarily rapid diffusion of the video tape recorder in the 1980s and, at the same time, an explosion in the number of viewing alternatives available on cable television. The penetration of the video tape recorder into the American household has had a paradoxical impact on the measurement of soap opera viewing. Although the soap opera is the genre most "time-shifted" (recorded off the air for later viewing), soap opera viewing on video tape does not figure into audience ratings data, and even if it did, advertisers would discount such viewership, believing (accurately) that most viewers "zip" through commercials.

The wiring of most American cities for cable television in the 1970s and 1980s has meant the expansion of program alternatives in any given time period in many markets from three or four channels to more than fifty. In the 1960s and 1970s, daytime television viewers were limited in the viewing choices in many time slots to two genres: the game show and the soap opera. By the 1990s, network soaps were competing not only against each other and against game shows, but also against an array of cable alternatives, including one cable channel (Lifetime) targeted exclusively at the soap opera's core audience: women between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.

For the three commercial networks, dispersed viewership across an increasingly fragmented market has meant lower ratings, reduced total advertising revenue, reduced advertising rates, and reduced profit margins. Although soap operas actually gained viewership in some audience segments in the 1980s--men and adolescents, in particular--these are not groups traditionally targeted by the companies whose advertising has sustained the genre for half a century. As they scrambled to staunch the outflow of audience to cable in the early 1990s, the networks and independent producers (who supply programming both to the networks and in syndication to local broadcasters) turned to daytime programming forms with minimal start-up costs and low production budgets, especially the talk show. In many markets soap operas' strongest competition comes not from other soaps but from Montel Williams, Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, or another of the dozens of talk shows that have been launched since 1990.

It is impossible here to set the history of serial drama in U.S. broadcasting in relation to the history of the form in the dozens of other countries where it has figured prominently--from China and India to Mexico and Brazil--except to say that the form has proven to be extraordinarily malleable and responsive to a wide variety of local institutional and social requirements. However, it may be instructive to contrast briefly the British experience with the serial drama with that surveyed above in the United States.

General Hospital

The tradition of broadcast serial drama in Britain goes back to 1940s radio and The Archers, a daily, fifteen-minute serial of country life broadcast by the BBC initially as a means of educating farmers about better agricultural practices. The British television serial, on the other hand, grows out of the needs of commercial television in the late 1950s. Mandated to serve regional needs, the newly chartered "independent" (commercial) television services were eager to capture the growing audience of urban lower-middle class and working-class television viewers. In December 1960, Manchester-based Granada Television introduced its viewers to Coronation Street, a serial set in a local working-class neighborhood. The following year it was broadcast nationwide and has remained at or near the top of the primetime television ratings nearly ever since.

Coronation Street's style, setting, and narrative concerns are informed by the gritty, urban, working-class plays, novels, and films of the 1950s--the so-called "angry young man" or "kitchen sink" movement. Where U.S. daytime serials were (and still are) usually disconnected from any particular locality, Coronation Street is unmistakably local. Where U.S. soaps usually downplay class as an axis of social division (except as a marker of wealth), Coronation Street began and has to some degree stayed a celebration of the institutions of working-class culture and community (especially the pub and the cafe)--even if that culture was by 1960 an historical memory and Coronation Street's representation of community a nostalgic fantasy.

In part because of the regionalism built into the commercial television system, all British soap operas since Coronation Street have been geographically and, to some degree, culturally specific in setting: Crossroads (1964-88) in the Midlands, Emmerdale Farm (1972--) in the Yorkshire Dales, Brookside (1982--) in Liverpool, and the BBC's successful entry in the soap opera field EastEnders (1985--) in the East End of London. All also have been much more specific and explicit in their social and class settings than their American counterparts, and for this reason their fidelity to (and deviation from) some standard of social verisimilitude has been much more of an issue than has ever been the case with American soaps. Coronation Street has been criticized for its cozy, insulated, and outdated representation of the urban working-class community, which for decades seemed to have been bypassed by social change and strife.

Still, by American soap opera standards, British soaps are much more concerned with the material lives of their characters and the characters' positions within a larger social structure. EastEnders, when it was launched in 1985 the BBC's first venture into television serials in twenty years, was designed from the beginning to make contemporary material and social issues part of the fabric of its grubby East End community of pensioners, market traders, petty criminals, shopkeepers, the homeless, and the perennially unemployed.

Internationally, the most conspicuous and important development in the soap opera genre over the past twenty years has not involved the production, reception, or export of American soap operas (whether daytime or primetime), but rather the extraordinary popularity of domestic television serials in Latin America, India, Great Britain, Australia, and other countries, and the international circulation of non-U.S. soaps to virtually every part of the world except the United States. With their telenovelas dominating primetime schedules throughout the hemisphere, Latin American serial producers began seriously pursuing extra-regional export possibilities in the mid-1970s. Brazil's TV Globo began exporting telenovelas to Europe in 1975. Within a decade it was selling soap operas to nearly 100 countries around the world, its annual export revenues increasing five-fold between 1982 and 1987 alone. Mexico's Televisa exports serials to fifty-nine countries, and its soap operas have topped the ratings in Korea, Russia, and Turkey. Venezuelan serials have attracted huge audiences in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal. Latin American soap operas have penetrated the U.S. market but, thus far, only among its Spanish-speaking population: serials comprise a large share of the primetime programming on Spanish-language cable and broadcast channels in the United States.

Although Australian serials had been shown in Britain for some years, they became a major force in British broadcasting with the huge success of Reg Grundy Productions' Neighbours in 1986. For most of the time since then, it has vied with either EastEnders or Coronation Street as Britain's most-viewed television program. Neighbours has been seen in more than twenty-five countries and has been called Australia's most successful cultural export.

The global circulation of non-U.S. serials since the 1970s is, in part, a function of the increased demand for television programming in general, caused by the growth of satellite and cable television around the world. It is also due, particularly in western and eastern Europe, to a shift in many countries away from a state-controlled public service television system to a "mixed" (public and commercial) or entirely commercial model. The low production cost of serials (in Latin America between $25,000 and $80,000 an episode) and their ability to recover these costs in their domestic markets mean that they can be offered on the international market at relatively low prices (as little as $3000 per episode) in Europe. Given the large audiences they can attract and their low cost (particularly in relation to the cost of producing original drama), imported serials represent good value for satellite, cable, and broadcast services in many countries.

Ironically, American producers never seriously exploited the international market possibilities for daytime soap operas until the export success of Latin American serials in the 1980s, and now find themselves following the lead of TV Globo and Venezuela's Radio Caracas. NBC's The Bold and the Beautiful, set in the fashion industry, is the first U.S. daytime soap to attract a substantial international following.

Derided by critics and disdained by social commentators from the 1930s to the 1990s, the soap opera is nevertheless the most effective and enduring broadcast advertising vehicle ever devised. It is also the most popular genre of television drama in the world today and probably in the history of world broadcasting: no other form of television fiction has attracted more viewers in more countries over a longer period of time.

-Robert C. Allen


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__________. To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World. London: Routledge, 1995.

Ang, Ien. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. London: Methuen, 1985.

Buckingham, David. Public Secrets: EastEnders and Its Audience. London: British Film Institute, 1987.

Cantor, Muriel G., and Suzanne Pingree. The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983.

Cassata, Mary, and Thomas Skill. Life on Daytime Television. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1983.

Dyer, Richard, with others. Coronation Street. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Geraghty, Christine. Women and Soap Operas. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1991.

Hobson, Dorothy. Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera. London: Methuen, 1982.

Intintoli, Michael. Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of Guiding Light. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1982.

Nochimson, Martha. No End To Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Silj, Alessandro. East of Dallas: The European Challenge to American Television. London: British Film Institute, 1988.

Williams, Carol Traynor. "It's Time for My Story": Soap Opera Sources, Structure, and Response. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1992.


See also Nixon, Agnes; Phillips, Irna; Telenovela; Teleroman

Guiding Light