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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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Muriel G., and Suzanne Pingree. The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills,
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also Nixon, Agnes;