A genre of storytelling that began on radio in the United States in the early 1930's, so named because its high drama was often interspersed with adverts for soap (Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of such products, was the sole sponsor and producer for many of them). But there's no soap radio anymore; with one exception, it has moved on to television. A soap opera is a drama with a large cast experiencing dramatic events in their day-to-day lives, usually broadcast five days a week. Designed to be viewed intermittently, so that a single event may be stretched over three or more days.
Death is not a big concern in the world of soaps (to the point that Friends, after Joey's character's brain was crushed on Days of Our Lives, joked that he could yet return to play said character once more, and he did), though most shows enjoy pretending that anybody can be snuffed out at any moment particularly during a commercial or episode break. The truth is that contract re-negotiations are the leading cause of permanent death. Story progression often takes a backseat to what people actually want to see: cat fights and screaming matches and every imaginable configuration of characters sleeping with each other. These habits are widely mocked in other works whenever a soap appears or is mentioned.
Soaps are typically Long-Runners, easily extending themselves for years and even decades when successful (the record-holder being (The) Guiding Light, 1937-2009). Similarly, German and other continental European soaps typically follow this practice, lasting for years and years. Latin and Eastern countries instead have the telenovela.
The main difference between national soaps is class, or rather, the class of people portrayed American soaps often feature filthy rich characters with big houses and glamorous clothing (think Dallas or Dynasty); Australian ones usually feature middle class suburban white people, often young and healthy (Neighbours, Sons and Daughters, Home and Away); while the British soaps are either lower-middle class (Brookside) or grimly and grimily working class (EastEnders, Coronation Street). These class divides are not 100% certain but tend to dominate: see, for example, The BBC's aspirationally luxurious Howard's Way, which lasted for several years but never achieved the public love that the "kitchen sink" soaps did. The feature common to all three flavours is that there is no one main character; rather, characters drift in and out of focus as the storylines go on. Some characters may be more memorable or have more influence on The Verse than others, but nobody can be said to be the protagonist. (See also: Soap Wheel.)
Britain often run their soaps in Prime Time, as they do with their favourite Aussie imports, and as do Australians themselves. By contrast, American stations traditionally quarantine soaps into a late-morning or early-afternoon timeslot. That said, daytime soaps were reliable moneyspinners for the American networks from the days of radio all the way into The '90s, and served as a career springboard for many actors and actresses who went on to great success in more "legit" film and TV productions.
Although classic soap operas originated in the United States, the genre there has undergone a severe decline to the point that many media watchers have declared it effectively though not quite actually dead. During the transition to The New '10s, four of the longest running and most successful soaps in history reached their finales Guiding Light (the longest continuous narrative in human history) was cancelled in 2009 after 72 years; As the World Turns ended in 2010 after 54 years; All My Children ended in 2011 and One Life to Live ended in 2012, both having run for over 40 years. Those were the first, but not the last, casualties. There are several popular, somewhat interconnecting, theories as to why soaps have declined in America:
- The first is the rise of women in the workforce, brought on by a combination of the feminist movement and massive economic upheaval. When soaps began, women were still primarily housewives who would be home during daytime, which has long been the domain of soaps in America (meaning they had a potential audience of nearly half the American adult population). However, as more and more households became dual-income or woman-primarynote , there simply weren't as many people home to watch. One potential sign of this is that the most successful current daytime soap is The Young and the Restless on CBS, which runs most often in a 12:30 PM Eastern/Pacific timeslot, when people who work a typical 9-to-5 job will be able to tune in during their lunch break. The other remaining U.S. soaps, Days of Our Lives on NBC, The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS and General Hospital on ABC, while outside lunch hour in Eastern/Pacific time at 1:00, 1:30 and 2:00 PM respectively, are on at 12:00, 12:30 and 1:00 PM in the Central and Mountain areas, allowing most of them to also enjoy lunchtime audiences there. note
- The second is that the TV landscape in general has inverted in America. Originally, soaps were allowed to be edgy while prime time was more conservative back in the '50s and early '60s, I Love Lucy's Lucy and Ricky Ricardo weren't allowed to say the word "pregnant", and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Laura Petrie was criticized by Moral Guardians for wearing pants. As primetime TV has gotten edgier, daytime TV has conversely become somewhat stodgier. They seem to have intersected during the mid-1970's, when Erica Kane and Maude Finlay both got landmark abortions within a few months of each other. Soaps had a surge during The '80s with the likes of Supercouple Luke and Laura, but at that point, Prime Time was creating edgy shows with topical themes such as Roseanne and The Golden Girls, (which were sitcoms and were still dealing with issues such as HIV and domestic violence, to say nothing of dramas of the time), and soaps began to decline. In addition, the soap opera has become part of the genetics of television drama — it no longer needs to be contained in just daytime serials shows such as Revenge and the Dallas revival show that people still have a fondness for soaps, it's just that the mechanics of a heavily serialized daily show in primetime can't keep up with modern audiences.
- This could be related to the above in that, with more women going into the workforce rather than being stay-at-home housewives, the women who do stay home are generally doing so by choice rather than societal pressure. As such, they're likely to hold more conservative views about gender roles, gay rights, and other social issues, causing the showrunners to make their soaps more conservative in order to retain viewers. It also explains why prime time has taken on the soaps' old edginess — the liberal-leaning housewives who watched soaps before the rise of feminism have changed into liberal-leaning working women who watch prime time shows like the men do.
- It is also not helped by the fact that longtime viewers of these soaps are disappearing due to age in general. Potential younger viewers who would replace them have no interest in following along and it would take literal decades for them to get caught up.
- While reviewing the first year of the NBC soap Passions for his web series, TV Trash, Chris "The Rowdy Reviewer" Moore explained that the real problem that people have when watching daytime soap operas in general boils down to pacing. To put things into perspective, whereas on a weekly, one hour episodic television series, there's usually one main central plot and maybe one or two side plots, on a daytime drama that airs five days a week, there's roughly at least five or six plots running concurrently. Because the soaps are trying to cover them all at once, in a single one hour episode, you rarely get a single act of one story-line that runs more than a minute (or approximately ten minutes in total of each plot per episode) before cutting to a whole different set of characters for whom you may or may not care anything about. This means that a single plot point (especially the ones that have the best sort of tension to actually wrap in a viewer) could literally be dragged out for weeks.
- The third theory cites two specific events in the late '80s and early '90s as the reasons why audiences started tuning out — the 1988 WGA strike and the O.J. Simpson trial. The former caused the soaps to run without experienced writers, leading to a sharp decline in quality, and coverage of the latter not only knocked the soaps off the air for several weeks, but it provided viewers with a real life soap opera to enjoy. Declining viewership caused the networks to put less effort into their shows, creating a vicious cycle of sinking quality and ratings. Taking this theory further, the fact that shortly before the first of the legacy soaps was cancelled there was another WGA strike (in 2007-08), might be more than just coincidence.
- The fourth theory (and a conspiracy theory) is that the networks want to get out of the soap business because they are so expensive to produce compared to talk and reality shows, especially given that the above three factors have been cutting into ratings for upwards of two decades. However, soap opera fans are notoriously loyal (it is often the show that bonds generations of mothers and daughters), so the networks have been deliberately sabotaging their soaps, slashing budgets and hiring writers with contempt for the genre in an effort to drive fans away. Less fans means less ratings means that the soap can be canceled as a "business decision" with relatively minimal blowback... and if they accidentally cause a Springtime for Hitler scenario and the show is a hit, hey, they're not gonna complain.
- Then there's the rise of cable networks and streaming options. In the past, the lower-tier of scripted television, which included soaps and Made-for-TV Movies, was still pretty limited with only a few networks; even in the 90s when cable was just getting into the originals game, the roles were still limited and you'd be happy to take a soap role to get in the door. Now when you have 450-some primetime and streaming shows looking to cast, taking a three-week role as a nurse on General Hospital to break in or sticking daytime around for years looping through the same plot points doesn't look as good when you can easily get better pay and attention as a recurring character on a Netflix series, not to mention you don't get as much Twitter and fanmail anguish due to a soap writer's creative choice you had no say in nixing (it's often thought the writers can easily scorn and get back at the talent who hates them much more than for actors in primetime series).
Many in the industry predicted that while the soap opera will live on in American TV, the last of the classic daytime serials would be off the air by 2015 a prophecy that did not come to pass. However, it is true that by then, only four traditional soaps remained General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful down from 19 in 1969 and 12 as recently as 1990. SOAPNet, the one cable network dedicated to the genre and where most of the programs repeat, was removed from many cable systems in early 2012 to be replaced by Disney Junior, and its end was used as an excuse by ABC's daytime chief to kill All My Children and One Life to Live.note
Practically every nation on earth has soap operas (radio and TV), and loads of soaps are one thing you can always count on an expatriate/tourist station for any given country carrying. The U.S. military's Armed Forces Network carries all four current U.S. soaps.note
There is another kind of production similar to the Soap Opera, sometimes seen as the "Latin" School of soaps (comparing with the fact that soaps are most popular in the US, UK, and Australia), called Telenovelas, which are the standard in almost every nation from Mexico southwards.
Aside from the fantastic elements (and even there, the line is blurry), this is largely the Distaff Counterpart to comic books, although the fans of that medium will never admit it.note Professional Wrestling has at times been called "Soap Operas for men."
Last note: for a long time in the United States, you could be fired for referring to a show as a "soap opera". The proper term was "daytime drama". It's no longer as strict, but still calling a show a soap to actors or crew will sometimes earn you a dirty look.
Not to be confused with Soupe Opéra.
- All My Children
- Anna und die Liebe
- Another World
- The Archers (radio soap)
- As the World Turns
- The Bold and the Beautiful
- Central Park West
- Coronation Street
- Dark Shadows
- Days of Our Lives
- The Edge of Night
- General Hospital
- Guiding Light
- Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten
- The Haves and the Have Nots
- Home and Away
- Love Of Life
- Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
- Night and Day
- One Life to Live
- Pobol y Cwm
- Port Charles
- Ryan's Hope
- Santa Barbara
- Search for Tomorrow
- Shortland Street
- Sunset Beach
- The Young and the Restless