A soap opera is a melodrama with a large cast experiencing dramatic emotional events in their day-to-day lives, usually broadcast five days a week. Many of the plots are about sexual relationships, family issues, and occasional topical issues like addiction or infidelity. It is often set inside in domestic locations. American soaps tend to have wealthy, glamorous characters; British shows tend to have working-class characters living in modest houses. Designed to be viewed intermittently, so that a single event may be stretched over three or more days, with multiple narrative threads overlapping.
A genre of storytelling which began on radio in the United States in the early 1930's, it got its name because its high drama was often interspersed with adverts for, well, 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 (The Archers), the genre is mainly-associated with television. For a long time in the U.S., you could actually be fired for referring to your show as a "soap opera"; the proper term was "daytime drama". It's no longer enforced, but referring to it as a soap in front of actors or crew will still occasionally earn you a dirty look.
From the beginning it was viewed as a genre that mainly appealed to women. In fact, the entire genre was basically invented by one woman, Irna Phillips. Phillips created the Ur-Example (Painted Dreams on WGN radio in Chicago in 1930), the Genre Popularizer and Trope Codifier (Guiding Light) and was the key figure in the genre's transition from radio to television, creating the first daily daytime TV drama (These Are My Children in 1949), helping Guiding Light transition to video, and creating two more genre staples in television: As the World Turns and Another World. Soaps were very important in laying the groundwork for scripted television. It's even been argued that all TV dramas are ultimately riffs on the standard soap template (basically, soaps are to TV drama as Blues is to Rock).
The main staples of soap storytelling are the Cliffhanger, not just from episode to episode, but each scene will usually end with one, and Dramatic Irony—much of the suspense comes from the audience learning important information long before most of the characters do, and anticipating what happens when they do find out. Death is not a big concern in the world of soaps; to the point that Friends, after Dr. Ramoray (Joey's character) had "his brain crushed" on Days of Our Lives, joked that he could yet return — and he did. However, 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. (For parodies of the soap genre, look up Soap Within a Show.)
American soaps were typically Long-Runners, easily extending themselves for years and even decades if 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.
On a country-by-country basis, the main difference is the social class of people being portrayed: American soaps often featured filthy-rich characters with chic clothing and gorgeous mansions (think Dallas or Dynasty (1981)). Australian ones usually feature middle-class suburban white people, often young and healthy (Neighbours, Sons and Daughters, Home and Away); while 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 The BBC's aspirationally-luxurious Howard's Way, which ran for several years, but never won the hearts of viewers like "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 so do Australians themselves. In 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 soaps originated in the U.S., the genre there has undergone a severe decline to the point that media analysts have declared it effectively dead. During the transition to The New '10s, four of the longest running and most successful soaps in history reached their finales: Guiding Light (still the longest continuous narrative in human history, even in 2022) 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 casualties, but not the last. There are several popular, somewhat interconnecting theories as to why soaps have declined in North 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-primary" (i.e. a woman is the main breadwinner, either because she's single or she earns a higher income than her partner), there simply isn't anybody home to watch. One potential sign of this is that the most-successful daytime soap currently airing is The Young and the Restless on CBS, which runs most often in a 12:30 PM Eastern/Pacific timeslot. People who work a typical 9-to-5 job will be able to tune in during their lunch break. The remaining big-hitters, Days of Our Lives (on NBC), The Bold and the Beautiful (on CBS) and General Hospital (on ABC) air outside lunch hour in Eastern/Pacific time at 1:00, 1:30 and 2:00 PM respectively. To further prove the point, those shows air at 12:00, 12:30 and 1:00 PM in the Central and Mountain areas, allowing them to draw in lunchtime audiences there. Side note: This is also why The Price Is Right is so popular among college students who are well-outside the target demographic: The 11 AM timeslot happens to occur during typical college lunch hours.
- The second is that the TV landscape in general has inverted in America. Hard to imagine now, but soap operas were traditionally allowed to be edgier, whereas prime time was staunchly 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 raunchy, 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 brief surge during The '80s with the likes of Supercouple Luke and Laura, but by that point, Prime Time was creating "family" shows with topical themes such as Roseanne and The Golden Girls; both sitcoms, and both dealing with hot-button issues such as HIV and domestic violence (to say nothing of TV dramas of the time), whereas soaps began to retreat into nostalgic Americana. In addition, the soap opera has become part of the DNA of television drama: Shows like Melrose Place or (more-recently) Empire show that people still have an appetite for soaps, it's just that the mechanics of a serialized daytime show can't keep up with prime time, either in budget or writing.
- This could be related to the above reasons: With more women entering the workforce, women who do stay home are generally doing so by choice rather than societal pressure. As such, they're likely to hold conservative views about gender roles, gay rights, and various "social justice" issues, forcing showrunners to tone things down in order to retain viewers. It also explains why prime time has invaded daytime's old territory: The housewives who watched soaps before the rise of feminism have evolved into liberal-leaning working women who watch prime time shows in their free time.
- This is not helped by the fact that the built-in audience for soaps is disappearing due to age. Due to the reasons outlined above, potential viewers who would replace them have no interest in following along, and it would take literal decades for them to get caught up.
- When reviewing the first year of the NBC soap Passions for his web series TV Trash, Chris "The Rowdy Reviewer" Moore concluded that it all boils down to pacing. On a weekly, one-hour episodic television series, there's usually one main central plot and maybe one or two b-plots. Whereas on a daytime drama which 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 episode, you rarely get a single scene which 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 thread (especially ones that have the highest potential to rope in viewers) could be dragged out for weeks or, more likely, months.
- Another 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 (see also O.J.: Made in America). The former caused 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 provided viewers with a real-life drama to enjoy, thanks largely to the media circus caused by Judge Lance Ito allowing cameras into his courtroom. Declining viewership caused the networks to put less effort into their daytime shows, creating a vicious cycle of sinking quality and ratings. To top it off, shortly before the first "legacy" soap was cancelled, there was another WGA strike (in 2007-08).
- The rise of reality TV in the late 1990s has also given viewers what soaps used to, at less cost to the networks and with less predictability for viewers.
- There's a conspiracy theory similar to The Rural Purge which alleges the networks wanted to get out of the soap business because they were so expensive to produce compared to talk and Reality TV. However, since soap opera fans are notoriously loyal (often bonding generations of family members), the networks have been deliberately sabotaging them, slashing budgets and hiring outside writers with distaste for the genre.
- Then there's the rise of cable networks and streaming options, which not only give viewers more shows they can watch, but also skims away some of the acting pool for daytime. 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 TV was exploding, acting roles were still limited and you'd be lucky to get offered a soap role in order to get your foot in the door. An up-and-coming performer taking a role on a soap has to deal with limited pay and exposure, plus a challenging workload (soaps typically record around 70 pages of script a day, putting them much closer to stage acting than film or TV acting in terms of labor). These days, with 450-some primetime and streaming shows, rather than taking a three-week role as a nurse on General Hospital to 'break-in', or hanging around a daytime set looping through the same plot point for years, you can easily get better pay and exposure as a recurring character on a Netflix series, which would look better on a résumé, with more potential for creative clout. It's often speculated that talent are more-easily sidelined or killed off on daytime than in primetime (Shonda Rhimes notwithstanding!), because of the unusual norms of daytime casting.
Many in the industry predicted that, while the soap opera will live on in American TV, the last of the classic daytime serials could be off the air by 2015… a prophecy which didn't come to pass. However, it is true that by then, only four 'prestige' soaps remained: General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and 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, which was used as an excuse by ABC's daytime chief to kill All My Children and One Life to Live.note In 2022, NBC announced that Days of Our Lives would move exclusively to the Peacock platform, meaning that for the first time since 1949, NBC would have zero soaps airing terrestrially. This move has led to speculation that the other three soaps might similarly migrate to streaming-only, but nothing has been announced as of yet.
Practically every nation on earth has soap operas (radio and TV), and loads of soaps is one thing you can always bet on an expatriate/tourist station carrying, regardless of country. The U.S. military's Armed Forces Network carries all four current U.S. soaps.note
For the modern variant, see Prime Time Soap or Supernatural Soap Opera. There is a "Latin" School of soaps, called Telenovelas to uncouple them from the Anglo school (encompassing the US, UK, and Australia), which are the standard in almost every nation from Mexico southwards. The Japanese equivalent is Dorama.
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."
Not to be confused with Soupe Opéra.
Tropes named in honor of the genre because of their connections to it:
Other tropes strongly associated with soap operas:
- Abortion Fallout Drama
- Abusive Parents
- Affably Evil
- All Girls Want Bad Boys
- Alpha Bitch
- Anti-Hero (very common in modern soaps, with Luke Spencer as the Trope Maker)
- Anti-Villain (besides the Card-Carrying Villain types, soaps also need morally compromised characters to do bad things to help extend storylines)
- The Artifact (popular legacy characters who are no longer part of the main storylines still show up once in a while, to make the fans happy, especially in the annual Christmas Episode)
- The Baby Trap
- Betty and Veronica
- Big Bad
- Big Good
- Big, Screwed-Up Family
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing
- Brainless Beauty
- But I Can't Be Pregnant!
- Cat Fight
- City of Adventure
- Clear My Name (being the victim of a Frame-Up is a rite of passage for a soap Face)
- Convenient Coma
- Dating Do-Si-Do
- Dysfunction Junction
- Easy Amnesia
- Evil Matriarch
- Exposition (especially when it comes time for The Reveal)
- As You Know (helps the audience keep track of all the characters and storylines)
- Face–Heel Turn
- Family Relationship Switcheroo
- Femme Fatale
- First Law of Resurrection (Anyone Can Die on a soap, but anyone can also come Back from the Dead)
- Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling
- Gambit Pileup
- Gold Digger (a common female villain, but a heroine of modest means also often gets wrongly accused of this if she falls for a rich man)
- Half-Sibling Angst (soap opera characters are far more likely to have half-siblings than real people, often on both sides)
- Hypocritical Humor (more commonly Played for Drama or Dramatic Irony than laughs, but hypocrisy is pretty much universal among soap characters)
- I Have Your Wife
- Incest Is Relative
- The Ingenue (often a Naïve Everygirl as well)
- Long-Lost Relative
- Lost Lenore
- Lovable Rogue
- Love Dodecahedron
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe
- Mystery Fiction (Ongoing mysteries are a surefire way to pique fan interest, but watch out for...)
- Never My Fault (the Anti-Hero and Anti-Villain characters never take responsibility for any damage or harm they cause)
- Poison Is Evil
- Protagonist-Centered Morality (as long as the audience is supposed to root for you, you can get away with anything on a soap)
- Rape as Drama
- Relationship Revolving Door
- Secret Other Family
- Sexual Extortion
- Sexy Discretion Shot (love scenes obviously can't get too explicit, so they'll usually cut away right when things start getting hot, sometimes dissolving or cutting to a post-coital scene)
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse
- Split Personality
- Super Couple
- Switched at Birth
- Troubled, but Cute
- Twin Tropes (galore!)
- Very Special Episode
- Wedding Episode
- Where the Hell Is Springfield? (soaps tend to use fictional locales with vaguely-defined geography; Guiding Light was actually set in a city called Springfield)
- Will They or Won't They?
- World of Ham (soap scripts are very broadly written and almost require overacting, but the best performers know how to still come across as genuine and not overdo it)
- Wrong Side of the Tracks
Tropes about soaps used in other genres:
- Addictive Foreign Soap Opera
- Daytime Drama Queen
- Explaining the Soap
- Soap Opera Organ Score
- Soap Within a Show
- 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
- Hélène et les Garçons
- Home and Away
- Love of Life
- Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (a comedic daytime soap)
- Night and Day
- One Life to Live
- Pobol y Cwm
- Port Charles
- Ryan's Hope
- Santa Barbara
- Search for Tomorrow
- Schloss Einstein
- Shortland Street
- Soap (a prime time Sitcom utilizing a soap opera format)
- Sunset Beach
- The Young and the Restless