A soap opera is an ongoing, episodic work of fiction, usually broadcast on television or radio. Programs described as soap operas have existed as an entertainment long enough for audiences to recognize them simply by the term "soap". The name soap opera stems from the original dramatic serials broadcast on radio that had soap manufacturers such as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers as the show's sponsors. These early radio serials were broadcast in weekday daytime slots when mostly housewives would be available to listen; thus the shows were aimed at and consumed by a predominantly female audience.
The term soap opera has at times been generally applied to any romantic serial, but is also used to describe the more naturalistic, unglamorous evening, prime-time drama serials of the UK such as Coronation Street. What differentiates a soap from other television drama programs is the open-ended nature of the narrative, with stories spanning several episodes. The defining feature that makes a program a soap opera is that it, according to Albert Moran, is "that form of television that works with a continuous open narrative. Each episode ends with a promise that the storyline is to be continued in another episode". Soap opera stories run concurrently, intersect, and lead into further developments. An individual episode of a soap opera will generally switch between several different concurrent story threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another, or may run entirely independent of each other. Each episode may feature some of the show's current storylines but not always all of them. There is some rotation of both storylines and actors so any given storyline or actor will appear in some but usually not all of a week's worth of episodes. Soap operas rarely "wrap things up" storywise, and generally avoid bringing all the current storylines to a conclusion at the same time. When one storyline ends there are always several other story threads at differing stages of development. Soap opera episodes typically end on some sort of cliffhanger.
Evening soap operas sometimes differ from this general format and are more likely to feature the entire cast in each episode, and to represent all current storylines in each episode. Additionally, evening soap operas and other serials that run for only part of the year tend to bring things to a dramatic end-of-season cliffhanger.
In the USA, the phrase "soap opera" has also entered the language as a metaphor that can be applied to any narrative, either real or imagined, that appears to be excessively laced with emotion, and contains what appear to be unlikely dramatic twists: "Her life is one big soap opera."
Plots and storylines
The main characteristics that define soap operas are "an emphasis on family life, personal relationships, sexual dramas, emotional and moral conflicts; some coverage of topical issues; set in familiar domestic interiors with only occasional excursions into new locations". Fitting in with these characteristics, most soap operas follow the lives of a group of characters who live or work in a particular place, or focus on a large extended family. The storylines follow the day-to-day activities and personal relationships of these characters. "Soap narratives, like those of film melodramas, are marked by what Steve Neale has described as 'chance meetings, coincidences, missed meetings, sudden conversions, last-minute rescues and revelations, deus ex machina endings' ". These elements may be found across the gamut of soap operas, from EastEnders to Dallas.
In many soap operas in particular daytime serials in the United States, the characters are frequently attractive, seductive, glamorous and wealthy. Soap operas from Australia and the United Kingdom tend to focus on more everyday characters and situations, and are frequently set in working class environments. Many Australian and UK soap operas explore social realist storylines such as family discord, marriage breakdown, or financial problems. Both UK and Australian soap operas feature comedy elements, often by way of affectionate comic stereotypes such as the gossip or the grumpy old man, presented as a sort of comic foil to the emotional turmoil that surrounds them. This diverges from US soap operas where such comedy is rare. UK soap operas frequently make a claim to presenting "reality" or purport to have a "realistic" style. UK soap operas also frequently foreground their geographic location as a key defining feature of the show while depicting and capitalising on the exotic appeal of the stereotypes connected to the location. So EastEnders focuses on the tough and grim life in London's east end; Coronation Street invokes Manchester and its characters exhibit the stereotypical characteristic of "Northern straight talking".
Romance, secret relationships, extramarital affairs, and genuine love have been the basis for many soap opera storylines. In US daytime serials the most popular soap opera characters, and the most popular storylines, often involved a romance of the sort presented in paperback romance novels. Soap opera storylines sometimes weave intricate, convoluted, and sometimes confusing tales of characters who have affairs, meet mysterious strangers and fall in love, and who commit adultery, all of which keeps audiences hooked on the unfolding story twists. Crimes such as kidnapping, rape, and even murder may go unpunished if the perpetrator is to be retained in the ongoing story.
Australian and UK soap operas also feature a significant proportion of romance storylines. In Russia, most popular soap operas (though most of them are serialized) explore the "romantic quality" of criminal and/or oligarch life.
In soap opera storylines, previously-unknown children, siblings, and twins (including the evil variety) of established characters often emerge to upset and reinvigorate the set of relationships examined by the series. Unexpected calamities disrupt weddings, childbirths, and other major life events with unusual frequency. Much like comic books—another popular form of linear storytelling pioneered in the US during the 20th Century—a character's death is not guaranteed to be permanent without an on-camera corpse, and sometimes not even then. For example, the death of Dr. Taylor Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful seemed permanent as she had flatlined on-camera and even had a funeral. But when actress Hunter Tylo returned in 2005, the show retconned the "flatlining" with the revelation that Taylor had actually gone into a coma.
Stunts and complex physical action are largely absent, especially from daytime serials. Such story events often take place offscreen and are referred to in dialogue instead of being shown. This is because stunts or action scenes (such as a car accident) are difficult to adequately depict visually without multiple takes and post production editing. In the times when episodes were broadcast live, post production work was impossible. Though shows have long switched to being taped, extensive post production work, while possible, is not feasible for the genre due to the high output each week and low budgets. A convincing fight scene usually requires multiple takes, and multiple camera angles, and again the time and effort to adequately capture such a scene is not feasible for daytime soap operas
The American soap opera Guiding Light started as a radio drama in January 1937 and subsequently transferred to television. With the exception of several years in the late 1940s when Irna Phillips was in dispute with Procter & Gamble, The Guiding Light has been heard or seen nearly every weekday since it started, making it the longest story ever told. Other American soap operas that have been telecast for more than thirty years (and are still in rotation) include As the World Turns, General Hospital, Days of our Lives, One Life to Live, All My Children, and The Young and the Restless.
Due to the shows' longevities, it is not uncommon for multiple actors to play a single character over the span of many years. It is also not uncommon for a single actor to play several characters on other shows over the years. Actors such as Robin Mattson, Roscoe Born, Judith Chapman and Michael Sabatino have played no fewer than six soap roles. During her fifteen years in daytime Veleka Gray played nine, seven of which were contract roles, including Laura Elliot on "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing", Susan Pritchett on "How To Survive A Marriage," Vicki Paisley on "Somerset," Mia Marriott on "Love Of Life," Lyla Montgomery on "As The World Turns," and the unusual dual roles of Dr. Sharon Reaves and Ruby Collins that played simultaneously on "The Young And The Restless." On the other hand, a number of actors have remained in their roles for decades. Helen Wagner, who has played Hughes family matriarch Nancy Hughes on As the World Turns since its debut on April 2, 1956, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the actor with the longest uninterrupted performance in a single role. (Two of Wagner's ATWT cast-mates, Eileen Fulton and Don Hastings who play Lisa Grimaldi and Dr. Bob Hughes, respectively, have each been in their roles nearly as long, both having joined the show in 1960.) In General Hospital, Rachel Ames has been playing Audrey Hardy since 1964 to 2007, and in All My Children, Susan Lucci has played the same role, Erica Kane, since the shows debut in January 1970. Ray McDonald who plays Dr. Joe Martin has been in the role since the shows debut as well. Though as actors transition between soap roles, it is not uncommon nowadays to be dropped from contract status to recurring status, a part of contract negotiations which is almost completely unique to U.S. soap operas.
In the U.S., the shows purely known in the vernacular as soap operas are broadcast during daytime. In the beginning, the serials were broadcast as fifteen-minute installments each weekday. In 1956, the first half-hour soap operas debuted, and all of the soap operas broadcast half-hour episodes by the end of the 1960s. When the soap opera hit a fever pitch in the 1970s, popular demand had most of the shows, one by one, expanded to an hour in length (one show, Another World, even expanded to ninety minutes for a short time). More than half of the serials (and all of the pre-'80s hour-long serials on the air today) expanded to the new time format by 1980. Today, seven out of the eight American serials air sixty-minute episodes each weekday. Only The Bold and the Beautiful airs for 30 minutes.
Also in the early days, soap operas were broadcast live from the studio, creating what many at the time regarded as a feeling similar to that of a stage play. (As nearly all soap operas were filmed at that time in New York, a number of soap actors were also accomplished stage actors, who performed live theatre during breaks from their soap roles.) In the 1960s and 1970s, shows such as General Hospital, Days of our Lives, and The Young and the Restless began taping in Los Angeles, and made the West Coast a viable alternative to New York-produced soap operas, which were becoming more costly to perform. By the early 1970s, nearly all soap operas had transitioned to being taped, with As the World Turns and The Edge of Night being the last to make the switch in 1975.
Port Charles used the practice of running 13-week "story arcs", in which the main events of the arc are played out and wrapped up over the 13 weeks, although some storylines did continue over more than one arc. According to the 2006 Preview issue of Soap Opera Digest, it was briefly discussed that all ABC shows might do telenovela arcs, but this was rejected.
Many US soap operas, in the beginning of television, found their niches in telling stories in certain environments. The Doctors and General Hospital, in the beginning, told stories almost exclusively from inside the confines of a hospital. As the World Turns dealt heavily with Chris Hughes's law practice and the travails of his wife Nancy who, tired of being "the loyal housewife" in the 1970s, became one of the first older women on the American serials to become a working woman. Guiding Light dealt with Bert Bauer (Charita Bauer) and her endless marital troubles. When her status moved to that of the caring mother and town matriarch, her children's marital troubles were then put on display. Search for Tomorrow told the story, for the most part, through the eyes of one woman only: the heroine, Joanne (Mary Stuart). Even when stories revolved around other characters, she was almost always a main fixture in their storylines. Days of our Lives first told the stories of Dr. Tom Horton and his steadfast wife Alice. In later years, the show branched out and told the stories of their five children.
In contrast to these shows was Dark Shadows (1966-1971) which featured supernatural characters and dealt with fantasy and horror storylines. Its characters included the vampire Barnabas Collins, the witch Angelique, and various ghosts and goblins, both friendly and malevolent.
Evolution of the daytime serial
For several decades US daytime soap operas concentrated on family and marital upsets, legal dramas and romances. The action rarely left the interior settings within the fictional, medium-sized Midwestern towns in which the shows were set. Exterior shots, once a rarity, were slowly incorporated into the series Ryan's Hope. Unlike many earlier serials which were set in fictional towns, Ryan's Hope was set in real location, New York City, and outside shoots were used to give the series greater authenticity. The first exotic location shoot was made by All My Children, to St. Croix in 1978. Many other soap operas planned lavish storylines after seeing the success of the All My Children shoot. Another World went to St. Croix in March 1980 to culminate a long-running storyline between popular characters Mac, Rachel and Janice. Search for Tomorrow taped for two weeks in Hong Kong in 1981, and later that year some of the cast and crew ventured to Jamaica to tape a love consummation storyline between the characters of Garth and Kathy.
During the 1980s, perhaps as a reaction to the evening drama series that were gaining high ratings, daytime serials began to incorporate action and adventure storylines, more big-business intrigue, and featured an increased emphasis on youthful romance and began developing supercouples. One of the first and most popular supercouples was Luke Spencer and Laura Webber in General Hospital. Luke and Laura helped to attract both male and female fans. Even Elizabeth Taylor was a fan and at her own request was given a guest role in Luke and Laura's wedding episode. Luke and Laura's popularity led to other soap producers striving to reproduce this success by attempting to create supercouples of their own. With increasingly bizarre action storylines coming into vogue Luke and Laura saved the world from being frozen, brought a mobster down by finding his black book in a Left-Handed Boy Statue, and helped a Princess find her Aztec Treasure in Mexico. Other soap operas attempted similar adventure storylines, often featuring footage shot on location - frequently in exotic locales.
During the 1990s, the mob, action and adventure stories fell out of favour with producers due to overall lower ratings for daytime soap operas and the resultant budget cuts. In the 1990s soap operas were no longer able to go on expensive location shoots overseas as they had in the 1980s. In the 1990s soap operas increasingly focused on younger characters and social issues, such as Erica Kane's drug addiction on All My Children, the re-emergence of Viki Lord's Multiple Personality Disorder on One Life to Live, and Katherine Chancellor's alcoholism on The Young and the Restless. Other social issues included many forms of cancer, AIDS, homophobia, and racism.
Perhaps to fill the niche, some newer shows have incorporated supernatural and science fiction elements into their storylines. One of the main characters in US soap opera Passions is Tabitha Lenox, a 300-year-old witch. Port Charles has featured a vampire character. Frequently these characters are isolated in one of the ongoing story threads to allow a fan to ignore them if they do not like that element.
Modern U.S. daytime soap operas largely stay true to the original soap opera format. The duration and format of storylines and the visual grammar employed by US daytime serials set them apart from soap operas in other countries and from evening soap operas. Stylistically, UK and Australian soap operas, which are usually produced for evening timeslots, fall somewhere in-between US daytime and evening soap operas. Similar to US daytime soap operas, UK and Australian serials are shot on videotape, and the cast and storylines are rotated across the week's episodes so that each cast member will appear in some but not all episodes. However, UK and Australian soap operas move through storylines at a faster rate than daytime serials, making them closer to US evening soap operas in this regard.
American soap operas since the 1980s have shared many common visual elements that set them apart dramatically from other shows:
- Overhead spotlighting, or back lighting, is often placed directly over the heads of all the actors in the foreground, causing an unnatural shadowing of their features along with a highlighting of their hair. Back lighting was always a standard component of film and television lighting, though the back light itself was largely deemphasised in the mid-to-late eighties due to its somewhat unnatural look. The technique has nevertheless persisted in soap operas.
- The rooms in a house often use deep stained wood wall panels and furniture, along with many elements of brown leather furniture. This creates an overall "brown" look which is intended to give a sumptuous and luxurious look to suggest the wealth of the characters portrayed. Daytime serials often foreground other sumptuous elements of set decoration; presenting a "mid-shot of characters viewed through a frame of lavish floral displays, glittering crystal decanters or gleaming antique furniture".
- Most US daytime soap operas do not routinely feature location or exterior-shot footage (a exception to this is Guiding Light). Often they will recreate an outdoor locale in the studio. Australian and UK daily soap operas invariably feature a certain amount of exterior-shot footage in every episode. This is usually shot in the same location and often on a purpose-built set, although they do include new exterior locations for certain storylines.
- The visual quality of a soap opera is usually lower than prime time television shows due to the lower budgets and quicker production times involved. This is also because soap operas are recorded on videotape using a multicamera setup, unlike primetime productions which are usually shot on film and frequently using the single camera shooting style. Because of the lower resolution of video images, and also because of the emotional situations portrayed in soap operas, daytime serials make heavy use of closeup shots. As of summer 2011, all U.S. soaps are broadcast in high definition.
- Soap operas have idiosyncratic blocking techniques. In one common situation, a romantically involved couple start a conversation face-to-face, then one character will turn 180° and face away from the other character while conversation continues. Both characters can appear together in the same shot, both directly facing the audience. This is unrealistic in real life and is not frequently seen in film or on television outside US daytime serials, but it is an accepted soap opera convention.
- In US daytime soap operas, when a scene is about to reach a temporary conclusion and the episode is to cross to a new scene or take a commercial break, one character in the currently concluding scene will often be shown in extreme closeup and deliver a jarring announcement. No other character will respond and there will be no dialogue for several seconds while the music builds before cutting to a commercial or a new scene. This kind of segue is referred to in the industry as a "tag."
- A construct unique to US daytime serials is the format where the action will cut between various conversations, returning to each at the precise moment it was left. This is the most significant distinction between US daytime soap operas and other forms of US television drama, which generally allow for narrative time to pass, off-screen, between the scenes depicted.
The primetime serial
Prime time serials were just as popular as those in daytime. The first real prime time soap opera was ABC's Peyton Place (1964-1969), based in part on the original 1957 movie (which was itself taken from the 1956 novel). The popularity of Peyton Place prompted rival network CBS to spin off popular As the World Turns character Lisa Miller into her own evening soap opera entitled Our Private World (originally titled "The Woman Lisa" in its planning stages) in 1965. Our Private World ended in the fall and the character of Lisa returned to As The World Turns.
The successful prime time serials of the 1980s included Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest. These shows frequently dealt with wealthy families and their personal and big-business travails. Common characteristics were sumptuous sets and costumes, the presence of at least one glamorous bitch-figure in the cast of characters, and spectacular disaster cliffhanger situations. Unlike daytime serials which are shot on video in a studio using the multicamera setup, these evening series were shot on film using a single camera setup and featured much location-shot footage, often in picturesque locales. Dallas, its spin-off Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest all initially featured episodes with self-contained stories and specific guest stars who appeared in just that episode. Each story would be completely resolved by the end of the episode and there were no end-of-episode cliffhangers. After the first couple of seasons all three shows changed their story format to that of a pure soap opera with interwoven ongoing narratives that ran over several episodes. Dynasty featured this format throughout its run.
The soap opera's distinctive open plot structure and complex continuity also began to be increasingly incorporated into major American prime time television programs. The first significant drama series to do this was Hill Street Blues. This series, produced by Steven Bochco, featured many elements borrowed from soap operas such as an ensemble cast, multi-episode storylines and extensive character development over the course of the series. It and the later Cagney & Lacey overlaid the police series formula with ongoing narratives exploring the personal lives and interpersonal relationships of the regular characters. The success of these series prompted other drama series and situation comedy shows such as St. Elsewhere to incorporate soap opera style stories and story structure to varying degrees. The legacy continues in more recent series such as The West Wing and Friends.
The prime time soap opera series of the 1990s, such as Degrassi Old School, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, and Dawson's Creek, focused more on younger characters. In the 2000s, ABC began to revitalize the prime time soap opera format by premiering shows such as Alias, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Ugly Betty. These shows managed to appeal to wide audiences not only because of their high melodrama but also because of the humor injected into the scripts and plot lines. In the fall of 2007, many new prime time soaps premiered on U.S. television such as Dirty Sexy Money. In 2010, Degrassi, a new arc in the Degrassi franchise, began with an event known as The Boiling Point , in which episodes aired daily at 9:00 P.M. at the same time in Canada and America.
Current popular soap operas
- The Young and the Restless
- The Bold and the Beautiful
- All My Children
- One Life to Live
- General Hospital
- Days of our Lives
Popular primetime dramas