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Soap Opera


Soap operas have been popular since the early days of radio, and got their name because nearly all of the sponsors for the programs were manufacturers of household cleaning products, food products, and toiletries.

As with most genres from radio, soap operas were an early offering on television, and those same sponsors from radio quickly realized that the potential audience for their commercials was the housewives, young and old, who were at home and would find time in their mornings to watch.

Soap operas are dramas, and the thing that makes them unique from other programs is that they are serials, with recurring characters and ongoing stories.  The viewer meets and becomes familiar with the characters, and may soon become invested in their stories, returning repeatedly to see what the latest happenings are.  Rather than being episodes with a beginning and an end to each story, installments in soap operas end in cliffhangers, like movie serials, ensuring that the audience will return to see how the characters will resolve the latest crisis.

The stories in soap operas are almost always family and community based, illustrating the interactions of the characters over expanses of time.  Rather than portraying a character’s life for a relatively short span of time, actors in soap operas must develop the character as circumstances dictate, sometimes for years.  It is not unusual in a soap opera to meet a character as a young adult, to see them mature, marry, have children, divorce, and go through all of life’s joys and tribulations.

In 1946 “Faraway Hill” was the first soap opera broadcast on American television, and was about a widow, Karen St. John (Flora Campbell), who moved to a small town from New York, where she fell in love with a man engaged to another woman, and where her more sophisticated style was sometimes at odds with the more rural culture of her new community.

Only two soap operas made the switch from radio to television successfully.  One was “The Brighter Day” which aired on daytime television from 1948 to 1962, relating the story of Reverend Richard Dennis and his four children, living in New Hope, Pennsylvania.  It was the first televised soap opera with a religious theme.

The second, and by far the most successful program to move to television from radio, was “The Guiding Light”.  The series, about the Bauer family and others, was broadcast on radio from 1937 to 1956.  The show was then aired on television beginning in 1952 and continuously broadcast until it was canceled in 2009.  “Guiding Light”, as it was known after 1975, was, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest running soap opera in television and radio history.  With its fifteen year run on radio and fifty-seven years on television, it is one of the longest running programs of any kind at seventy-two years, with 18,262 episodes.

Another popular and long-running soap opera was “Love of Life”, which aired daily from 1951 to 1980.  The program centered on the interplay between two sisters, one good and one bad.  “Search for Tomorrow” (1951-1986) and “The Secret Storm” (1954-1974) are two more long-running soap operas that held audiences’ interest.

With 13,858 episodes, “As the World Turns” ran on television from 1956 to 2010, and was the first soap opera to debut as a half-hour program.  Up until then soap operas had been broadcast in 15-minute episodes.  This soap opera centered on the lives of families within a community, with the families being headed by legal and medical professionals.

In 1956 “The Edge of Night” began being shown on television, and was broadcast until 1984.  The show is notable in that it varied from the usual family and romance centered storyline and focused mainly on crime, being referred to by some as a daytime ‘Perry Mason’.

The 1960’s brought programs such as “General Hospital” (1963-present) and “The Doctors” (1963-1982) to daytime television.  These are soap operas focused mainly in medical settings with doctors, nurses and patients as the primary characters.

After more than a decade’s proof that soap operas could draw large audiences, “Peyton Place” was the first soap opera shown on television in prime time.  Although criticized for its sexual themes, the program was popular during its run from 1964 to 1969.  Members of the original cast included Dorothy Malone, Warren Anderson, Ed Nelson, Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and others who joined the program later included Barbara Rush, Ruby Dee, Mariette Hartley, Gena Rowlands and Dan Duryea.

New soap operas continued to be introduced in the 1960’s with programs like “Another World” (1964-1999), “Days of Our Lives” (1965-present), and “One Life to Live” (1968-present).

One soap opera from the 1960’s that stands out from the others is “Dark Shadows” which was broadcast from 1966 to 1971, with 1,225 half-hour episodes.  Veering radically from the usual storyline, “Dark Shadows” was a gothic serial, complete with a spooky mansion and a two-hundred-year old vampire.

Two soap operas introduced in the 1970’s, and still on the air, are “All My Children” (1970-present) and “The Young and the Restless” (1973-present).  Prime time soap operas that were also popular at that time included “Dallas” (1978-1991) and “Knots Landing” (1979-1993).

Soap operas have been, and continue to be, one of the most popular genres of television drama in history. 

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