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The Rise and Fall of Soap Operas

On September 18, 2009, Guiding Light aired its final episode. It was a bittersweet moment. The famous American soap opera, which began in 1937 as a radio program before moving to television in 1952, ran for 15,762 episodes and 72 years total — making it the longest-running scripted show in television history at the time.

A show with that kind of longevity may seem unusual, but it isn’t; at least, not in the world of soap operas. Of the top 20 longest-running television shows in the world, 14 have been soaps. At least eight of those programs have lasted beyond four decades.

Whatever you may think of the genre — whether you consider it a schlocky melodrama or a brilliant cascade of cliffhangers — there’s something special about the soap opera, something that gives it unprecedented and unrivaled staying power.

The answer may be buried in its history.

The Radio Era; Cliffhangers Debut

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The soap opera has its roots in radio storytelling. The first radio soaps took inspiration from newspaper comic strips, premiering new episodes daily and spinning serial plot arcs that lasted over dozens of episodes. The storylines were open-ended and the characters recurring. Scripts prioritized dialogue over action. Most shows were bankrolled by soap and detergent manufacturers, thus earning the programs the nickname “soaps.”

The first soap appeared in 1930 in the radio mecca of Chicago, where the program — called “Painted Dreams” — told the story of a widow and her daughter navigating the Great Depression. This and other radio dramas, which were geared toward housewives, carved out the soap opera’s niche as a melodramatic form focusing on family life, domestic strife, and day-to-day stresses of personal relationships.

The mastermind of this and other early shows was Irna Phillips, a 29-year-old former schoolteacher who had an uncanny knack for transforming the banalities of everyday life into captivating copy. Phillips is reported to have churned out more than 2 million words every year. Not only prodigious, Phillips was a pioneer who introduced a classic storytelling convention to radio that would ultimately make soap operas irresistible: The cliffhanger.

To say that Philips was a master of her craft is an understatement. Over the next four decades, she’d develop many of the biggest soap opera titles: As the World Turns, Another World, and Guiding Light, among others.

How Soap Operas Influenced All TV Shows, Then and Now

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By the late 1940s, television was hailed as the next big thing, with some advertisers calling it “radio with pictures.” Naturally, many radio soaps made the leap from the airwaves to the tiny screen. In 1949, These Are My Children (another Phillips creation) became the first serial daytime TV soap.

Dozens more titles followed. Fears that busy housewives wouldn’t take time to sit down and watch television for a half hour proved to be unfounded. By the 1970s, soaps were among the most popular scripted programs on television, luring millions of viewers each afternoon. In fact, they were so popular that during the Watergate hearings in 1973, all three major networks reportedly had to rotate political coverage in part to avoid interrupting the high-demand streams of soaps.

Despite the genre’s reputation for bad acting, bad lighting, and bad writing, the medium had a reputation among actors as being one of the toughest gigs to hold. Performers often had to memorize a 40-plus page script every day. Many professionals struggled to keep up with the pace and were compelled to hide cheat-sheets around the sets, sometimes writing lines on props. When the famed Austrian-born actor Walter Slezak was invited to act on a soap opera, he said it was the most nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done. “It’s so hard!”  he’d say as he paced around the set.

But the soap opera’s schedule had a benefit — changing audience attitudes. By the 1960s, Irna Phillips had passed the torch to Agnes Nixon, a writer-producer who routinely wrote scripts that broached sensitive issues. Thanks to Nixon, soaps would become the first television shows to touch topics such as drug addiction, cancer, sexual assault, and abortion. And thanks to the soap’s daily schedule, these and other complex subjects were being discussed in living rooms repeatedly. Done well, the programming could chip away at the audience’s prejudices and preconceived notions.

Indeed, Nixon’s writing on an episode that dealt with cervical cancer is credited with “making women aware of the importance of getting a Pap smear,” according to soap opera script writer and expert Kay Alden. Meanwhile, shows like Guiding Light were among the first to directly address alcoholism and infidelity, while All My Children blazed its trail by bringing gay characters into the living rooms of Middle America.

Soaps also pioneered a number of storytelling tropes. They were, for example, one of the first genres to kill off a main character. In 1961, when a beloved lead was killed in a car accident on The Edge of Night, the switchboards went haywire. The storyline was so unprecedented that the actor had to reappear on the program a few days later to explain to befuddled viewers why the character had to go. (The actor had decided to leave the show.)

Beyond pushing people’s buttons, soap operas remained the only television shows to embrace continuous, serialized storytelling. Up until the 1970s, nearly every other scripted television show operated under the sitcom model, with the plot “resetting” with each new episode. It wasn’t until decades later that most scripted dramas would follow the soap’s lead to tell a single story over the arc of one season. Today, we can’t imagine television any other way.

Why Do Soap Operas Look Like That?

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Money, mostly. Soap operas debuted as daytime entertainment, appearing during time slots that historically pulled in little advertising revenue. Furthermore, soaps were shot at a greater frequency than other television shows, diluting the production’s budget even further.

As a result, most soaps were shot using videotape instead of film, a technique that saved costs but also created a “flattened” look onscreen. Videotape also had a lower resolution than film, prompting soap directors to rely heavily on close-ups.

The small sets were also evenly lit. “This helps [when] shooting with more than one camera,” according to Mental Floss. “[The technique] means the actors can move around and the lights don't have to be reset for every shot. This allows for fewer takes and costs less,” but it also means the lighting looks much less natural.  

Over time, the most successful soaps had the money to use different film techniques. But after decades, the “look” had become part of the genre — and part of the audience’s expectations.

The Decline of the Soap

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Some of the most respected and beloved TV and film actors got their start slogging on soaps. Julianne Moore won a Daytime Emmy on As The World Turns. Before she was Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar was a mainstay on All My Children. Brad Pitt’s first speaking role was on Another World. In fact, the list of soaps-turned-stars is huge: Morgan Freeman, Demi Moore, Mark Hamill, and Meg Ryan to name just a few.

Unfortunately, despite launching the careers of so many superstars, soaps never got much credit for being pioneers of television. After the heyday of Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital in 1981 — which brought in 30 million viewers, making it the most-watched soap of all time; even Princess Diana reportedly sent champagne — the genre saw a steady decline. Writers tried, but failed, to rescue their shows with an array of increasingly outlandish plot devices: returns from the dead, possession by the devil, and — of course — surprise encounters with an evil twin. The soap’s reputation never recovered.

By the ’90s, viewership began to decline. Some experts, such as sociologist C. Lee Harrington at Miami University, blame the O.J. Simpson trial — which had kicked soap operas off the air for months straight — as a major cause of decline. Others cite the increase of women in the workforce, which caused the genre’s audience to shrink. The cost of soap operas had also increased, prompting production companies to resort to affordable daytime game shows and talk shows. But the final death knell probably came in the late ’90s with the advent of a new, dirt-cheap, unscripted form of daytime programming — reality television.

But all is not lost. While American soap operas are on the decline, the genre continues to flourish elsewhere. The telenovela (Latin American soap opera), which had seen sliding ratings for the past few years, has experienced a significant rebound since the pandemic. Meanwhile, Turkey has become the second-largest television exporter in the world. Turkish soaps (called dizi) play to audiences of millions across Russia, Asia, and Latin America. Who knows, perhaps the dreamboat cast of Aşk-ı Memnu will be coming to a small screen near you.