Soap operas are a dying breed. They haven’t gone completely extinct yet, but as time passes, they are dying a slow, oftentimes drawn-out death. As of today, there are only four remaining soap operas on television: The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital and Days of our Lives. At one time during the height of their popularity since their inception in the early 1930s, there were 19 different soap operas on air (1969-1970 season). As the decades have passed, the amount of soap operas has gone down substantially, and in 2010 two more soaps were killed, which left the final four that exist to this day.
For those of you who grew up in the reality television era and have no idea what a “soap opera” is, it’s basically a serial drama on television or the radio that depicts storylines based around several characters (also the American equivalent of a Mexican telenovela). The storylines tend to focus on emotional relationships and are known to be extremely melodramatic in nature. They were dubbed “soaps” due to the fact that many of the sponsors and producers of the original serial drama broadcasts on the radio were soap manufacturers.
The very first serial drama debuted on October 20, 1930 on Chicago’s WGN and was known as Painted Dreams. The series was broadcast during the weekdays, so the majority of listeners were housewives, which was why the shows ended up being marketed towards a female audience. The crucial element of the soap opera is its open narrative, where each episode ends with the promise that the storyline will continue into the next episode. Soap operas also contain multiple storylines that run simultaneously, and many of these storylines never seem to reach a conclusion (hence the reason that viewers become addicted and have to tune in for tomorrow’s episode).
Despite the fact that most soap operas seem quite ridiculous or overly exaggerated, they were still extremely popular. H. Wesley Kenney, the former Executive Producer of General Hospital, explained his reasoning for the phenomenon to The New York Times: “I think people like stories that continue so they can relate to these people. They become like a family, and the viewer becomes emotionally involved. There seem to be two attitudes by viewers. One, that the stories are similar to what happened to them in real life, or two, thank goodness that isn’t me.”
So why the decrease in popularity? Numerous reasons. For one, the networks have opted for less expensive, unscripted programs (aka reality television), as opposed to hiring and maintaining extensive casts, director, writers and complex storylines. Reality shows are easier and cheaper to develop, not to mention that they are extremely disposable and replaceable. In addition, many women have careers now, so they are not staying home like they used to and watching television. And those that do watch television now prefer to TiVo other programs due to all of the options that are available now. Many daytime talk shows have replaced soap operas, so stay-at-home wives are now tuning into Katie Kouric and The View instead. Also, soap manufacturers are no longer sponsoring and promoting the soap operas, further contributing to their steady decline in the public eye.
In regards to the future of soap operas, various predictions have been made. L.A.-based production company Prospect Park has struck a deal with ABC, getting a license to the soaps All My Children and One Life to Live, with the promise of continuing the soap platform on the Internet with new episodes available via iTunes, Hulu, and the company’s official website The OnLine Network. In other positive soap opera news, The Bold and the Beautiful (which I had the immense pleasure of working at several years back), still averages several million viewers and remains popular, especially throughout Europe. In addition, B&B has signed a book deal with publisher Pan Macmillan to release a series of novellas based on the stories in the soap.
The soaps seem to be making the most out of their present resources, and the remaining four have managed to survive this long without going extinct. While there may eventually come the time for the soap opera to officially retire, it certainly won’t be in the near future. And most definitely not tomorrow.