Lives Without End: The Art of a Soap Opera

People watch soap operas, eager to escape the daily drudgery of their own lives. It is a kind of legal voyeurism, which allows you to watch strangers as they live their lives. We get to know the character cry at their weddings, celebrate their births, and morn their deaths. And the great part is you don’t have to invite them to dinner for the holidays. Since the 1930’s when the first soap opera first aired in Chicago’s WGN radio, serial dramas have attracted hundreds of millions of loyal fans; who immerse themselves daily in the far more dramatic lives of their soap opera hero’s.

Soap operas were first designed to attract the typical housewife left with the house and children to take care of all day. The name soap opera comes from the household products that were often the main advertisers.

In the 1800’s, way before the advent of television and radios, writers like Charles Dickens created a kind of soap operas with stories full of twists and turns, suspense, and drama. They were published in magazines newspapers in serial form; divided into parts and published in parts at a time. Cliff-hanger endings in which the hero or heroine is left in dire straits until the next issue were common in these stories. These intense endings kept the reader impatiently waiting for the next issue to see if their beloved heroine or hero survived.

After World War 1, the first radio stations began broadcasting programs, which could reach listeners nationwide. Several networks had begun to create programming for these stations by the 1930’s. Programmers filled the airways with shows for the evening hours, knowing families gathered around the radio at this hour after dinner, whereas the daytime hours were considered unprofitable. Until a schoolteacher from Dayton, Ohio, named Irma Philips submitted a fifteen-minute daily serial drama called Painted Dreams to a Chicago radio station WGN. The networks liked the idea and soon the airwaves were inundated with dozens of these new daily daytime soap operas. Shows like Betty and Bob, Just Plain Bill, The Romance of Helen Trent, Ma Perkins attracted an audience of forty million listeners; double the twenty-first century television soap audience. People living through the economic hardships of the Great Depression welcomed the escape that soap operas offered with their tales of overcoming hardships.

The arrival of television in the American home in the 1950’s ushered in a new opportunity for the soap opera. Some programs, such as Guiding Light, simply moved from radio to television with few problems, while others, like Search For Tomorrow, Edge of Night, and As the World Turns, were created for this new brand new medium. Although, women worked outside the homes during World War 2, they were expected to return to their homes to take care of the family once the War ended. Many grew bored and felt isolated and welcomed the distraction of the serial dramas on their television sets.

The 1930’s through the 1950’s, soap opera plots revolved around the problems and complications of family life. Plot twisted around topics such as the difficulty of finding and keeping love, pre-marital affairs, marital affairs, and the difficulty of raising children. A changing society in the 1960’s demanded more from their soap. The popularity of prime time doctor shows led to the creation of soaps like Doctors, (1963) and General Hospital (1963). Soap opera’s began to seek out a younger audience in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Youth oriented storylines as well as a focus on social issues became relevant. Socially and politically important soap opera’s like ALL My Children (1970) and One Life To Live (1968) were first introduced. Soap’s expanded beyond daytime hours, in the 80’s with a brand new concept called; prime-time soaps. Soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty ruled the nighttime lineup.

The late 80’s and the 90’s brought in more social issues such as alcoholism, drug abuse, to gay rights; and continually remain a major part of soap opera story lines. In an effort to draw in more viewers, soap operas have racially integrated their casts. All white shows now have at least a regular cast members African American, Asian, and Latino. There have also been efforts to appeal to a broader audience by spinning off the major soap operas. General Hospital’s spin-off Port Charles began to use the telenovella format, popular in Latino soaps, where the stories are completed in a shorter time period.

Critics insist that soaps are superficial with improbable plot lines consisting of people falling ill with amnesia, evil twins, fake deaths, and miraculously coming back to life. There are imagined geographical errors such as ALL MY CHILDREN infamous imaginary beach in Pennsylvania and the fact that one plane ride can take you anywhere in the world in only an hour. These complaints have led to a series of soap opera spoofs, some of which become just as popular as the real ones they satirize. In the late 70’s, two series, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Soap, poke fun at soaps emotionalism and improbable plots while also exploring some social and relationship issues of their own. The movie Soap Dish (1991) focused more on soap opera like lives of the cast and crew of a popular soap. Despites the complaints, and its now staggering low ratings, soap operas are still an integral part of everyone’s life, male or female. It takes us away from the real world into a fun fantasy for an hour.

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