The daytime drama series - otherwise known to many as the soap opera - has been called a dying breed. Many argue that there might not be much of a future for the entire soap opera genre. Indeed, television ratings for soaps are down as the number of people are home during the day continues to drop. (Television ratings only count the number of viewers who are home and watching when the program airs “live” and ratings do not count anyone who uses a VCR or TiVo to record a program.) Add to that new programming choices presented by dozens of new cable channels, and there is some reason to worry about the soaps. Decreased ratings have caused networks to slash budgets. Many wonder how the soaps, which at one-time had in excess of 30 million viewers tuning in regularly, have gotten into such a precarious situation. Before one can truly understand the perils facing the daytime drama format, it helps to know a little bit about how the soap opera grew into what it is today.
THE CREATION OF THE SOAP OPERA
Long before the days of television, serialized radio dramas ruled the airwaves. The radio programs were commercially sponsored by the manufacturers of household cleaning products - hence the use of the word “soap” in soap opera. The term “opera” refers to any form of elaborate dramatic entertainment, not necessarily one set to music.
By 1940, approximately 90% of all sponsored daytime radio programming fell into the soap opera genre. Even today, soap operas remain the most enduring and effective form of broadcast advertising vehicle. The advertising industry publication Advertising Age named “the birth of the daytime soap opera” as the 29th most important milestone in the history of advertising.
With the advent of television, the radio audience began to slowly dwindle. At the time, many downplayed the significance of television. In 1931, there were just 40,000 households with a television in the United States. However, advertisers embraced the new media outlet and, in time, soap operas migrated from radio to television. There was even a period of time when some soap operas aired on both radio and television. The last of the network radio soap operas went off the air in November 1960.
The first so-called television soap opera debuted way back in 1946. Faraway Hill, which aired Wednesday nights on the DuMont Network, is considered by television historians to be the first network soap opera. It took three more years before the soaps found a home in the daytime hours. In 1949, These Are My Children debuted on NBC. The 15-minute show aired live and was the first continuing daytime drama.
On June 30th, 1952, soap giant Procter & Gamble introduced The Guiding Light on the CBS network. The soap opera had aired on radio since 1937. Now minus the “The” from its title, Guiding Light is the longest running serial program in television history.
Between 1940 and 1970, soap operas enjoyed a large and stable viewing audience. The core viewers of the soap opera were what advertisers came to call “housewives,” a term used to describe married women who remained home to take care of children. Soaps surged in popularity in the 1980s due, in part, to heavily-publicized romances, such as Luke and Laura’s wedding on ABC’s General Hospital. More than 30 million viewers tuned into the Spencers’ wedding, making it the most-watched show in the history of daytime television.
But by the time the 1980s started to wind down, television ratings for soap operas started to decline. Gone were the days when women were supposedly duty-bound to remain home and take care of the house and kids; it was becoming necessary in many households to have two sources of income.
Soap operas became something of an addiction for millions of television viewers. The weekend couldn’t end fast enough for many fans as they waited for Monday’s shows to reveal what would happen following the now-infamous Friday Cliffhangers. And while soap opera addiction many not be anything nearly as serious as an alcohol or drug dependency, the way to wean people from the addictions is very much the same: cold turkey. While it is the subject of debate among many industry experts, many credit the OJ Simpson trial for starting the steep downward slide that soaps are seeing in their ratings. For weeks on end, soap fans were unable to watch their favorite programs as the three major networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of the Simpson trial. There was no longer an option for soap fans to see their missed episodes at a later date or time; they were forced to go without them for weeks and weeks… and weeks. This was the first time that many soap fans were unable to visit their “television families.” Initially, fans flooded the networks with complaints, but as the separation anxiety started to lessen many fans found other things to do or other programs to watch. A real life soap opera had supplanted many loyal viewers from their second homes. And while industry experts warned the networks that taking soaps away from their loyal viewers was going to result in trouble for the networks, most networks either refused to believe that the soap fans would tune out for good… or they just didn’t care. This was not the first time that the networks’ opinions were misguided.
The last paragraph of this article is even more relevant now.