Initially named after the soap manufacturers who advertised in the program breaks, the soap opera has long attracted among the largest audiences of any broadcast genres while being also widely reviled for its supposedly cheap, trashy, and repetitive content. The soap opera audience has, in consequence, received similar criticism, for being mindless, stereotyped, and vulnerable to mass persuasion. Since the 1970s, however, academic commentary, led significantly by the feminist revalorization of “women’s genres,” though drawing also on the rise in active audience studies (or audience reception studies) during the 1980s and 1990s, has resulted in a rethinking of the genre. This has permitted recognition of the genre’s narrative complexity and depth of characterization, its treatment of the moral dilemmas of daily life, and the many satisfactions that audiences obtain from the soap opera.
The soap opera began on radio during the 1930s in the USA, but quickly became a staple of daytime television broadcasting, filling the schedules between midday and early prime time, and providing continuity and predictability for audiences and broadcasters alike. The daytime serials, as they were also known, differed from series insofar as they were, it seemed, never-ending, with episodes running daily or at least several times per week over years, even decades, building up loyal audiences of fans for whom watching the soap opera became a habitual part of their own lives.
As a genre, the soap opera is clearly distinguished from sitcoms, series, and other forms of drama by its narrative structure, comprised of multiple intersecting plots and subplots, each stretching out the “endless middle” of the narrative, with cliff-hanger endings to episodes rather than narrative closure. It is also distinctive for lacking a focal hero or heroine but rather encompassing a sizable set of interrelated characters (connected by familial relationships, friendship networks or, most commonly, a shared neighborhood and/or workplace), all roughly equivalent in prominence, whose activities center on the private and emotional – love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, reconciliation. The settings are typically interiors, often simply staged as dyadic shot–reaction-shot sequences, with storylines concerning secrets overheard, love triangles, lost and found relatives, unwanted pregnancies, babies with contested parentage, romantic rivalry, and many more. These permit not only strong emotions but also polarized moral dilemmas, in which multiple characters become entangled.
Different cultures provide different inflections to these themes. Liebes and Katz (1993) identify a series of primordial themes in both prime-time and daytime versions of the genre, centering on inheritance, lineage, paternity, and family. In the north European tradition, the mundane rather than glamorized settings of ordinary life are prioritized in the early evening shows, portraying the frustrations and hardship of working-class life and the strong bonds of social support among women, following in the social realist tradition established by public service broadcasting (O’Donnell 1999). The Latin American telenovela, sometimes argued to be a distinct but parallel genre since it consists of long but finite series rather than serials, tells a rags-to-riches story of social mobility and romance for its heroine (see Rogers & Antona 1985). As Allen (1995) shows, the genre has been very successfully exported often by one country to its geographic, linguistic, or cultural neighbors, being then amended or appropriated by different cultures around the world. The common themes of romantic and familial relationships, the trials and dilemmas of the private sphere, and the complex social relations that anchor people in their community remain prominent in all forms of the genre.
Partly because of its daytime scheduling and explicit address to the housewife, and partly because of its focus on personal relationships, the soap opera has been dubbed a “women’s genre”; undoubtedly, it attracts more women viewers, though ratings often reveal a sizable proportion of the audience to be male. The genre has attracted a body of content analysis concerned with the messages that may influence women (e.g., gender stereotyping, promiscuity, pro- or anti-marriage views, support or not for women’s employment; Frentz 1992) and, more recently, a body of feminist audience research concerned to understand the nature of the genre’s appeal for women (Geraghty 1990).
Reception studies have established that the mode of audience response to the soap opera is less identification with specific characters than parasocial interaction (an imaginative engagement with the community of characters as a whole; Parasocial Interactions and Relationships) and emotional realism (as the structure of feeling portrayed, if not the exact scenarios, rings true for many in the audience). Audiences enjoy being critical viewers of the soap opera: far from accepting the messages presented, viewers argue back with the characters, critique the plots, identify inconsistencies or continuity errors (often drawing on knowledge of the soap opera going back for years), and discuss with each other during and after viewing the rights and wrongs of the storylines portrayed. In terms of mass communication theory, research on the soap opera audience has provided convincing evidence for the interpretive activity of viewers in co-constructing the meaning of the text, with evidence of diversity in reception that draws on the cultural resources viewers derive from their life-worlds.
With the growing success of talk shows and reality shows through the 1990s and thereafter, the soap opera has lost some of its prominence as popular culture, and broadcasters have sought to diversify the genre itself in search of audience ratings – producing soap operas for younger audiences and spin-off mini-series, publicizing major cliff-hangers, developing linked websites, and so forth. They have also sought ever-more controversial storylines as competition among channels has grown, risking the emotional realism of the genre and the loyalty of longstanding audiences, but also generating, at times, national debates over pressing moral issues, for example through their treatment of such issues as abortion, incest, homosexuality, and crime.
Notwithstanding the economic drivers behind such storylines, or the melodramatic nature of their treatment, the hallmark of the soap opera continues to be the focus on the emotional responses of characters over time, the portrayal of diverse responses across the community of characters, and the tendency of all apparent resolutions to unravel, opening up new permutations of character and plot for future episodes. The openness of the genre to alternative readings has, in the age of online and interactive media, resulted in ever-greater involvement from its keenest fans, using online forums to rewrite episodes, provide inventive back-stories or fantasy projections, and chat or argue with each other in new communities of fandom, thus extending and perhaps deepening the engagement of viewers in the genre.
- Allen, R. C. (1995). To be continued . . . Soap operas around the world. London: Routledge.
- Frentz, S. (ed.) (1992). Staying tuned: Contemporary soap opera criticism. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
- Geraghty, C. (1990). Women in soap operas. Cambridge: Polity.
- Liebes, T., & Katz, E. (1993). The export of meaning: Cross-cultural readings of “Dallas.” Cambridge: Polity.
- O’Donnell, H. (1999). Good times, bad times: Soap operas and society in Western Europe. London: Leicester University Press.
- Rogers, E. M., & Antona, L. (1985). Telenovelas: A Latin American success story. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 24–35.