Soap debuted on ABC on Tuesday, September 13, 1977, but before the show had even hit the airwaves; there were six months of protests and public outcry leading up to it’s premiere. Why you might ask? Well, earlier that year, in March, network executives at the 195 ABC affiliate stations across the United States screened the show’s pilot. And many of them were horrified by what they saw.
The show’s heavy emphasis on themes like sex and adultery resulted in a bit of a moral panic. As a result, the series almost failed to launch. As religious groups made it their mission to actively campaign against it. Besides sex and cheating, conservative viewers taken aback by how the show presented subjects like homosexuality. Today, such themes are pretty much par for the course, but back in those days; they still considered to be taboo.
ABC refused to back down. They determined to let the ‘show go on’ no matter what. In fact, they even reduced the sponsor fees from $75,000 a spot down to just 40 grand to sweeten the deal.
You know what they say. Any publicity is good publicity. Well, in Soap’s case, the controversy only created more hype for the series. Sure, some people vehemently opposed to it’s subject material, but for everyone else, it was something fresh and new. When it premiered, it won it’s time slot and went on to rank #13 in the Nielsen ratings for it’s first season.
Notably, Soap was the first television show to ever carry a ‘viewer discretion advised’ warning. Rod Roddy started each episode off with an announcement stating that the series featured adult themes. Furthermore, a text warning also displayed on the screen at the start of every episode throughout Soap’s inaugural season.
Despite initially met with mixed reviews, Soap, which essentially a parody of daytime soap operas; went on to air for four seasons before wrapping up on April 20, 1981. While not everyone blown away by the show; it went on to develop a devoted following and has listed on various critic’s list of the top television shows of all time.
Throughout Soap’s tenure on TV, it continued to plagued with controversy. In additional to declining ratings; continued scandal and moral outrage would ultimately end up playing an active role in it’s eventual cancellation. Join Facts Verse as we take a look at a few of the Soap TV Show Controversies that inevitably took Soap off the air.
Critics Split And The Controversy Never Died Down
After Soap’s premiere, ABC received thousands of angry phone calls demanding that the show pulled from the network’s line-up. Even so, they claimed that they had received far more calls in favor of it staying on the air.
According to a poll conducted by the University of Richmond in Virginia; 74% of viewers failed to find the show offensive. Most intriguing is the fact that among those that did find it offensive. More than half said that they still planned on watching it again.
Soap’s first round of critical reviews fairly mixed. The Los Angeles Times noted that it seemed like the show was just one long drawn-out dirty joke. And that it lacked subtlety, class, and cleverness.
Variety likewise found the show to be both predictable; and silly while noting that it was no more outrageous than the average daytime soap opera. In spite of these criticisms; the show also received it’s fair share of favorable reviews and retained fairly high ratings throughout it’s 85 episode run.
It Was A Solid Parody
As we already mentioned in the intro, Soap was a parody of the popular daytime soap opera genre. In fact, of it’s cast members, three actors had previously starred in serious soaps.
One of these actors, Arthur H. Peterson Jr, had appeared on both the radio incarnations of General Hospital and The Guiding Light. Robert Manden similarly had a member of the Search for Tomorrow cast; and Donnelly Rhodes had a role on the iconic; long-running soap The Young and the Restless.
Soap garnered a reputation for featuring various outrageous and downright absurd plotlines. Effectively parodying the run of the mill melodramas that enjoyed high viewership during the 1970s. Everything from alien abduction, amnesia, dangerous cults, mobsters, communists revolutions and demonic possession featured on the program. If you’ve ever seen a serious daytime soap opera, then you know presentation of such themes are fairly commonplace.
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Soap’s Plot In A Nutshell
The pilot episode of Soap began with the announcer stating that the show was the story of two sisters; Mary Campbell and Jessica Tate.
Tate, played by Katherine Helmond, and her husband Chester, played by Robert Mandan. They both engaged in infidelity and their affairs. And romantic flings expectedly led to a variety of conflicts, mishaps, and scandals.
Jessica Tate refused to believe the stories of her husband’s cheating ways until she witnessed them firsthand. The couple’s hoity-toity butler Benson, played by Robert Guillaume; was a sarcastic man who loathed Chester but got along swimmingly with the various other members of the Tate Family. His character ended up so popular with the show’s fans that he even was given his very own spin-off series. Benson, which in fact ran longer than Soap did. It premiered in Fall 1979 and ran for seven seasons before wrapping up in the Spring of 1986.
The Campbells were far less well-off than the wealthy Tates. Their son, Danny Dallas, played by Ted Wass on his way to become a gangster; when he instructed to murder his stepfather. He then went on the run, clothing himself in a handful of humorous disguises in the process.
His older brother Jodie, played by Billy Crystal; was a gay man who was on the fence about whether or not he wanted to undergo sex reassignment surgery. He also was clandestinely having a spicy love affair with a pro football quarterback.
Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was notable for being one of the first recurring LGBT characters on a sitcom. His affair with the football player and his contemplation of having sexual affirmation surgery not only upset religious conservative groups; but it also created some outcry in the gay community; as many LGBT viewers concerned that the character’s portrayal merely perpetuated stereotypes. The gay community especially took offense to Dallas’s intention to have a sex change. One of the biggest LGBT groups to weigh in on the matter was the National Gay Task Force. In time, Dallas’s character toned down a bit and maybe one of the Soap TV Show Controversies.
Network Censors Voiced Their Concerns
Due to it’s perceive raunchiness, ABC censors heavily concerned with the show’s content. The Los Angeles Times printed a leaked internal report on June 27, 1977; just three months before the series debut; infamously dubbed the ‘Soap Memo’ that dealt with the show’s substitution of Oreo cookies for the traditional Communion Wafer. This move viewed as sacrilegious and offensive to religious viewers. Similarly, a scene that some felt implied a priest seduced in a confessional also came under fire. And resulted in a fierce letter-writing campaign by family and religious groups calling for the show’s cancellation.
ABC Abruptly Dropped Soap At The Season 4 Cliffhanger
Soap created by Susan Harris at a time when a female showrunner was practically unheard of. ABC had initially agreed to the show airing for five seasons; leading Harris to develop a plot outline for the entire series.
But the ongoing, relentless protests and concerns from sponsors eventually led to the network’s decision to pull the plug on the series at the end of it’s fourth season. Right after Jessica Tate apparently shot by a communist firing squad. Audiences never given clear answers to whether or not she had, in fact, killed.
Several other cliffhangers also left forever unresolved. Chester, who was suicidal; had been planning to kill his wife Annie and his nephew Danny after catching them sleeping together. Jodie had become permanently hypnotized and believed herself to be a nonagenarian Jewish man. Burt was also getting ready to walk into an ambush planned by his political enemies.
The official reason ABC said they canceled the show was declining ratings. But according to insights provided by the Museum of Broadcast Communications; the program actually ended because it’s sponsors had threatened to pull out due to it’s controversial content.
This theory is supported by the fact that sponsor, Vlasic Foods; pulled it’s sponsorship immediately after the show aired it’s season four finale.
Even though we never got to actually see what happened to Jessica on Soap. A 1983 episode of Benson did mention Jessica’s disappearance; while noting that the Tate family was trying to have her declared legally deceased. Later in the episode, an apparition of Jessica appeared to Benson while revealing that she wasn’t really dead. But rather she was actually in a coma somewhere in South America. While that gave viewers at least a partial answer to Jessica’s fate; none of the other other Soap finale cliffhangers were ever mentioned.
Since it’s cancellation, Soap’s reputation has seen significant growth. Today, it’s often considered to be one of the best TV shows in history. Time Magazine, despite initially panning the show, named it one of the 100 Best Shows of All-Time in History.
Soap is also widely regarded as having helped launch Billy Crystal’s acting career, transforming the newcomer into a star. After Soap, Crystal joined the cast of Saturday Night Live; before becoming a prolific Hollywood film star in the late 80s and 90s.
Crystal, who’s still very active in show business has received countless awards and accolades; including six Primetime Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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