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Why They are Called Soap Operas – Interesting Facts to Know

As The World Turns, All My Children, One Life To Live, and General Hospital – show’s like these used to dominate the mid-day TV line-up. A lot of people – especially Gen-Xers and Millennials – probably have vivid memories of getting sick and having to stay home from school as a kid. As you would flick through the television, you either had shows like those we just listed, daytime talk programs like Maury and Jerry Springer, or the Price is Right to choose from.

If you’re like most, you probably just stuck with ol’ Bob Barker and called it a day, but if you were feeling a bit saucy, maybe you’d stick around to watch an episode or two of the Bold and the Beautiful.

Daytime serial dramas are commonly known as soap operas, but have you ever wondered where they got their name? Stay tuned to find out the surprising origin story of the humble soap opera. And since the soap seems to be slowly but surely dying, we’ll also look back at a few famous defunct soaps while checking in to see which ones are still on the air today.

Facts Verse Presents: Why They are Called Soap Operas – Interesting Facts to Know

What’s In A Name?

The origin of the modern soap opera can trace it’s roots back to short, daytime serial dramas that used to air on the radio back in the 1930s. Radio execs were searching for a way to increase their station’s ad revenue, so they started to court businesses that peddled in household products seeing as how the vast majority of people at home during the middle of the day at that time were female homemakers.

Women were already the primary advertising targets of multinational consumer goods company Procter & Gamble, so it only makes sense that they became the first advertiser to sponsor one of these daytime radio dramas.

The first generation of soaps were promoted alongside P&G’s laundry detergent powder Oxydol. It didn’t take long for other soap, cosmetics, and household goods manufacturers to see how successful P&G’s campaign was and desire to get in on the action.

P&G even began to produce their very own radio dramas, and before long, these sorts of radio dramas began to be closely associated – if not synonymous – with their advertisers, hence the origin of the name “soap opera”.

The world’s first genuine soap opera was created by legendary actress Irna Phillips in 1930. Her creation was called Painted Dreams and aired on WGN in Chicago.

Painted Dreams aired daily and had a 15-minute runtime. It’s plot involved a family that included a recently widowed woman and her unmarried daughter. Phillips would later go on to create the first television soap in 1949 called These Are My Children, not to be confused with the entirely different soap All My Children, which premiered in 1970.

As time went on, Phillips created several other iconic soaps, including As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and Another World.

The term “soap opera” was first used to describe these kind of shows in 1939. The first mentions of the moniker appeared in print in 1940 when both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times began using the phrase.

Even after making the leap to television, soap manufacturers continued to sponsor the shows as they maintained their popularity. If anything, the transition to TV only made them all the more so popular.

All That Remains

On September 9, 2022, the obscenely long-running soap opera aired it’s 14,418th episode, thus ending it’s run on NBC. While the show hasn’t been canceled, it was moved off the air and onto NBC’s paid streaming service, Peacock.

For those that don’t get down with such streaming platforms, the only soaps remaining on the airwaves as of 2023 are The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless.

While the modern soap seems to be just barely holding on and is arguably in danger of going extinct, back in the day, the format was extremely popular. For example, back in 1986, over 30 million people tuned in to watch the Christmas Day installment of the British soap opera EastEnders on the BBC.

Likewise, in the 70s and 80s, American soaps like General Hospital, One Life to Live, and The Young and Restless were averaging Nielsen ratings in the range 8 to 11 – which in case you don’t know how those ratings work, they essentially account for the percentage of polled households that tuned in each week. Anything above an 8 or so is generally considered to be a major hit, as that would imply that tens of millions were tuning in each week to see what would happen next.

These days, daytime dramas just don’t seem to grip broadcast TV execs or home viewers as much as they used to. Back in 2010, there were still seven soaps on broadcast television. And at the beginning of the millennium, there were 10. If you go back another ten years, soap fans of the early 90s literally had dozens of options to choose from.

Past soaps that used to captivate audiences who were ever curious to see how their melodramatic plotlines would unfold each day included NBCs Generations, Passions, Another World, Sunset Beach, and Santa Barbara. Over on ABC, there was Loving, The City, Port Charles, and One Life To Live, while CBS had As The World Turns and Guiding Light.

So, what happened? How did all of the soaps lose their suds?

According to Miami University sociology professor C. Lee Harrington, the beginning of the end for the soap opera was likely in 1995 when the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial interrupted regular soap airings. From there on out, unscripted TV shows rose in popularity with offerings like The Jerry Springer Show, Judge Judy, and Maury dominating the ratings.

Viewers have since developed much shorter attention spans. Today we can hardly make it through an episode of a typical series as things like TikTok and YouTube have gotten us accustomed to much shorter runtimes.

Since soaps require viewers to tune in day after day to keep with their ever-developing, unfolding, and intersecting storylines, it only makes sense that such offerings would lose their appeal in the modern age of instant gratification.

On top of that, the world has greatly changed in the last few decades. There are far fewer stay-at-home parents for advertisers to target in 2023 compared to back in the mid-20th century when women pretty much stayed at home all day, tending to the home when their husbands were out bringing home the bacon.

Not surprisingly, Proctor & Gamble transitioned away from producing soap operas to advertising online on social media platforms by 2010.

Even so, many people are still peeved that Days of our Lives is being moved to a pay-to-watch streaming service. The show’s primary demographic is seniors these days, and some of it’s fans have been watching literally for decades at this point. So, to all of a sudden require them to shell out five bucks a month to watch their favorite show is seen by some as being pretty predatory.

But then again, maybe those that were used to listening to their favorite stories every day on the radio had similar complaints when soaps made the jump over to television. At the end of the day, producers, executives, and networks are only going to go where the money does, and since soap operas seem to be consistently losing their viewers, it’s not altogether unsurprising that they’d begin to shift away from them.

After All My Children and One Life to Live were canceled, US media outlets began labeling the event as the ‘Soapocalypse”. Now that we only have three soaps left to watch on American television stations, it begs the question, is there a way to reinvigorate the seemingly dying genre?

The Battle For New Viewers

One of the daytime soaps’ biggest problems in recent years has been a failure to bring new fans to the genre while retaining the ones they still have left. Much of the culture today seems to be laser-focused on all-things-nostalgic, from the endless stream of remakes and reboots, to “all star” reality series which bring past favorite contestants back onto our screens.

Soaps are no exception to this on-going trend. One of the most tried-and-true moves to give the ratings a boost is to bring back an iconic character from yesteryear. The problem with this tactic, however, is it does very little to attract younger viewers or practically anyone who isn’t already familiar with them.

Soaps seems to be experiencing a significant issue with drawing in a younger audience. Like we already mentioned, the primary viewers of the modern soap are elderly individuals who want to tune in every day to keep up with their ‘stories’.

Over in the UK, it’s estimated that for the 16-34 demographic, audiences who watch both Coronation Street and EastEnders – Britain’s top soaps – have more than halved in the last five years. And at least in the case of EastEnders, viewership fell from 1.3 million people in 2017 all the way down to 447,000 people last year.

Here in the US, we’re seeing the same exact trend unfold. For instance, General Hospital has likewise lost more than half of it’s viewers in the last decade – especially in that 16-34 age bracket.

The problem remains. Without a new generation of viewers watching, it’s hard to see a future in which saop operas will continue to survive for very long. And really, unless our viewing habits change, there really is no hope for the future of soap operas. Maybe if they can change formats and adapt to the modern tech age, they might be able to evolve into something else, but as it stands, we’re looking at a genre of television that’s lying in it’s deathbed. That drip, drip, drip you hear is the IV of wishful thinking barely keeping the soap alive long enough to appease some of it’s last remaining die-hard fans.

But what do you think? Is the soap opera really on the brink of extinction, or do you think that it can reinvent itself to become something that connects with younger viewers? If you believe that it still has a future place in pop culture, what changes do you think would reinvigorate it? Let us know in the comments, and as always, thanks for watching.

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