How Soap Operas Shaped Modern TV

The news during April 2011 that All My Children and One Life to Live had been cancelled came as sobering news to millions of television viewers. Soap operas are the original dramatic serials on television, you know? Originally marketed to housewives in the 1930s, these dramatic serials originally aired as radio programs and were sponsored by well known soap manufactures like Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers. The name “soap opera”, or “soap” for short, stuck when the programs naturally transitioned to television. Millions of Americans have regularly tuned into daily soaps since the 1950s, when the shows became the mainstay of daytime television programming. Early, it was clear that stories contained to a particular environment were very appealing to audiences. It was easy for many viewers to relate to stories about the doctors and nurses of General Hospital, or the problems of alcoholism that plagued the Bauer family in Guiding Light. Soaps were never intended to be reality shows, and certainly not as we know reality shows today, but the shows helped push boundaries and set standards for what television could be. Modern soaps have strived to represent the realities of the world whenever possible. Social issues such as abortion, the war on drugs, AIDS, the Cold War, and the many challenges to the institution of marriage have all been addressed by the most popular daytime serials of any decade. The news that All My Children and One Life to Live had been cancelled came as unwelcomed news to many. For more than 40 years, millions of Americans grew up alongside Erica Kane (played by Susan Lucci), and original cast member from the 1970 debut of All My Children. Erika Slezak has played the role of Victoria Lord in One Life to Live since 1971 and has won six Daytime Emmy awards for her efforts. With the cancellation of these timeless soaps, it feels like the end of an era in television is finally upon us. In 1970 there were 19 daytime serials on network television. That number dropped to 12 by 1990. Sadly, only four daytime soap operas are scheduled to air on network television for the 2011-12 season. The remaining soaps are: General Hospital, Days of our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful. Television in the 21st century owes a debt of gratitude to the daytime soaps. They led the way to lengthy contracts for television crews and actors, paved the way for dealing with social issues relevant to the era, and proving that people actually acting like real life people could entertain audiences for decades. As we watch soap operas slowly go the way of the Dodo, it’s difficult to not feel slightly low about the whole situation. We’re now required to ask, as TV viewers: who will lead shows into the future now? Photo by Mike Licht.

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