Soap Operas. What is a soap?

Term Paper, 1997

13 Pages, Grade: gut


Table of Contents

1. What is a soap?

2. A historical overview

3. What makes a soap a soap?

4. British soaps

5. The audience
The profile of an soap opera viewer
Women as viewers
Soap operas and housewives

6. Fieldwork

7. Under Observation

8. Bibliography

What is a soap? – Different definitions in short .

A soap opera is a serialized drama which runs for 52 weeks of the year with continuous storylines dealing with domestic themes, personal or family relationships and a limited running characters. Soap operas or serials are open-ended ... Soap operas are one of the few genres where weddings, for instance, are not a happy ending but the beginning of a marriage that may be troubled or even doomed to failure.[1]

A dramatic program usually presented daily, with continuing characters and multiple

plots. The action, which deals with contemporary problems and their solutions,

continues from episode to episode called soap opera because many of the original sponsors were soap manufacturers. Also called daytime drama, soap, and soaper.[2]

Television soap operas are long-running serials concerned with everyday life. The serial is not to be confused with the series, in which the main characters and format remain the same from program to program but each episode is a self-contained plot. In a serial at least one storyline is carried over from one episode to the next. A series is advertised as having a specific number of episodes, but serials are potentially endless.[3]

These definitions can be seen as a sort of introduction to the whole field of soap operas. In the following chapters I will deal with this topic in detail.

A historical overview

The term „soap opera“ was first used in the 1930s to describe radio serials which were sponsored by the soap powder industry such as Procter and Gamble. These 15-minute „commercials“ were about women and concentrated on emotional situations. By sponsoring radio programmes about women, their families and their everyday life, the sponsors hoped that they would reach a big audience of housewives who then would add their certain soap powder to their shopping lists.

These `never-ending´ stories became very popular and so these programmes switched to television programmes in the 1950s. Their length expanded from 15-minute productions to 25 minute long ones and later they even lasted 60 minutes.

Soap opera is an international phenomenon because almost every country has its own soap. The German-speaking area has its Lindenstraße or newer versions like Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten or Marienhof and Verbotene Liebe. Britain´s soap opera fans are watching Coronation Street or Eastenders; in Australia the soap Neighbours enjoys great popularity. Locally produced soap operas are almost more popular than even the most successful imports. However, the USA is very successful at exporting its soaps.

The soap imports have an important effect on the development of the local soaps, e.g the great popularity of the Australian soap Neighbours with young actors (school ages) led British producers to bring younger characters into their serials. As a result, a new generation of

viewers was attracted, who can also be seen as a new group of buyers (especially for the advertisers). Today not only soap powder is sold with soaps; the range of products grew and also the range of buyers, men and women, young and old, people of various status.

3. What makes a soap a soap?

First of all, there are two types of soap operas. They differ in the time of broadcast:

- daily soaps: they dominate the late-morning and the early-afternoon slot

(11am-2pm) and are broadcasted, as the name says, daily.

- prime time soaps: in comparison to the daily ones their production is more expensive

and therefore they are screened just once a week between 6.30 pm and 10.30pm.

The following characteristics refer to the category „daily soap“, which does not mean that some of them are not typical for prime time soaps too.

To begin with, the production costs are very low, therefore almost every country with own television stations has its own soap. „It is claimed that the large audiences that Eastenders guaranteed for the BBC saved it from privatization.“[4] The reasons why they are so cheap to produce are firstly the small cast and secondly the limited studio sets.

The next important feature is the structure of soap operas. Soaps begin with a hook – here the most important scenes of the previous episode are taken up – , but they also end with a cliffhanger – here several dramatic situations are left open to encourage us to view the following episode to see what happens.[5]

The next characteristical feature is the slow development of the plot – storylines are often developed over several hours of programme time. It is easier to write for an soap than for series because for the writers there is not the problem to write a particular storyline that lasts exactly 40 or 50 minutes. The emphasis is rather on talk than on action. Emotional situations are tested out, there is an emphasis on reflecting the personal problems.

The organisation of place is an easy one, because there is always the same setting (the livingroom, the bar, the hall in school, the shop at the corner... very typical locations, that occurr in every soap opera). The organisation of time depends on the type of soap. Day-time soaps mostly refer to the one day one hour or less scheme. Prime-time soaps build their own kind of calendar to help the audience to orientate themselves.

A very important feature of soap operas is that the audience gets familiar with the characters and the settings very quickly.

With soaps you can speak of a certain kind of predictability. As the audience knows the characters as well as their behaviour the plot is predictable. New characters and changing storylines prevent the plot from being too predictable and getting boring.

4. British Soaps

One chapter I want to dedicate to the British soaps. I was amazed to learn how large their supply is. There are soaps for everybody from everywhere. In the chapter „What makes a soap a soap“ I told that soaps differ from the time of broadcast – prime time and daily soaps. However, they can also be distinguished in a geographical sense. So there are three different kinds of soaps:

- Local Soaps that are seen on a national basis like many of the US daytime soaps or the

South African soap Generations.

- Regional Soaps that serve a regional or same-language community like the UK produced

Coronation Street, shown in Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Other examples

are the Mexican versions of the "Telenovelas" (that actually originated in

Brazil), that are usually seen in Spanish-speaking countries.

- International Soaps that can be seen across the globe in many different languages, like

prime time soaps, Dallas, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210 or extremely

successful US daytime soaps like Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the


On British TV I came across the whole range described above. To illustrate this I searched TV-Guides in British newspapers and marked all the soap operas I could find. For comparison I took a German programme, which has regional soaps like GZSZ and Unter Uns, but even more international ones.


[1] David McQueen: Television – A Media Student´s Guide (London, Arnold 1998), 32f

[2] R. Terry Ellmore: NTC´s Massmedia Dictionary (Lincolnwood, National Textbook Company 1995)


[4] cf. David McQueen, Television, 35

[5] cf. David McQueen, Television, 33

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Soap Operas. What is a soap?
University of Graz  (Fachbereich Literaturwissenschaften)
Soap Operas
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ISBN (eBook)
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Soap, Operas, Soap, Operas
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Andrea Rieger (Author), 1997, Soap Operas. What is a soap?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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