America's love affair with soap operas heats up
It's two in the afternoon – there's an hour until your next class. Knowing you should use the time to finish the reading you cast off at midnight last night, you turn instead to your remote.
Flipping on the television, you join millions of other Americans poised on the edge of ensuing drama. That's right — it's "Passions" time.
No matter how often we try to deny it, Americans are in love with soap operas. But considering the depth and length of this love affair's impact on the entertainment industry, it has no reason to be embarrassed.
Daytime television is everywhere. The hourglass from "Days of Our Lives" has become an instantly recognizable icon, and the series' opening monologue is an endless source of parody. Characters like Erika Kane (Susan Lucci) on "All My Children" have become household names.
You can't even get through the line at the supermarket without being faced with Pine Valley's latest issue or Harmony's currently burning love triangle.
And while most would not admit to actually purchasing "Soap Opera Digest," we all know someone who does. Someone who plans his or her class schedule around "General Hospital" every year. Someone who tapes "All My Children" on a daily basis.
This devoted fan might not be you, but chances are, it's someone you know well. So to help you, er, your friend, make sense of the craziness, here's a closer look at today's soap opera craze.
History of a Genre
The soap opera genre was originally introduced into American culture in the form of daily radio programs during the 1930s.
These shows became immensely popular during the Depression, often depicting characters who conquered great odds, and radio stations continued to air an increasing number of similar programs.
With the advent of the television in the 1940s, the shows hit mainstream TV networks, and by the 1950s many had become hugely successful. The soap opera quickly became one of the most popular TV genres.
Of the shows created during this early era, several still remain prominent network story lines, including ABC's "One Life to Live," "All My Children" and "General Hospital," which were created in the 60s.
CBS's "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns" both date back to the early 50s.
Originally sponsored by soap manufacturing companies like Proctor and Gamble, the shows were produced with a female audience specifically in mind.
Recognizing this focus, companies signed on with the intention of selling soap-related products to the traditional housebound woman.
Several companies which still exist today saw laundry and dish detergent sales skyrocket because of their television advertising, and the serials were coined "soap operas" in the wake of the American house-wife's overwhelming response.
While the midday time slots remain the norm and viewers are more likely to see commercials for diapers and cleaner fluid than beer or motor oil during the programs, the soap opera audience of today has evolved with America's changing gender roles and expectations.
More and more women spend their days working and simply don't have time to watch soaps, while the number of men who are able to and enjoy watching has increased.
Still, if you wander into any female dorm's TV lounge between noon and four o'clock on a weekday afternoon, you are bound to find the room littered with more hungry eyes than any male dorm can offer.
"I have to attribute [the female-dominated audience] to fundamental differences between men and women," said Valerie Holsinger, a Notre Dame senior and long-time soap watcher.
"I'm part of the Gender Studies concentration, and don't usually jump to label these kind of issues, but I think in this case a lot of guys won't always admit [to watching soaps]," Holsinger said.
This stigma is an important factor in the demographics of soap opera watchers, but it doesn't deter true fans.
Sophomore Matt Cassady openly admits to watching soaps. "A lot of the story lines are geared toward women, but if anyone sat down and started watching, they'd get drawn in just the same," Cassady said.
Still, when asked if he would ever watch his soap in the Dylan Hall TV lounge Cassady said, "Hell no!"
"People walk by there all the time," said Cassady. "I mean, it's like watching NASCAR."
While today's 10 running soaps have an average daily audience of nearly 20 million viewers, at least one of which we know is male, there are the select few out there, men and women alike, who don't appreciate this kind of entertainment.
"I just find the story lines to be too unbelievable," said Walsh Hall sophomore Jody Kahn.
"The actors are never very good and many of those shows are downright trashy. The men are distrustful, and most of the women are insultingly dumb — it's offensive," said Kahn.
Despite occasional distaste for the genre, mainstream soap operas continue to gain popularity.
Board games, trivia games, photo books, magazines, web pages and even tours to meet various character actors spring up left and right for each show.
With the past decade's advent of the Internet, soaps have followed other forms of media in making the jump to the digital world, and many Internet-based soap operas are currently available to those who can't get enough drama on television.
The Concept and Appeal
Whether you need more excitement in your life or you simply want to take a break to enjoy the excitement of someone else's, today's soap opera concept is simple.
For one hour you lose yourself in the drama of other people's lives, problems and romances.
Of course, the formula is always the same: a few wealthy, influential and competing families, a girl who has married into each at least twice, various commoners whose backgrounds are always mysteriously dark and subject to interpretation, and at least one evil twin.
No marriage is impenetrable, no paternity test one hundred percent certain. Someone always discovers a lost sibling, a baby switched at birth or a mysterious figure from the past lurking around town.
Where foul play is involved — and it almost always is — death is never final and revenge is always just around the corner.
But one thing remains true: the more outrageous the plot line becomes, the more viewers will be drawn in and the more Emmy nominations loom on the horizon.
"For me it's an hour of fantasy when I can watch other people mess up their lives," Holsinger said.
"The story lines just suck you in," said Cassady, who got hooked on one soap in high school when his older sister starting watching.
Another draw is the fact that the shows air daily. Unlike many recent primetime dramas like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Party of Five," which use many of the same melodramatic techniques as the classic soap operas but which air only once a week, daytime television delivers a new show every weekday, even on Christmas or Thanksgiving (which usually means a special episode).
"You can miss weeks and not be confused," said Holsinger, who admitted to taping her favorite show every once in a while. "I love it if I can watch on a daily basis, but because there is a new episode each day, I don't get upset if I miss one here or there."
So if the soap opera addiction sounds familiar — the need to tape your show each day or to catch daily recaps on the Internet — know that you are not alone.
There's a whole country of fans out there, desperately drawn into the crazy lives of fictitious characters who plague fictitious towns with endless antics as irresistible as they are unbelievable.
And after 70 years of entertainment success, don't worry — soaps aren't going anywhere.
So should you find yourself sitting around your room tomorrow afternoon, with your roommates in class and your lack of desire to do work overwhelming, wander down to the TV lounge.
You might be surprised what soap opera fans you find there.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, February 28, 2001