The Ode: The soap opera (1937–2011)

Soaps were long the drama of choice for stay-at-home moms. But as more women went off to work, they were usurped by a new form of reality television.

ALL MY CHILDREN, Miguel Cervantes, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Susan Lucci, Nancy Ticotin, (aired week of April 7, 2008), 1970-, photo: ©ABC / Steve Fenn / courtesy Everett Collection

The first daytime radio dramas were born in the 1930s, and fast became the soundtrack for housewives doing chores. Procter & Gamble saw an opportunity to peddle cleaning products to the stay-at-home audience, and started producing a show called Guiding Light (a reference to the lamp of protagonist Rev. Dr. John Ruthledge) in 1937. This coined the term “soap opera.” The company formed P&G Productions in 1949, and debuted Guiding Light on television in 1952. Six years later, P&G produced As The World Turns, about the private lives of professionals, which quickly became the No.1 daytime serial.

By 1970, there were 18 soaps being broadcast on three big television networks, and other companies, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Bros., were also sponsors. By 1976, the sudsy dramas characterized by implausible plot twists, pregnant pauses and dramatic close-ups were followed by 20 million Americans. In fact, prime-time shows were money losers for the networks, and they relied on soaps, which were cheaper to film and made back more than double weekly production costs, to stay afloat.

To viewers, soaps had serious emotional value. Some felt so enmeshed in the plots that they mixed up fact and fiction, resulting in Eileen Fulton, who played an evil character on As the World Turns, being punched on the street by an upset fan. Senior writers on Days of Our Lives made $100,000 each, and a dozen-odd magazines were dedicated to discussing all things soap.

Soap opera plots were more than just foam. Colleges began offering academic courses on the content, and All My Children, known then as “the thinking man’s soap,” had a 30% male audience. In 1976, All My Children took six months to describe a child-abuse case, while Guiding Light preached racial tolerance, and was one of the first soaps to feature African-American actors. In the late ’80s, women flooded into the workforce, significantly cutting daytime TV viewership. Since the late ’80s, Fox and other newer cable networks ran reruns of other programs rather than soaps, leading to a few cancellations. Real-life drama such as the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 had viewers engrossed, and soaps no longer held the shock-factor monopoly.

In 2000, only 10 soaps remained. The reality show Survivor debuted that year, and a new genre of televised voyeurism was about to explode. Despite some flickers of hope—a 2006 wedding on General Hospital attracted the largest audience ever for daytime drama—the decline was accelerating. CBS started to panic and, to save money, switched to handheld cameras to film Guiding Light, giving it the look of a reality show. It wasn’t enough, and in 2009 the Light went dark after 72 years on the air. Months later, the network cancelled As the World Turns, the last of 20 soaps once owned by P&G.

Soaps saw a 41% decline in viewership over the past decade, and as of last month, ABC announced both All My Children and One Life to Live will be cancelled next season and replaced by two reality shows. Though P&G has moved onto advertising through social media, fans aren’t letting their favourite shows fizzle away. Online articles announcing cancellations are followed by capitalized outrage and threats by viewers to boycott the networks. Small protests have erupted nationwide, assuring the four remaining soaps’ loyal viewers will follow them to the grave, creating drama as admirably futile as any daytime plot.