There just happens to be a certain television genre that seems to have all but dissappeared from the medium these days(thanks to reality TV, no less); That genre just happens to be the soap opera, or more accurately, the serial drama. Now, its origins can go as far back as 1926, when a Chicago radio station known as WGN produced a series called Sam & Henry; That radio program would be the predecessor into what many of us, especially radio historians, know today as Amos & Andy, even though that program would go on to evolve into something that is closer to that of a treaditional sitcom. But in the meantime, the show’s focus on its continuing storyline and recurring characters as well as daily scheduling would definitely make this a forerunner of current soap operas to come…
In the late 1920s there have been lesser-known programs that debuted along the line of the earliest serial dramas; Meanwhile, in early 1928, the then-young NBC network had been approached by the Chesebrough Manufacturing Co. with a certain idea to advertise its product Vaseline; The result was this: Real Folks of Thompkins Corners, in which the sponsor’s message had been seamlessly woven into the drama, while hardly interrupting the flow of the story while tying the message to the beloved characters. There had been 55 daytime serials that were on the radio in 1940, and by that year several had been aired twice a day, while some have aired on more than only one network, broadcasting between 9 AM & 5 PM, which happens to be what advertisers regarded as women’s hours, altough women made up quite the bulk of the audience in all dayparts, thus while becoming a very desirable audience, especially for such certain mass consumer goods as soaps, packaged foods, cosmetics and healthcare products.
As people transitioned into television in the 1950s, the soap opera was indeed a slow genre to move; It was not until the fall of 1951 did CBS presented a made-for-TV serial lineup, while The Egg & I (1951-52), Love of Life (1951-80), and Search For Tomorrow (1951-86), all of which had run 15 minutes long, running back-to-back from noon to 12:45 PM. Meanwhile, NBC itself relied on game shows in the daytime; However, it finally introduced some soap operas in the long-running form, beginning with From These Roots in the summer of 1958, running until 1961, and Today is Ours, which it only lasted six months, but its central characters would go on to be moved to a bigger hit, Young Doctor Malone (1958-63). It wasn’t until the fall of 1960 that ABC would debut its very own soap opera, The Road To Reality; Three years later, ABC would introduce a soap opera that is still going strong to this very day, General Hospital.
By 1960’s end, all of the network television soap operas had been shifted to either a half-hour or longer format, while such contemporary staples as Days Of Our Lives (1965-Present) and One Life To Live (1968-2013) have made their appearances; By the 1980s however, all of the soap operas, especially led by Another World and Days Of Our Lives, had gone into the hourlong format.
Meanwhile, a number of soap operas have come and gone throughout the 1970s and 80s, with shows such as Ryan’s Hope (1975-89 on ABC) and Loving, which ran from 1983 to 1997, in which by the end of its run had been renamed The City in 1995.
But times have certainly changed, as television viewers’ tastes shifted to reality TV; Soap operas’ ratings have fallen since the beginning of the 2000s, and as a result, many have been canceled. However, since January of 2012, only four of those daytime soaps have continued to air on the major networks: Days Of Our Lives, General Hospital, The Bold and The Beautiful, and The Young and The Restless; So with that, this marks the very first time since 1953 that only four soap operas have aired.
What has caused the demise of the soap opera? Among the many factors is that women have increasingly worked outside of the home, and as a result, television viewing in the daytime have declined; Another cause is the rise of cable and the internet, in addition to reality TV, as well as streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix. One other factor is that of the daytime programming alternatives such as game shows, talk shows, and court shows, which costs up to 50% less to produce than that of scripted dramas.
Now, as for the primetime soap operas…That is a different story for some other time.