The origins of the serial drama, or soap opera, can be seen in early U.S. radio programs such as "Sam & Henry," a comedy series produced on WGN in Chicago in 1926 that was the predecessor of "Amos 'n' Andy." Although the program would later evolve into something closer to the format of the sitcom, its focus on recurring characters, a continuing story line and daily scheduling mark it as a forerunner of current soap operas.
A few other, less widely known programs along this line debuted in the late 1920s. In early 1928, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Co. approached NBC with an idea for advertising its product Vaseline, and the result was "Real Folks of Thompkins Corners." The sponsor's message was seamlessly woven into the drama, hardly interrupting the flow of the story while tying the message to beloved characters.
By 1940, there were 55 daytime serials, and several were aired twice a day, some on more than one network. All such programs were broadcast between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., during what advertisers regarded as women's hours, even though women made up the bulk of the audience in all dayparts. By the early 1920s, advertisers had noted that women purchased up to 85% of most household products sold in the U.S. This made women a highly desirable audience, especially for such mass consumer goods as soaps, cosmetics, packaged foods and healthcare products.
Important sponsors of multiple shows, such as Procter & Gamble Co., General Foods Corp. and Lever Brothers, used their leverage to negotiate favorable rates. The major networks also had established a policy in the late 1920s of selling airtime during the day at half the nighttime rates.
And given the less prestigious position of daytime programming, advertisers could devote more time per hour to their commercial messages or even work them into the programs with little scrutiny or criticism of their methods.
But perceived as overly commercialized, melodramatic and feminized, and created according to increasingly rigid formulas, soap operas began to attract more than their fair share of criticism in the late 1930s. Yet it was during these daytime hours that a generation of women created a uniquely feminine form that addressed the lives and concerns of American women in a way that few other types of programming allowed.
Compared to the nighttime hours, where not until the mid-1940s did it become possible for women to headline and produce their own shows, daytime programming provided a type of feminine public sphere never before possible.
Innovators of the form
Although relationships and families provided the mainstays of serial dramas, a large percentage also featured women struggling to balance the competing demands of a career and family. Early producers of soap operas understood this dual role well.
Irna Phillips, often called the "grandmother of soaps," began in 1930 on WGN with "Painted Dreams," the first daytime serial expressly designed for women. The program evolved into the popular NBC serial "Today's Children," sponsored by Pillsbury. Ms. Phillips went on to create some of the most enduring serials, including "Guiding Light" (1937- present). Both Agnes Nixon, creator of the TV soaps "All My Children" (1970-present) and "One Life to Live" (1968-present), among others, and William Bell of "The Young & the Restless" (1973-present) trained as staff writers under Ms. Phillips.
Other influential serial creators, especially the prolific team of Frank and Anne Hummert, helped to establish the so-called factory system, employing a stable of writers and editors to carry out their sizable lineup of soap operas. According to historian Raymond Stedman, 46% of the daytime serials brought to network radio between 1932 and 1937 and 30% of those introduced between 1927 and 1942 came from the Hummerts and their assistants. Their better-known titles included "Just Plain Bill" (1932-55), "The Romance of Helen Trent" (1933-60), "Ma Perkins" (1933-60), "Stella Dallas" (1937-55) and "Backstage Wife" (1935-59).
By 1944, more than 40 daily 15-minute serials were being broadcast on the four major radio networks, with many local and regional soap operas adding to the total.
Transfer to TV
With this kind of success, serial programs would have seemed to be a sure bet for TV's open schedules as the networks made the transition to the new medium in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Yet the soap opera was slow to move. Not until the fall of 1951 did CBS introduce a midday made-for-TV serial lineup, with "The Egg & I" (1951-52), "Love of Life" (1951-80) and "The Search for Tomorrow" (1951-86), all 15 minutes long and running back to back from noon to 12:45 p.m.
While NBC relied mainly on game shows in daytime TV, CBS countered with the first two half-hour daytime serials, both introduced in the winter of 1956: "As the World Turns" (1956-present) and "The Edge of Night" (1956-75). Both shows, along with "Guiding Light" and "Search for Tomorrow," were owned and produced by P&G. The success of its daytime lineup provided the bulk of CBS' profits throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
NBC finally introduced some longer-running soap operas in the summer of 1958, with "From These Roots" (1958-61) and "Today Is Ours," which lasted only six months but provided the central characters for a bigger hit, "Young Doctor Malone" (1958-63). Not until the fall of 1960 did ABC debut its first soap opera, "The Road to Reality." In 1963, ABC introduced its long-running "General Hospital" (1963-present).
By the end of the 1960s, all TV soap operas had shifted to the half-hour or longer format, and such contemporary staples as "Days of Our Lives" (1965-present, a joint production of Ms. Phillips and Ted Corday on NBC) and Ms. Nixon's "One Life to Live" (1968-present, on ABC) had made their appearances. By the 1980s, led by "Another World" (1968-present, created by Ms. Phillips and William Bell for NBC) and "Days of Our Lives" in 1975, all had gone to the hourlong format.
The 1970s and '80s saw the birth and demise of a number of serials, some very popular while they lasted: "Ryan's Hope" (1975-89, ABC), the vampire drama "Dark Shadows" (1966-71, ABC) and "Capitol" (1982-87, CBS). Later successful debuts included "The Bold & the Beautiful" (1987-present, created by William Bell and his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, CBS) and "Loving" (1983-97, a half-hour program produced by Ms. Nixon, ABC), which changed its name to "The City" in 1995.
In line with changes in the industry as a whole, soaps shifted from single to participating sponsorship in the 1960s, taking their production out of the hands of the ad agencies. P&G, however, continued to produce its two CBS soaps, "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," into the 21st century, with additional spots sold by CBS. ABC produces all its soaps, and a number of independents provide another model of daytime serial production.
The form updated
As more and more women entered the workforce from the 1970s on, the overall audience for daytime dramas dropped, a development that was exacerbated by the rise of the daytime talk show in the late 1980s. Yet even as cable TV options increasingly cut into the broadcast networks' audiences in the 1980s and '90s, daytime serials remained a good investment for advertisers, with relatively low unit costs and a strong CPM.
The fans, always an important factor in the popularity of soap operas, found a new outlet on the Internet in the mid-1990s. Not only have producers and networks experimented with ways to attract and hold their audiences via the Internet, fans themselves have produced a burgeoning "cybersoap" culture of their own.
An era of significant change seemed to be at hand at the beginning of the 21st century. The separation between daytime and evening programming eroded somewhat during the 1980s and '90s, beginning with the popularity of prime-time soap operas such as "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Hotel" and "Knot's Landing."
Although airing only one night a week, these dramas had continuing, soap opera-like plot lines that entranced audiences and began to change the way networks thought about serial programs. Prime-time series have gradually taken on more and more aspects of soap operas, and it seems only a matter of time before some network introduces a daily prime-time serial, similar to South America's popular telenovelas.
Cable has introduced a whole new arena for soap operas. In January 2000, ABC launched SoapNet, a 24-hour soap opera channel. Cable and direct broadcast satellite have also begun to siphon off some Latino viewers, a younger-than-average segment, as Spanish-language channels such as Telemundo and Univision attract viewers to their telenovelas and their more traditional soap operas.