Soap opera history dates back to the days of radio dramas, before television. The reason they are called soap operas is because the radio dramas used to be sponsored by soap companies, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble. During the day, these radio dramas would entertain housewives. When they moved to television in the 1940s, the daytime soap opera tradition continued. Guiding Light is the longest running soap opera, started in 1937 and wrapping up in 2009.
Soap Opera Elements
The themes of soap operas are often melodramatic, scandalous and romantic. With long-running storylines and featured characters who enjoy decades-long plot runs, soap operas have amassed generations of fans. Most daytime soaps have been running for more than 30 years, including All My Children and General Hospital. Some of the actors on these shows have been starring in them for the bulk of their run. Other times, a character featured in the soap has been played by a number of different actors without a break in the story. The audience understands and is used to changes of actor playing the same character.
Daytime soaps all follow the same basic format. They are episodic dramas, where a storyline begun in one show will play out over the course of weeks or months. Most of these shows deal with personal relationships and have clearly defined good and bad characters. The happy couple can expect a schemer to come between them time and again. The successful businessman may be undone by a longtime friend who's a spy for the competition, or by an attractive coworker who tempts him to cheat. If a baby is born, at least two people will claim to be the father.
Soap characters are essentially static; that is, they never learn or change from their experiences. If a mean character suddenly turns nice, it's usually part of a plot to get something. On those rare occasions where a mean character truly becomes nice, expect a false accusation or a tragedy to dredge up the character's past failings and turn her evil again out of frustration.
Soap at Night
Families used to gather around the radio listening to the dramas of their favorite ongoing series play out. Today, soap operas on television serve the same audience. Soaring soap opera ratings for daytime shows led to wave of weekly, hour-long dramas in the 1980s and 1990s that had classic soap elements, including shows like Dynasty, Dallas and Beverly Hills 90210. Several popular shows from the 2000s also have soap opera overtones, including Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Lost and Heroes.