Soap Operas: Long May They Live
By BroadCasting & Cable Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/13/2005 7:00:00 PM
Sometimes, all it takes is a glimpse to get hooked. The subsequent addiction can last for decades. And even if the daily habit is broken, memories remain so vivid and impressions so strong that simple passing exposure many years later can trigger familiar behavior and ignite interest anew.
So it is with daytime drama, an enduring programming genre that has somehow managed to master the art of long-term survival despite mounting competition from multiple media and the distractions of modern lifestyles.
Fox's The Simpsons may be marking its 16th season, but Guiding Light just began its 53rd year on CBS (after 14 years as a radio serial that debuted in 1937); CBS' As the World Turns will start its 49th year in April; ABC's General Hospital will mark its 42nd anniversary that month; and NBC's Days of Our Lives turns 40 in November.
Literally created to market soap and other consumer products directly to housewives, daytime television serials came alive and thrived during the suburban sprawl of the 1950s and '60s, when members of their target demographic—married women with children—spent most days at home as full-time wives and mothers. They were enthralled by stories largely centered on adult women facing seemingly insurmountable challenges in pursuit of romance and matrimony.
The General Hospital transfusion
Much has changed since the humble beginnings of the genre. In the '70s, the arrival of ABC's All My Children and CBS' The Young and the Restless signaled a shift in the strategy of soap-opera storytelling. These shows were targeted to both adults and teenagers, with adolescent characters featured in primary roles. But it was General Hospital that would forever change the world of daytime drama in 1977, when it was transformed from a tired traditional serial into a powerhouse of contemporary storytelling. The love story of Luke and Laura became a phenomenon, and since that time, virtually every soap opera has focused much of its creative energy on similarly conflicted young couples.
Social consciousness...and sexiness
The soaps have gone through disparate creative and cultural phases over the decades. But daytime dramas have also bravely and realistically addressed such social issues as abortion, homosexuality, breast cancer and AIDS.
If there is one thing about soap operas that hasn't changed during the past 50 years, it is their emphasis on romantic relationships and sexual exploits, two key components of their timeless appeal. These narrative elements were discreetly conveyed decades ago, but overt sex and skin were in once the soaps started targeting teens. In recent years, daring soap producers began filming ever-hotter sex scenes, showing as much flesh and foreplay as standards and practices would allow. In 2003, Guiding Light went so far as to reveal the bare backside of one of its young actors and, in a side view, the nearly nude body of one of its female players.
And then came Janet Jackson's controversial wardrobe malfunction during the 2003 Super Bowl halftime show. Before the full impact of that critical moment was realized, Guiding Light served up another sexy scene in which a young woman pulled down a young man's underwear, partly revealing his buttocks. A controversy erupted, and, for the first time in years, the soaps began toning down their sexcapades.
How long will that last? Maybe not long at all. Recently on All My Children, a young man and woman indulged in an erotically charged bath. But carefully placed bubbles kept the censors at bay.
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