Soap Operas: Long May They Live

An Appreciation

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
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
and CBS' The Young and the
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
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

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.