soap operas

soap operas
   Soap operas were first developed by American detergent companies as radio promotional tools. Their lack of narrative closure and cliffhanger endings rewarded the sponsors with a devoted audience eager for the next (advertisement interspersed) instalment. The modern soap opera still maintains the original structure of varied conflicts and resolutions amidst an indefinitely ongoing whole. Its most successful examples balance escapist fantasy with identifiable everyday events timed at a rate that will maintain the interest of its viewers. Daytime soaps are traditionally cosier and slower in pace, while prime-time broadcasts are more action packed.
   The first British soap, The Robinsons, appeared on the radio in 1942. It was devised for listeners of the BBC’s North American Service, but became popular with British audiences as well. Britain’s longest running soap opera, The Archers, has been broadcast on Radio 4 since 1950. Its nearest television equivalent in longevity, Coronation Street, began in 1960. Unlike its grittier rivals Brookside and EastEnders, Coronation Street aims to be more light-hearted and amusing.
   British soaps have centred on both working and middle-class people. Their locations vary from rural, urban and suburban environments of the north and south of England, Scotland (Take the High Road) and Wales (the Welsh language Pobol y Cwm (People of the Valley)).
   In the 1970s and 1980s, glitzy American imports such as Dallas and Dynasty became popular in Britain. In comparison with their homely British counterparts, their storylines were distinctly more fantastical. Australian daytime soaps have also drawn large audiences, particularly Neighbours and Home and Away.
   The habitual degradation of soaps, often provoked by cheap production values, hastily devised scripts, ill-rehearsed acting and lowly women’s genre’ status, frequently induces viewer guilt. Although soap’s traditional targeting of housewives often entails a stereotypical melodramatic treatment, it also offers its women viewers an unqualified range of well-developed female characters.
   Soap opera increasingly invites multitudinous viewing practices. From intense involvement to detached mockery, its audience comes to regard its regularity as an enjoyable habit. Sustained contact can provide a comforting sense of intimacy and community that is not available from other programmes. Soap operas have become valued focal points for discussion and social interaction. By airing common (and normally considered private) problems, they encourage their viewers to voice their own opinions on these issues. The impact of soap characters’ actions on those of viewers is also a recurrent issue in forums concerned with media ethics.
   Further reading
    Kilborn, R. (1992) Television Soaps, London: B.T. Batsford.
   KAY DICKINSON

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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