For free TV show fans, soap operas had been, are and will always be on top of their list as the pinnacle of television drama. The concrete proof is that soap operas all over the world are among the highest-rated, if not the highest-rated, among all the other shows in all the other genres.
In the U.S. and UK, they also hold the record as being the longest-running TV shows in history, beating all shows in all categories, including lavishly-produced one-shot TV specials and others.
Of late, the “telenovela” produced in Latin America and exported all over the globe, is the current holder of the most-watched television program in the world with over 2 billion avid viewers.
What’s a soap opera?
Soap operas started as radio drama serials with soap makers as their main sponsors. These are presented as serials or a continuing long narrative story, usually aired during weekdays aimed at female listeners, mostly housewives.
Later, it was only a matter of time that this popular radio drama format got transplanted on TV, this time with visuals. The move earned the soap opera more fans.
What makes a soap opera different from the other drama formats is its open-ended narrative. Each episode ends with some kind of a cliffhanger, promising that the story continues in another episode.
The other distinction that soap operas are famous for is the presence of all kinds of storytelling devices borrowed from ancient times to the present – chance meetings, coincidences, last-minute rescues, sudden revelations, surprising change of minds, and “deux ex machine” endings. All of these devices are, of course, hated and reviled by other writers, mostly the so-called ‘literary’ writers.
However, this open plot narrative and continuity devices have seeped into mainstream primetime drama series like Hill Street Blues all the way to Friends and The West Wing. They all feature ensemble cast and intertwined multiple storylines.
Recent hits include Lost, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy. Their appeal seems not just centered on the melodrama but also on the occasional humor in the stories.
Recession and decline
In their heydays, soap operas used to lord it over the ratings and held it in record number of years, unsurpassed even up to now. Guiding Light, a radio drama in 1937 and transferred to television in 1952, holds the distinction of being the longest running soap ever.
Still going on after more than 45 years are General Hospital and As The World Turns. In 1986, Eastenders (UK) became the highest-rated soap opera episode ever with more than 30 million viewers out of 54 million TV sets.
However, the economic recession took its toll on everything, including soap operas. The downward trend had already begun in early 2000 and continued unabated till today.
One by one, they all fell down. NBC cancelled Passions in 2007, and announced Days of Our Lives might not last in 2009. Guiding Light, the longest running show in TV history got cancelled after barely making only a million and a half viewers everyday.
The other endangered shows include All My Children, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, The Bold and The Beautiful and As the World Turns.
The main culprit is the dismally low number of viewers. Added to the misfortune was the 2008 economic recession. Most of their advertising monies come from the automotive industry, one of the hardest hit in the current economic downturn.
Other causes helped in the decline of soap opera viewers, the biggest of which is competition – the Internet, cable, the movies, other portable entertainment devices, etc.
Also, in contrast to all the past years up to today, there seems to be a continuing trend in the dwindling of the number of stay-at-home audiences (mostly women) which is the main market for soap operas.
The fans of free TV shows are now wringing their hands in true soap operatic fashion, watching and worried about their favorite soap operas, and reading the usual credit end-line tag: “What happens next? Who’s going to save them all? Tune in tomorrow!”
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