Throughout television history, there have been various periods that have produced some of the most memorable shows. These different periods are commonly referred to as “eras” and are widely considered to be the turning points for specific genres of television and the medium as a whole. These eras tend to revolve around a specific trend in television programming, rather than an exact year and month. The birth of the soap opera is one such era that has become so strongly associated with this type of show that it’s often difficult for people to imagine soaps having existed at any other point in history. Read on to learn more about the ascent of the soap opera and its transformation from radio serial to primetime television mainstay.
The Golden Age: 1950-1975
The Golden Age of the soap opera is defined by the rise of television as a medium and the widespread adoption of the soap opera format. While many daytime serials had been broadcast on radio for years, it wasn’t until the 1940s and the rise of television that daytime soap operas would become a staple of daily television programming. The first soap opera to be broadcast on television was 1946’s The Brighter Day, which aired on the NBC network. The genre experienced a significant rise in popularity during the 1950s and ‘60s, with shows like The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and All My Children gaining an enormous following. Many of these early soap operas were broadcast live, as the technology to tape and edit television programs did not yet exist. This was a common practice for many early television shows, as editing shows was much more difficult and involved back then. The Golden Age of the soap opera is primarily defined by the wide adoption of the genre and the standardization of its format. It is during this time that many of the most common tropes of the genre were established, as soap operas were still primarily intended to be specifically designed to advertise products. It is also during this time that soap operas were commonly referred to as “soap operas”, which was intended to be a satirical comment on the fact that most of these shows were sponsored by soap companies.
The Dark Ages: 1975-1995
The Dark Ages of the soap opera are a rather strange period that saw the genre fall out of popularity and almost go extinct in the United States. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact start date for this era, as it seems to blend into both the Golden Age and the rise of the soap opera in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. The most prominent change in the soap opera during this period is the fact that the soap opera genre began to more commonly be associated with the “melodramatic” style of storytelling. This style of storytelling is characterized by exaggerated characterizations, unrealistic plots, and a focus on the “silly” elements of a story (such as the existence of overly absurd coincidences and villains who always get their comeuppance in the end). This was a significant departure from the “realistic” storytelling that had characterized the early years of the soap opera, as many of the soap operas that were being produced during this period were considered to be extremely silly and ridiculous. This change in tone was attributed to the fact that many of the soap operas that were being produced during the Dark Ages were being broadcast during primetime to fill out network schedules, whereas many of the original soap operas had been produced for daytime. This change in scheduling resulted in a change in tone, as the networks were more interested in producing more dramatic programming during primetime as opposed to the silly daytime soap operas. This shift in tone also resulted in a decline in ratings, as many of the soap operas that were being produced at this period were considered to be extremely ridiculous and melodramatic.
Rebuilding and refining the genre: 1995-2010
The rebirth of the soap opera during the late ‘80s and ‘90s is often referred to as the “Reawakening” of the genre. This was a period of significant change for the soap opera, as the format and tone of the genre began to shift once again. This period saw the soap opera begin to shed its melodramatic tone and return to being a more everyday and realistic type of show. This change in tone was attributed to the fact that many of the writers and producers who had been involved with the soap opera during its Golden Age had been brought back to produce these new incarnations of the genre. This new breed of soap operas was also more targeted toward women than the soap operas of the past had been, with many of these shows being produced specifically for daytime women’s programming. This period saw the rise of shows like The Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless, which would become some of the most well-known soap operas in the world.