April 13, 2015
Soap operas, first broadcast on the radio in 1930, are often considered the redheaded stepchild of television. They are something one fondly (or not so fondly) remembers watching with a mother or a grandmother, or when home sick from school.
But this wasn’t always the case. During the 1952-53 television season, CBS’ “Search for Tomorrow” set the soap opera record at a 16.1 ranking.
In 1981, when Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married, so were Luke and Laura of ABC’s “General Hospital.” The super couple’s wedding was watched by 30 million viewers.
Soap operas had their heyday in the 1980s and have since died out among American viewers. Fans today rarely make themselves known, except in social media, where they can obsess about their favorite soap opera without being ridiculed.
As a lifelong soap opera fan, I know this from experience. I watched my first soap, NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” at a very young age. It was my mother’s show.
It took me years to admit that I would rush home to catch the latest shenanigans of the townspeople of “General Hospital.”
Why the shame? For all its faults, there are many good things about soap operas.
Infamous for amnesia, rape, bringing people back from the dead, brainwashing, affairs and evil twins, it is often overlooked that soaps are also known for exploring controversial social issues before primetime television dared to do so.
In 1995, “General Hospital” told the groundbreaking story of Stone and Robin. 17-year old Robin, whom viewers had watched mature since she was seven, fell in love with Stone. He was diagnosed with HIV/ AIDS and died.
Robin then learned she was HIV positive. According to the In Media Res website, “By making an established character HIV positive, ‘General Hospital’ brought HIV/AIDS directly into viewers’ homes at a time when misinformation and prejudice was rampant.”
ABC’s “All My Children,” tackled taboo issues like abortion, homosexuality, rape and the Vietnam War. Recently, CBS’ “The Bold and the Beautiful” introduced a transgender character.
Many Hollywood A-listers began in the soap opera genre: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Demi Moore, John Stamos and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
While the genre does have a number of characters that badly need acting lessons, there are many fantastic actors that are sadly overlooked.
One of the unique things about soap operas is that viewers get to see their favorite characters or families every weekday over the course of decades.
My favorite character of all-time, Elizabeth Webber of “General Hospital,” was introduced as a teenager in 1997 and is still on. My first favorite character, Sami Brady of “Days of Our Lives,” grew from 16 to 37 before my eyes.
For the most part, the families that have been watched for so long remain on the screen.
Save for news programs, no other television show has beaten this record, not even “Doctor Who.” The closest was “The Wonderful World of Disney,” which ran for 54 years.
Soap operas deserve a ton more credit than is given, so do yourself a favor and watch. You might just learn.