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A Brief Overview and List of the Most Popular Daytime Soaps

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A Brief Overview and List of the Most Popular Daytime Soaps

Time Magazine Cover - Covering the industry of soap operas

Copyright Time Magazine, 2013
The Early Life and History of Soap Operas
A Brief Overview and List of the Most Popular Daytime Soaps

It was over eighty years ago, back in the 1930’s, that the term “soap opera” was first used by members of the American press to describe some of the first radio shows being produced and sponsored by companies of cleaning products. Since that time soap operas have certainly gone through many transformations, from the early days of radio broadcasting to full one-hour television formats, and more recently into a new online format using Hulu and iTunes


Soap operas have not only been a part of American life, as some tend to think, but they have also played a large part of television history throughout many international countries as well.

So what makes a show a “soap opera”?

Basically a soap opera is a continuous or serial narrative in which a story is played out through connected episodes. A major feature of the traditional soap opera means each episode is opened ended, and leaves loose ends with the premise it will be continued in future installments. The term “cliffhanger” is often used when referring to soaps and became even more prominent in the 1980’s. During this time, CBS coined the advertising catchphrase, ”Who Shot J.R.?”, which referred to the murder mystery cliffhanger of the 1979/1980 season ending episode of Dallas. The huge success of this stunt by CBS dramatically impacted the use of how cliffhangers were used in television series, and is still a part of today’s most popular dramas.

The Soap Opera is Born – on Radio?

Radio Historian, Francis Chase Jr., credits the early 1930’s radio show, The Smith Family, as the “great-granddaddy” of soap operas, which was only broadcast in Chicago on WENR. However, many credit The Guiding Light, which debuted on NBC radio in 1937, as the first pioneer of the daytime soap opera. During World War II, sixty-four other daytime series were being broadcast each week, and by 1948, the ten highest rated daytime broadcasts on the radio were soap operas.

On June 30, 1952, CBS Television aired the first soap opera on American television sets when The Guiding Light began their four-year transition from radio to TV. By the early 1960’s, there were no more radio soaps being broadcast in the United States, and soaps were now strictly broadcast on television.

The Soap Opera Television Boom

After the 1952 premiere of The Guiding Light, it was not long after when soap operas became a regular part of network daytime television. CBS first lead the way into daytime dramas with the introduction of As the World Turns and The The Edge of Night. By 1963, both NBC and ABC recognized the immense popularity of soap operas and began production for their own networks. On April 1, 1963, both networks premiered their new daytime drama, with NBC’s The Doctors and ABC’s General Hospital. By the late 1960’s, soap operas not only demonstrated to be popular, but proved to be very profitable for the networks that produced them. By the time the 1970’s rolled around, the big three networks tackled dramatic competition in gaining their share for the soap opera viewer of the 14 to 19 soaps, which were on the air during this time period. In the 1980’s with the change of viewer demographics and more women in the workplace, soaps opera began to focus their attention more on the younger viewers, including teenagers and college students. The 1980’s also became the time period with the expansion of primetime soaps, with the highly successful hits such as, Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Knots Landing.

Between 1990 and 1999, there was an average of 10 to 12 soap operas which continued to air on daytime television, and no significant down turn was seen. However, the last daytime soap created for network television was Passions in 1999.

The decline of soap operas has made a significant fall since the mid to late 2000’s, and today there are only four network soaps still on the air. Many contribute the soap opera decline over the past few years to the popularity of reality programming, and other daytime alternatives such as talk and game shows, which are also 50% cheaper to produce verses daytime dramas. Cable television and the countless channels available to subscribers has also played a large part in the decline of network soaps as more viewers look for new sources of daytime entertainment.

The primetime return of TNT’s Dallas, and the popularity of several other primetime dramas, such as ABC’s Revenge, may bring a new spark of interest to the next generation of soap opera viewers. Many longtime soap opera fans are putting their hopes that soap operas, like many other television genres, are just currently in the midst of a restoration and are anxiously waiting for a new beginning.

Some of the most popular daytime soap operas in television history include:

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