Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Soap Operas vs. Primetime Dramas

Posted by Claxton on February 20, 2008

*ahem* So yeah..I guess this is my first post…

Firstly, I just want to mention how intriguing this class has become for me! I was sure that something like soap operas wasn’t going to attract my attention as much as it has, but to my surprise, I stand corrected! I think my bar of *expectation* out of soap operas keeps raising with each and every week…

But enough rambling..on to the soap analyzations!!

I believe the definition of a soap opera is constantly changing with each and every year of new breakthroughs in the “rules of soaps” But I still believe that despite the evolution of soap operas, there is a pretty clear barrier that separates it from the so-called “primetime soap operas” or just a popular television drama:

1) Frankly, soaps are not cheerful television. As mentioned in Modleski’s piece..(or was it the Newcomb?…eep) soaps are very dark and essentially revolve around misery and detrimental occurrences within the plot. In fact, it seems the writers can never “lighten-up” on the seriousness and dramatics that soap characters must endure. On the other hand, even the most serious of primetime dramas usually are dark comedies, just to offset the grim nature of the plot. For instance, shows such as Desperate Housewives or even Grey’s Anatomy, often implement comic relief to brighten things up when things get grim. Now, don’t get me wrong, soaps use comic relief very well too, but not in the extent that primetime soaps do. Furthermore, seldom does the viewer have a hearty laugh while watching soaps. (Unless, of course, you have a twisted sense of humor that kicks in watching others wallow in misery as they find themselves in one crazy predicament after the other) Contrarily, primetime soaps/dramas use comedy to their advantage, and usually attracts the viewer just as much as the dramatics do.

2) Since soaps are never-ending and air so frequently, if a newcomer to the series seeks to “jump-in” it’s not difficult. Some of the longest running soaps such as Guiding Light and ATWT have been running for decades now. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to have seen EVERY SINGLE EPISODE AIRED from day one. It’s just unlikely and probably very difficult to accomplish. In addition to their long running status (and unlike primetime shows) soaps do not have seasons or any clear boundaries of start and finish; they air year around. This could make it very difficult for new viewers of the show to gain a sense of what is going on, as well as a desire to get into the show (for having missed decades of episodes). As a solution to this, soaps have to stagger multiple plotlines at once, jumping between them fairly quickly. This slows the progression of each sub plot. By doing so, the show is able to build even more intrigue by sometimes weaving two seemingly unrelated stories together, forming a new plot….in possibly a new direction. The plots also must be somewhat easy to follow, and the characters often have to explain a lot of the past and background interactions in order to aid new viewers on the story. Virtually, every show aired has to be treated almost as a “pilot episode” just for the sake of new viewers that want in on soap. Primetime shows, as mentioned previously, have defined beginnings and endings (seasons) and often times a viewer has to start from the beginning to catch every detail. Many times shows such as LOST or Desperate Housewives have brief recaps at the start of each episode, but that is all. Soaps usually rely the recapping upon the dialogues of the characters.

3) This point is more opinion based than the previous two, but I still feel that holds much validity in this comparison. I feel that in order to be on TV, one has to have some level of aesthetic that is *pleasing* to the audience’s eye. (To be frank, no one wants to look at ugly people on TV) It sounds extremely shallow, but what I’m getting at is that many soap stars have to be glamorous in order to capture the for which the show is aiming. The viewer base of a soap opera is also much different from many primetime shows. This fact is dependent on which primetime drama you are speaking of, but I’m sure it holds for a substantial amount of the primtime dramas on TV now. For this reason, soaps have to be glamorous. They have to portray an image of beauty and eliteness, at least when it comes to aesthetics. Shows such as LOST where the survivors of a plane crash have spent 100 days desserted island, the pristine and beautiful nature of the characters is not preserved. (it just can’t be in order for the show to be realistic) But the character development is much more independent from aesthetics in dramas than in soaps. (at least IMO)…which brings me to my last point.

4) Soaps are HIGHLY unrealistic. I could write an entire blog entry on this point, but I’ll condense it for times sake. There have been countless time manipulation and action sequences in ATWT that made me just want to tilt my head to the side, squint and say “HUH?!” Soap plots, just aren’t real, but they aren’t supposed to be. That is the beauty of soap operas. It’s not about the “how” and the schematics of characters managing to carry out each action doing it in a realistic manner. I’ts more about the “what” and the “why,” or rather, the overall scheme of the plot. This IMO is one of the largest differences between primetime TV and soap operas. Their focuses on delivering a great production function upon two different wavelengths.

This is just a few of probably COUNTLESS reasons why soap operas thrive despite being different from primetime television. One could even argue that primetime television is ephemeral while soaps are everlasting for a reason. Why do you think that is? Hopefully this semester I will find out! 🙂


10 Responses to “Soap Operas vs. Primetime Dramas”

  1. fourfourteenam said

    A huge difference between primetime soaps and soap operas in general is that there is a sense of resolution at the end of every prime time episode even if the story line is ongoing, whether it’s a group of friends sitting together enjoying coffee showing the solidarity of their friendship, or a voiceover reiterating the lessons a character has learned. Primetime shows use cliffhangers sparingly, whereas soaps use them at the end of every episode for every story line and a mega mega cliffhanger every Friday to ensure you continue watching next week.

  2. samford said

    Claxton, a few points that you make. You point out that soaps are both easy to get involved with and also difficult, both because plots are always meant to attract new viewers and allow them in, while the history of the show also means there’s so much they don’t know. First of all, I think it’s clear that soaps just won’t be able to attract intense viewers who really must “know it all.” There’s just too much text for any one person to master it. But I’d also say that it’s probably hard to get really into a soap and become a long-term regular viewer without some social relationship around the show. As you’ve seen, in the standard viewing with just the seven or so of us the first couple of rounds, there are questions almost every minute or two trying to make sense again of who is who and when myriad characters not even on the show currently are referenced. Perhaps a “tour guide” is a key part of soap opera viewing, which means that the relationships among viewers are key to the show, just as relationships between characters are a key function of the texts on screen.

    Second, interesting that you point out that soaps have to be more about beautiful people than primetime shows. Again, this is a complex issue. Of course, many would argue that it’s aesthetics working AGAINST soaps, when it comes to production budgets, compared to primetime shows. But several make the argument that the attractiveness of actors matters quite a lot in daytime, since close-ups of faces are a major part of the story. Of course, people likewise argue the same for any featured character on primetime, and the nature of soaps make almost everyone a featured character, so it’s hard to make the direct comparison. No doubt, though, that looks matter in daytime casting.

    On the other hand, a show like ATWT probably has more key characters over 50 than any other show in daytime or primetime, and in that way is more diverse than many other shows in the physical attributes of those depicted. ATWT has several characters who are in their late 60s or above and while several aren’t featured on a regular basis, the genre is probably singular in the percentage of senior citizens in contracted full-time acting roles…

    Finally, re: realism, we will likely discuss this quite a bit more. One thing that fascinates me when watching both primetime shows and films is that, when an unrealistic moment seems to be coming up, they can always just jump-cut to the next day. Often, I am left wondering, after a particularly tense exchange happens between characters, what in the world they would have said for the rest of dinner, etc. But the show can just jump-cut to later in the week and never address that question. The nature of soap scenes often mean that they deal with what one would say next, and I’d say that sometimes creates awkward moments or unrealistic moments, especially surrounding situations like the hostage crisis, etc. Just some food for thought, but we should continue discussing this aspect of soaps throughout the semester.

  3. ernestalba said

    Perhaps there is one similarity we can count on between daytime and primetime television drama. To my knowledge, primetime television has not risen to the caliber of writing that receives the kind of textual analysis given to “bona fide” masterpieces in other media like painting, sculpture, music, literature, etc. Of course, neither has daytime drama. This small similarity masks a larger one: both primetime and daytime have one objective in mind, if not to enlighten humanity, then to manipulate it. As Allen puts it in Speaking of Soap Operas, from the perspective of the producer, the reader is “a prize to be captured and a subject to be swayed.” (I would argue that this is the aim of high art as well, but that’s just me).

  4. samford said

    One thing that Bobby Allen points out in his essay, which I think is illuminating toward the point you are making here, is that radio and television, because of their commercial nature, really allowed for serialized programming in a way that previous texts hadn’t. A market had been developed for books, but that was about creating a commodity that could be sold to consumers. When you enter a storytelling world where the consumer is, in reality, the advertiser looking to buy an audience for their product, the goal shifts from trying to get people to purchase a complete story to rather telling a story in a way that gets audiences present so you can sell them to advertisers. In that case, the economic incentive of radio created the climate for serialized storytelling in a way that was further developed through television.

  5. lynn liccardo said

    regarding realism of soaps, this is something that has changed a great deal over the years. for the record, i started soaps, mostly p&g, when i was in grammer school in the mid-1950s. (you can do the arithmeic:) at that time most soaps looked very much like “real life,” albeit heightened. how and why that changed, and what it means for the future of soaps is the subject of great debate.

    unfortunately, there’s not much opportunity to see anything more than snippets of what have come to be called “classic soaps,” which, of course, makes it difficult to get an accurate of the full range of soaps. however, should you have you have access to soapnet and a dvr, take a look at ryan’s hope, which ran on abc from 1975-1989, take a look. of course, keep in mind that rh reflected the realism of the 1970s, but the relationships it portrayed among members of a close-knit irish-american family in new york city still resonates.

  6. samford said

    Great to see you, Lynn, and look forward to your joining us in person. Officially, in class, we’re following a single soap for the semester, but we are trying to watch some “vintage ATWT” along the way as well. As far as “soap opera realism,” or “classic soaps,” what era do you think best emphasizes what this show can be?

  7. lynn liccardo said

    that’s a tough one. certainly, the marland years — the whole tom-margo-hal-barbara story i referenced in my response to patrick’s super couple post last week — it’s the last comment of 65.


    the problem is what i mentioned above. how to you capture the realism of a story that ran over years, and could still be revived today, by showing just a few episodes? how do you establish the context of what you’re showing?

    another possibility, if you can get enough episodes, is the andy’s alcholism, which led to bob, who was feeling neglected because kim was spending so much time with andy’s father, john dixon, to have an affair with susan stewart, who decades ago had an affair with dan stewart, who was in love with kim…

  8. dakotacelt said

    Good day,

    I started watching daytime serials in the 1980s with the airing of Search for Tomorrow. I have watched ATWT and GL off and on for years along with OLTL, Classic Days, and Santa Barbara. One of my favorite couples from ATWT is Craig and Lyla. It is from the 1980s. The longevity of shows like ATWT and others is the diversity of characters and creativity in stories. I have scene some incredible stories over the years ranging from the hilarious to gut-wrenching.

    I will say this, Douglas Marland was an incredible writer.

  9. dakotacelt said

    Lynn, I also liked Tom and Margo.

  10. samford said

    Did you mean Lyla and Casey, or Craig and Betsy? Or Craig and Sierra?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: