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Understanding Soaps

jeremy | Thursday September 24, 2009

Categories: Television, Soaps, Understanding Media, Understanding Key Topics

What is a Soap Opera?

A soap opera is an ongoing, open ended, multi-strand, fictionalised, drama serial on radio or television. It can be broadcast daily or twice or more weekly.

The main quality that defines a soap is that it is a serial. A serial narrative is a story told through a series of separate, but linked episodes. British soaps expect to continue broadcasting for the foreseeable future and so have no end as such. Occasionally soaps stop performing well enough for the broadcasting institution and so end – e.g C4 Brookside (1982- 2003)

Each serial episode is multi-stranded and leaves narrative loose ends for the next episode to continue, and usually the episode ends with a narrative cliffhanger that keeps the viewer in suspense until the next episode.

The audience has a special relationship with the major characters in a serial, as it has a chance to get to know them over the weeks and years. Serial characters do change across episodes and they get older and occasionally die.

The main drivers in a modern soap are the relationships between the characters.

On BBC Radio 4The Archers is broadcast every week day. On television soaps include ITV’s Coronation Street and Emmerdale, BBC’s Eastenders and C4’s Hollyoaks.


Soap operas started on the radio in America and in South America where they were wildly popular in the 1930s. Radio companies developed a serial format of popular fiction that attracted female listeners at home. Commercial companies including detergent manufacturers wanted to advertise their new products to this expanding consumer audience.

The term ‘soap opera’ was coined by the American press in the 1930s to describe these extraordinarily popular melodramatic radio serials, which by 1940, accounted for 90% of commercially-sponsored daytime broadcast hours. The sponsors were usually soap manufacturers, hence the term soap opera.

When commercial television started in the UK in the fifties...

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