A soap opera is a sub-genre of the television genre: serial drama. Soap operas were originally American radio dramas, sponsored by washing soap powder brands. Producers prefer to call them serial dramas as this gives the sub-genre a more professional and serious identity. However, they are also more commonly identified as soap operas, because this is a more original and recognised name. This also makes it clear that it is a sub-genre of the genre: serial drama.
Soap operas have several characteristics, which determine their difference from the other sub-genres under serial dramas. They are set in real time so that life in the serial drama is more realistic and relates to the audience. For instance, if it is Christmas time, so will it be Christmas too in the soap opera.
What is more, soap operas also contain recognisable theme tunes, which play at the beginning of an episode. This is because a recognisable song can easily be associated with a soap making viewers remember that certain soap opera. Some examples are of the short piano composition at the beginning of Eastenders and the songs from Home and Away and Neighbours.
Furthermore, there are realistic storylines, which are familiar with the audience. For instance, in Eastenders, issues such as dealing with diseases (AIDs, Down syndrome), rape and abortion are addressed. A crucial point about storylines is that they must contain at least three, some of which may be intertwined, with balances of serious, comical and every-day storylines. For instance, in Eastenders, they may be a serious story, such as Billy and Honey’s relationship with their Down syndrome baby; a comical story, including some competitive behaviour between Gary and Minty; then an everyday “run-of-the-mill” story at the market or launderette.
Most of the plots and storylines are also character based; this allows the audience to become more acquainted with each character, causing spectators to participate emotionally with the soap operas, as if the characters are their own friends and neighbours. Some viewers enjoy watching these soap operas because they can identify with the characters with a greater understanding than they would to people in their real life. Producers want the audience to become involved with the characters (that is why there are several, with many different personalities) in order for the viewers to keep watching the soap. For example, in Eastenders, the stereotypical characters are: the man-eater, SJ, the scary boss, Phil Mitchell and the over-worked family man, Ian Beale.
In addition, another important characteristic of soap operas are cliff-hanger endings, which causes the viewer to feel the need to keep watching the soap in order to discover a conclusion to a problem that has risen. An example of this is in Eastenders, when we see a well-known character get run over (such as Jamie Mitchell) and the ending tune is played. This makes the audience want to know if the character has survived or not and makes them want to watch the next episode.
This leads to another characteristic of soaps; them being continuous. Shows such as Eastenders and Coronation Street have been running for decades, with Coronation Street already running, since 1960, for 46 years. The only time a soap opera would end would be if the television network axed it because of poor ratings and funding.
Moreover, soap operas are usually set around a local street or area. These are places where lots of different stories can happen at one time. Examples of such locations are the Old Vic pub in Eastenders or the Coffee Shop in Neighbours. They are also places that the audience can identify with, in their own real lives. These locations are usually of a working class area because the majority of the people who watch soap operas are of a working class status. Hence, the times in which the soaps air are usually after work; in the afternoon or evening.
Overall, the characteristics of a soap opera are generally realistic in order to relate to the audience and keep them watching. However, the characteristics of other soaps in different countries may be similar, but have their differences. This is in order to relate to a different nation of audience, who have a different culture and way of life. For instance, a soap in Australia or America such as Neighbours or Sunset Beach have storylines which address realistic issues like adultery, young marriage and schizophrenia. This, in contrast to British soaps such as Eastenders or Coronation Street, is different because they have glamorous locations, such as beaches and big houses. They also include wealthier characters with higher-status jobs such as lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers. This is a great difference to the road cleaners and launderette service people portrayed in Eastenders.
People tend to watch serial dramas, such as soap operas, because they feel that they can receive pleasure from them. Soap operas represent a great idea of community without the responsibility or chance of conflict: you expect nothing from the virtual community and the community reciprocate this. The viewers’ problems can be related to similar problems on screen, which can help them when trying to solve the problems themselves. For instance, if someone was suffering from a broken down marriage and sees a worse marriage in a soap, they would feel better about their problem. An advantage of watching soap operas is that they can strengthen social relationships with others, as knowledge of a story can be a main topic of discussion. However, a disadvantage may b that some may associate themselves so deeply with a soap, that fiction can be believed to be distorted from fact. An example of this is when actors are sent hate-mail because the audience despise certain characters and do not realise or remember that the character is just an act.
Moreover, people may watch soap operas purely for entertainment or escapism, where seeing worse problems than their own could make them feel better. This relationship of why an audience chooses to watch this type of media is called the ‘uses and gratifications’ approach. For some, soap operas can fulfil personal and psychological needs, as people are able to see themselves reflected in a certain character. Soap operas may use their audience to gain money with high ratings, but the audience equally use soap operas through the ‘uses and gratifications’ theory to obtain pleasure in many different ways.