The soap opera genre originated in radio serials of the 1930s in America and owes its name to the sponsorship of some of these programs by leading soap powder companies. Television soap operas are long-running serials that are concerned with everyday life. Unlike series, where each episode has a self-contained plot and only the characters and format remain the same, a serial has at least one storyline that is carried from one episode to the next.
Soap operas often leave unanswered questions at commercial breaks, include repetition and flashbacks to show elements viewers may have missed and to prompt further contemplation. Successful soaps may run for many years and viewers can join in at any stage. In long-running serials, the passage of time seems to reflect real time for the viewers, with characters aging as the viewers do.
The content of soap operas varies across countries. In North America, soap operas focus more on the rich, while in Great Britain the focus is more on the working class. In Latin America, soap operas are called "telenovelas" and are used as education tools for issues like family planning. After soap operas from North America and Latin America were introduced in some countries, they started producing their own serials. However, these serials do not just copy other soap operas but reflect the countries' own cultural values and social norms.
What most soap operas have in common is that the elements of conflict and family are central. In the late 1960s and 1970s, writers and producers of serials introduced more social issues, including interracial romance, mental illness, homosexuality, AIDS, abortion and alcohol and drug addiction. Soap operas have long included health issues, women's health issues such as breast cancer and systemic lupus erythematosus in particular. Recurrent events in soap operas are courtships, marriages, divorces, disappearances and death. Gossip, which is usually absent from other genres, is a key feature in soap operas and partly acts as a commentary on the action.
Sexual content has been a controversial mainstay of serials since the 1970s, with the frequency of sexual behaviors on soap operas being greater than that on prime-time television. Research has shown that violence in soap operas is less frequent than in prime time. In addition, violence in soaps is mainly verbal, between men and women and between lovers or family members. By contrast, violence in prime time is mostly between men who are strangers and is physical.
Viewers of soap operas are in an omnipresent position because they know more than any character does. The form offers viewers a unique chance to engage in informed speculation about possible turn of events. There is always a wide range of characters in a soap opera and no single character is indispensible. Because of the large cast and the possibility of casual viewers, a typical element of soap operas is the rapid characterization and the use of recognizable "types."
Unlike traditional dramas, soaps do not have a beginning or end and there is little rapid action. They do not build up towards an ending or closure of meaning and the plots are not linear. A soap involves multiple perspectives and no consensus because ambivalence and contradiction are characteristic of the genre. Soap operas delay resolution and make anticipation an end in itself, while dialogue also blurs and delays. This type of narrative has been defined by some feminists as feminine narrative and has been used to explain why soap operas attract mainly women.
Some critics often deride soaps for being full of stereotypes, for having shoddy sets as well as for being badly acted. Viewers of soap operas are characterized unfairly as being escapists. In view of the great popularity of the soap opera genre, such criticism can be considered culturally elitist. While the audience for soaps has always been mostly women, the percentage of male viewers as well as of teenage viewers has increased over time.
There are different views about the extent to which soaps are "reflections of reality." While American soaps are seen (at least by British viewers) as largely in the realms of fantasy, British soaps are more often described in terms of "realism". British soaps value plausibility and credibility more than American prime-time soaps.
Some of the most famous soap operas include the Granada production Coronation Street
, British soap Brookside
, BBC production Eastenders
, American soaps General Hospital
and Days of Our Lives
, and the Australian soap aimed at young people Neighbours