Studying Soap Operas

By Soukup, Paul A. | Communication Research Trends, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Studying Soap Operas


Soukup, Paul A., Communication Research Trends


1. Introduction

Soap operas have held a place of interest both in popular broadcasting and in communication research for over 70 years. A genre begun in the United States and spread throughout the world (Cox, 2005, p. 3), the soap started on the radio in the early 1930s and proved itself quite an enduring and popular kind of programming--radio soap operas continued broadcasting in the United States until 1960 (p. 14) and remain on the air in some countries to this day. But with the development of television in United States, the genre transferred to the new medium, with many of the same programs adapted for television. Soap operas occupy an important part of scheduled television programming on both terrestrial and satellite distribution around the world.

Communication Research Trends last reviewed research on soap operas over 25 year ago (Frey-Vor, 1990a, 1990b) in Volume 10, Number 1 and Number 2. The first essay offered a lengthy definition of soap operas and telenovelas and then looked at studies focused on the content of the soap operas, on the generic qualities of the soap operas, and on the ways soap operas resembled myth or folktale. Frey-Vor (1990a) then reviewed the research that examined motivations for viewing soap operas in the uses and gratifications tradition and their effects in the cultivation tradition. She described audience characteristics, particularly of women, students, and young people. Reviewing some studies that used ethnographic methods, she then described female viewers of soap operas based on detailed descriptions of home viewing. Finally, she summarized work on how audiences interpreted soap operas, appealing to early reception analysis. The second part (Frey-Vor, 1990b) reviewed work on production processes, national and international media culture, and soap operas for development and education. Three years later Trends (Volume 13, No. 4) returned with an update on soap operas and telenovelas (Mazziotti, 1993). That brief note focused mostly on reception studies and added material on soap operas from different countries and on the varied production models at work.

This present issue of Communication Research Trends will focus on research about soap operas published in the last 15 years, that is, from the year 2000 to the present. This more recent research shows one key difference: the interest in soap opera has become worldwide. This appears in the programs that people listen to or watch and in communication researchers who themselves come from different countries.

A. Some characteristics of soap operas

Scholars describe the soap operas in a number of different ways: they represent a serial format with programs continuing from one day to the next; they may take the form of a series of programs; they tend to feature similar plot lines. Each of the formats includes continuing characters and a continuing story. Soap operas themselves often feature melodramatic storylines, with the additional focus on the home and family, and appeal primarily to female viewers. cox describes 10 storylines, beginning in the radio world that still mark soap operas:

1. The woman who struggles to maintain orderliness and provide for her [family] against imposing odds ...

2. The woman who faces staggering career challenges pitted against the heartrending tug of being a wife and/or mother or sweetheart ...

3. The woman who hails from a nondescript background and marries several rungs above her social strata ...

4. The woman, while married, who is thrust into a romantic triangle ...

5. A woman who attempts to successfully moderate intergenerational or second spouse conflicts that arise within a family ...

6. A male or female protagonist who is generally recognized as a helping-hand figure, to whom everyone else appeals for problem solving, proffering good-natured tips and sage advice and occasionally even assisting in bringing wrongdoers to justice--all of this while processing acute doses of personal adversity . …

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