It was a year after the 1956 premiere at Central City Opera of Douglas Moore’s popular The Ballad of Baby Doe and plans were afoot for the opera’s Broadway production. The composer was busy, cutting Baby Doe down to an hour for the upcoming live studio version of ABC-TV’s Omnibus series and was deeply involved in that production. Possibly the heady experience of working in television helped inspire Moore’s creation of the chamber work Gallantry, a parody of a medical soap opera, soon afterwards. But in a 1961 article that he wrote for Opera News, the composer described how he came to write the piece this way:
“…a real wonderful idea came to me from a friend. Why not write a real soap opera? The television soap opera is so much a part of American civilization that a real one, complete with commercials and corn, might hold great appeal for audiences. I asked Arnold Sundgaard again to collaborate with me, and the whole venture was a delight to us both.”
By 1957 it seems, the American entertainment phenomenon known as the soap opera had entered the mainstream so completely, it had achieved iconic status – it was “a part of American civilization.”
The rise of the soap opera started innocuously enough. In 1930, a Chicago radio station manager proposed a new kind of program designed to appeal to women listeners, a 15-minute radio serial. He pitched it first to a detergent company (the “soap” in “soap opera”) and then a manufacturer of margarine and they agreed to try it. Painted Dreams focused on the conversations “Mother” Moynihan had with her unmarried daughter and their female boarder in which “Mother” dispensed humorous homilies and advice. The show appeared to be a success although it took time to figure out how to measure audience interest scientifically. When they finally did, broadcasters and advertisers nation-wide realized what a goldmine “soap operas” were. By 1937, soap operas dominated the radio airwaves, attracting large corporate sponsors such as Proctor and Gamble, Pillsbury, and General Foods.
By WWII, listeners could chose from 64 different daytime radio soap operas. Sponsors continued to advertise even when their products were unavailable due to wartime rationing. By 1948, the ten highest-rated daytime radio programs were soaps. The popular non-serial Arthur Godfrey took a dismal twelfth place.
The advent of television further fueled soap opera popularity. Proctor and Gamble premiered the first television soap in 1950, The First One Hundred Years, but they ran into trouble when the costs of a live daily televised show proved triple that of radio production. And no one was sure whether women who listened to the radio shows while cleaning house would devote more attention to actually watching a show on TV.
But by 1960, with CBS’s successful TV serial Guiding Light, soaps were positioned for a virtual Renaissance. The last radio soap opera went off the air in November of 1960. Television soap operas now occupied half-hour slots and the race was on the break CBS’s monopoly over the medium. Finally in 1963, ABC and CBS broke through with The Doctors and General Hospital respectively. Such shows, which originated on radio, continued the hugely popular sub-genre of the “medical soap”, with conflict among traditional family characters in home settings replaced by the trials of doctors, nurses, and patients in the more crisis-driven environment of a hospital.
The late 1960s and early 1970s represent the apex of popularity for the classic television soap opera. Confident of viewer loyalty and wanting to reflect the vast changes happening in the real world, writers felt emboldened to experiment with content, exploring tensions of class, ethnicity, and race. Story lines became more daring in their handling of sexual liaisons.
By the early 1970s, all three networks were airing ten hours of soaps every weekday. But by then the most popular soaps had been on the air for more than two decades. Women were entering the workplace in unprecedented numbers. Viewership decreased. The most loyal viewers were “aging out” of the prime demographic group that sponsors demanded. New viewership lagged. By the 1980s, with the advent of videotape recording and distribution of content by satellite and cable, the audience for network-sponsored soap operas declined even more radically. In the 1990’s, sponsors gravitated to the more popular “Talk-show” formats. Such shows were cheaper to produce and captured more of the essential audience demographics. In the 2000’s, the Internet, content streaming, and reality television signaled the final demise of most of the soaps. Today only four survive – Days of our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless, and General Hospital. The once beloved classic soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, were briefly revived on-line in 2013. Both were cancelled that same year.
Central City Opera’s 2017 production of Gallantry opens on Wednesday, July 26 and runs through August 4. For tickets and more information, please visit https://centralcityopera.org/event/gallantry.
History of “The Soaps” was written by Valerie Smith for Central City Opera’s Opera Insider. For more in-depth articles like this one, check out Opera Insider at https://centralcityopera.org/events/opera-insider.