Jump to content

Are soap operas on television too often?

Recommended Posts

  • Members

The Big Question: Are soap operas on television too often, and is the quality suffering?
By Ben Chu

Published: 11 May 2007

Why are we asking this now?

The former chief scriptwriter of EastEnders, Tony Jordan, told The Stage newspaper this week that his old programme is in "the doldrums" artistically and he attributes this to the fact that it is on television too often. "If you're producing two and a half hours of television a week, it's basically a movie a week, and some things suffer," he said.

What constitutes a soap opera?

A proliferation of multi-layered, long-running, drama series with ensemble casts such as The Bill, Casualty and Shameless have blurred the lines between the format of soap opera and drama serial. But there remains a crucial distinction: A soap opera is broadcast constantly and indefinitely, with no gaps between series. So, on the radio, The Archers, qualifies as a soap opera. And on British television, it applies to the likes of Hollyoaks, Emmerdale, Neighbours and Home and Away.

But the two "big beasts" have long been EastEnders, which began in 1985, and, of course, Coronation Street. The latter was first aired by Granada Television in December 1960. It has remained more or less consistently at the top of the British television ratings table ever since.

But are they worth watching?

Critics of the format say they are cheaply produced, poorly written, and reliant on ludicrous plot devices designed to satisfy the constant need for "cliff-hanger" endings. The supporters of soaps say that, at their best, they can be fine entertainment. The former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley argues that Coronation Street "is living proof that popular entertainment and high quality drama can go hand in hand". It is often asserted that if Shakespeare were around today he would be writing for the soaps.

So are the soaps on television more often nowadays?

Yes. UK soaps traditionally aired on two nights a week. But this began to shift in 1989 when Coronation Street began airing three times a week. EastEnders followed in 1994 and there has been a contest ever since as to who can produce more drama each week. Today EastEnders and Coronation Street are broadcast on four nights a week.

And there are actually two episodes of Coronation Street on Monday evenings. The producers of EastEnders are said to be considering adding an extra weekly episode. Meanwhile, Hollyoaks is broadcast five nights a week. And in 2004 Emmerdale began screening six episodes a week.

Why are the reasons for this?

Commercial pressures. According to Robert C Allen, the author of Speaking Soap Operas, these half-hour dramas are "the most effective and enduring broadcast advertising vehicle ever devised". The ailing ITV is heavily reliant on the popularity of Coronation Street to pull in advertisers.

There is nothing particularly new in this naked commercial partnership. The "soap" in soap opera is a reference to the fact that detergent manufacturers such as Procter and Gamble used daytime radio serials in 1930s America to advertise and promote their products.

But why is the BBC so keen on them?

The BBC lacks a commercial motive like ITV, but it does feel under pressure to retain its share of the viewing audience and thus justify the licence fee.

Promoting EastEnders is the most simple way of doing so. The BBC producers also claim there is a strong audience demand for more instalments, although the fluctuating viewerships throughout the week casts some doubt on this.

What has happened to the viewing figures?

Despite the extra episodes, according to the annual report published this year from the regulator Ofcom, the amount of time that we spent watching soap operas on the main terrestrial channels has actually gone down. In 2002, we watched 81 hours a year on average. Last year it was just 70 hours.

A dispersed viewership, due to the growth of multi-channel television, seems to be putting pressure on the soaps. And, ironically, there is also competition from other cheaply produced television, such as quiz shows. But the climax of a big plot line can still pull in substantial numbers of viewers.

Last month 12.6 million viewers tuned in to see Coronation Street's Tracey Barlow jailed for murder. And two years ago 13 million people watched the Mitchell Brothers return to Albert Square.

What do the critics say?

Some agree with Jordan, arguing that the actors have less time to rehearse now. Coronation Street brought back the popular character Bet Lynch in 2002 with great fanfare, but she did not last long. One suggestion for the briefness of her return was the pressure of the filming schedule she endured compared with the old days.

Another criticism is that the greater demand for shocking storylines, created by more episodes, is having a detrimental effect on the quality of the drama. But others say that the golden age of the British soap ended long ago, and that the question of how often they are aired is a red herring.

Unlike the glitzy and glamorous dramas from the United States, such as Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991, and Dynasty, from 1981 to 1989, British soaps have tended to be gritty affairs that working-class people can "relate to".

However, most of the old "Cockney" east enders have relocated to Essex. And how many people in Salford still live on cobbled streets in 2007? Even Roy Hattersley complained that Coronation Street has lately become preoccupied with teenage romances.

What does the future hold for soaps?

In some respects the outlook is ominous. Channel 4's Brookside was cancelled in November 2003. Five's attempt at a flagship soap, Family Affairs, folded in 2005. The BBC has threatened to drop Neighbours after 21 years. Whether these programmes have been casualties of the pressure for more episodes, or had simply gone stale, is a moot point.

But there is also cause for optimism for producers too. In an increasingly fragmented television environment, the soaps can still provide large communal viewing figures. They are among the few programmes that families will still watch together. That will always be prized by the advertisers. And despite his criticism, Jordan is optimistic about EastEnders' future. "It will always come back because there's a great team of people working on it," he argued.

Meanwhile, ITV has promised to snap up Neighbours if the BBC gets rid of it. It seems the curtain will not be coming down on the immense popularity of our soap operas quite yet.

Do soap operas make for good television?


* They entertain millions of people every day

* They provide good quality, popular drama

* They can help to prompt public debate and improve awareness of important social issues


* They are a poor use of the BBC's licence fee

* They tend to produce cheap, undemanding drama

* They clog up the television schedules, leaving less space for better programmes

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Thanks for that--great to read.

As to the comment about the US having 5 hours--it still is a pretty different system--soaps in the UK are a primetime thing. I don't think it can be so easily compared. I do like that simple definition though of soap operas being truly open ended unlike most primetimes hows (in the UK and in N America even if in the US most shows run until their ratings drop--whereas the UK the runs of shows are often decided by their creators). When people on this board, including me, call various primetime shows soaps and compare primetime to daytime writers it does get easy to forget that in one respect writing for primetime is vastly different--you nearly always have some sort of end point goal you're writing towards--something not at all true on daytime

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Primetime is bewteen 6 PM and 10:30 PM in the UK, so, yes, they are primetime shows in that respect... But not according to the US system.

Goals exist in primetime, it's just that after one ends you have to find another one. But yes, they are different.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Thanks for the article, Sylph. So this isn't just a crisis here, eh?

I'm all for soaps going back to half hours. Watching Edge of Night on Trueveo has been so much easier for me and less of a chore, simply because sans commercials, I'm only committing 20 minutes of my life. (Even though, since I usually watch 2-3 at a time, it adds up to the hour :P

The youngest soap on the air, now that Passions has left the airwaves, is B&B, which has been around just over twenty years. And before that, you'd have to go back to Y&R, which is 35 years old. Almost all soaps went to hours in the mid to late 70s. We are burning through story so fast that everything "new" is old again, to twist a cliche. I'd rather see soaps slow down and revert to a half hour, trim cast and storyline threads, than to see "new production models" and hyperactive primetime pacing.

Overall, I agree with your assessment here, Eric. However, at some level, isn't there a goal you are reaching with each storyline in daytime? The complication for daytime arises in making sure the goal has further implications that will spin off into new storylines and that all beats are played. As an example, we can take Desperate Housewives, which of many primetime shows is one many might consider a "soap." Each season there has been a mystery which is usually resolved in the finale of the season. However, each finale also contains a cliffhanger so people will rejoin next fall. (Which wasn't really a feature of primetime, esp. sitcoms, until Dallas). Grey's Anatomy, same thing. But then, the Baby Switch on AMC also had an ultimate goal of having all the babies back in the rightful mothers' arms, while simultaneously stirring up new storyline (the fallout of Bianca and Babe's friendship, Babe's relationship with JR, etc.) Therefore, there is more of an impetus to create these ripples in the water, so to speak, than there may be on primetime, but I still think this idea of "goals" is not the fundamental difference in good daytime and primetime writing. (Note the qualifier).

(ducking from Sylph's reaction)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Oh I agree there--I was being way too simplistic. Still it is a different way of writing--but yeah I was being simplistic. Still, there usually is some sort of end date (DH has said 7 years is it?) though this isn't always true.

As for primetime-_Corrie is on at 7 or 7:30 in the UK--yeah it's not primetime the way most scripted shows are in the US (although 7pm used to be primetime cor central time zone didn't it?) but it is evening programming--watched ina very different way than most people watch 1pm soap operas (ie the family all gathered in front of the tv, or during dinner or whatever). Eastenders is on 7:30 and 8pm depending on the night. Some of the other soaps air earlier, I know, but they're not the ratings and cultural juggernauts these shows are.

Abotu 30 vs hour shows, I sitll don't think the companies makign the shows will see it as a benefit when it costs so much less to fill an hour tv show than two 30 minute shows... Also in primetime, hour programming vs 30 minute programming is more popular than ever

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Eric, I know that soaps dropping back to half hours again is a pipe dream, for the reasons you state, but if we're talking about what may help soaps creatively as a genre, I feel free to post my wishlist.

If we are talking about a fundamental difference between daytime and primetime, most assuredly, it is pacing. I also think this is a small, perhaps minute, reason the genre is failing. Soaps, when done well, excel at playing every nuance, every beat of an emotional story. Soap characters have a fandom that is unparalleled, and I think it is due to the fact that watching them go through every beat is akin to watching a "friend" go through a similar situation. In essence, the first thought that would come to me when seeing them on the street would be, "There goes Brooke." Not, "There goes Julia Barr." Very few soap stars transcend this "friend" status into icon (perhaps Susan Lucci).

It really makes me cackle watching these old Edge of Night episodes that EON was supposedly so "fast-paced," or that Nixon's shows were fast-moving. In this hyperkinetic world we live in, they plod along like a snail, so I can only imagine how other soaps moved. It's always been a joke between a cousin and me that you can still tune into the Nature Show (aka B&B) and see the same storyline ten years later. Although, the general public often says this about a soap, it is rarely true. Soaps have definitely accelerated in the past twenty years, and especially in the last five. IMHO, Pratt is starting to move into overdrive on AMC, and this is one element of his I'm not enjoying. I watch soaps for the pacing; I've come to realize this while pondering this board since joining. I'm very interested in psychology and human nature and seeing how people interact. I enjoy plot-oriented movies and television, but they are easier for me to "leave behind" or even "drop" if I can't become attached to a character. With soaps speeding up, I'm sure others feel this way as well. Even for us on this board, the "true" fans, we can't bear to watch "our soaps" "die" like this. The casual fan has always dropped in when they've had time, perhaps catching 1-2 episodes a week. TPTB hope that casual viewers will stop by more when they see the storyline moving so fast they "can't miss" an episode. Instead, I think the casual fan drops in, can't recognize what's going on, and bails. The possible new fan sees it as impossible to jump in, or does jump in and then abandons when that plot is over, because there's no "ripple effect" with the character to stick around for.

However, I also see the casual fan as being "bored" with the old pacing. We have become very ADHD with our habits, including myself, who has found it difficult to even focus on an online article if I have to scroll too much. :lol: So, it's a Catch 22. Soaps have to maintain pacing for die-hards, yet speed up for newbies and casuals. THat's an awfully delicate balance for even the best writers.

I'm enjoying thinking this through with you guys.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

To make a fair comparison with the UK, there is one genuine daytime soap in Doctors *shudder* that is made with a shoestring budget and written by imbeciles for imbeciles.

With regard to the primetime thing and working in seasons, the Australian soaps have always done this with around a month off over Christmas (summer) that is preceded by a huge finale episode. I would like to see this succeed in America but given the ennui already surrounding shows I think it would only serve to shed more viewers who couldn't be bothered to tune back in again. There has to be some buzz and consistency to pull it off.

With the third issue, half an hour for me is always better. A good hour long episode of a soap these days is an exception. So much time is given to padding and exposition that could be easily cut out and 18 minutes a day is something that many more people would be happy making a commitment to. Of course as has been stated it doesn't make economic sense to cut back what is already on air. But then it doesn't make sense to film 40 minutes of repetitive crap which seems to be the favoured "production model" these days.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Yep but the BBC is effectively funded by the tax payer through the licence fee and is a public service broadcaster. The debate is should they be spending the money on something more 'culturally relevant' as opposed to populist drama. Others would say that they're providing to the majority of television viewers and therefore fulfilling the public service remit.

Given the tiny percentage that EastEnders represents in the BBC's expenditure, I think it's a pretty fatuous argument.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

WOW! If anyone has not read this and are interested in the genre of soap, they must. I now see why Sylph bristles when we might call Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy a "soap."

THis issue of narrative complexity reminds me of Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for Us." Soaps are the progenitors and the unfortunate benefactors of the current narrative complexity in primetime. Irony.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy