Why are soap operas so popular?

Paula Lewis

Soap operas were originally introduced as American radio programmes during the 1930s and were transferred to our television screens after on-going success in the 1950s. They were originally sponsored by soap manufacturing companies such as Proctor and Gamble, hence the reference to 'soap'. They were produced with female viewers specifically in mind with the intention of selling soap powder to the traditional house-bound woman. The so-called 'typical' soap opera viewer has been, and still remains a controversial issue. In the past, viewers have been branded as the 'isolated housewife' (W.L. Warner & S.E. Henry-1948), who are members of the working class, and who have little, if any potential to climb this social ladder. Recent studies by M.J. Matelski (1988) have found that listeners to radio soaps have few interests outside the home, thus supporting this 'isolation view'. With regards to the intellectual ability of the audience, Compesi, in 1980 found that viewers were more formally educated than had previously been thought. Viewers of the popular early 1980s soap All my children had received high school education at least, with the exception of a mere 9%.

Soap opera ratings show a change in the male-female ratio of viewers, as well as in the different age groups. In 1970, the popularity of soap operas was confirmed, as ratings showed that they had received 20 million viewers, most of which were women, aged 18 and above. In 1981, a similar study found that fewer women of 18 and above watched soap operas, while more men and teenagers were drawn to this genre. Recently, it has been confirmed that a smaller proportion of viewers now watch soap operas mainly due to the increase in the number of channels and television networks such as sky and cable television. An increasing number of women now go out to work, and therefore have little time to sit down and watch the soaps.

We cannot escape from the fact that soap operas are one of the most popular genres on television. An increasing amount of research has been carried out as to why this is the case, one important field of study being associated with the uses and gratifications of the viewers.

In 1977, Ronald Compesi asked viewers of the soap opera All my Children why they enjoyed the programme so much. The participants were given the sentence 'I like to watch All my Children because...' and were asked to complete it. Compesi received 52 replies. From this data, he suggested that the prime reason for watching the soap opera was because it provided entertainment. Secondly, a number of people said that they watched it purely out of habit, as though it was part of their essential daily routine. This also seemed to be true with the viewers of BBC's early 1960s British soap opera Crossroads, as Dorothy Hobson records in her interview relating to why people watched it during its existence:

"...I've watched it that long that I suppose it's become routine in a way.." (Hobson 1982: 117).

The fact that All my children was shown at a time that suited most people meant that convenience played a part in their deciding to watch the programme. Crossroads viewers would even organise their day around the soap as Sheila admitted when interviewed by Hobson: "Well, I must admit, when the programme altered, I altered my tea-time..." (Hobson 1982: 105).

The possibility of social interaction that derived from watching All my Children and Crossroads was also pleasurable for the viewers, as Compesi was repeatedly told: "I like to talk about the program with my friends" (Cantor & Pingree 1983: 129).

Escapism and relaxation was another pleasing effect of watching the soap, although Compesi downgraded its importance. Research carried out by Ien Ang , however, relating to viewers of the super-soap Dallas ,first broadcast in the early 1980s, reveals otherwise. As one participant claimed: "I find Dallas a super TV programme. For me, it means relaxation twice a week, out of the daily rut.." (Ang 1996: 24). Viewers claimed that it helped them to release tension and to escape from the pressures of everyday life as they delve into the world of the soap. It seems that the viewer's reasons for watching soap operas go beyond the uses and gratifications suggested by researchers such as Compesi. For example, Mary E. Brown in her book Soap opera and women's talk adds the desire for knowledge to this list. The desire to know what goes on in the soap is at times, very important to the viewer, as was the case with Anne and Crossroads: "...I've always got to know what's happening in it, whatever the particular situation is.." (Hobson 1982: 116).

Brown also suggests that the audience gain pleasure in finding their own sense of personal identity - who they are and what place they have in the world, together with a sense of belonging. Many viewers also watch soaps as they are able to identify with many of the characters, sharing opinions, life-style, and experiences. Brown suggests that women derive pleasure from sharing experiences with the characters on screen. Such characters may even be seen as companions, particularly to the lonely. As Linda states how she related to the characters in Crossroads: "...they become-I can't say they become friends because they don't. They just feel as if you know them.." (Hobson 1982: 118).

The presence of suspense, where viewers are kept guessing about the characters and their fate also seems to be a major factor relating to the soaps' popularity. Many viewers also like to predict future events ,and gain pleasure from doing so.

How then, do soap operas fulfil the viewers' needs? According to Dennis Porter, soaps aim to provide its viewers with a 'Parallel life'-one which progresses as our lives do, but with fictional characters and scenarios. The popularity of soaps is not due to their ccontent, but how the audience relates to them.

One distinctive feature of soaps is the presence of melodrama, which is particularly evident in American 'super-soaps'. One melodramatic story-line that has stayed in my mind for quite some time, and no doubt in many others, is the shocking kidnap of the character Krystle in the American super-soap Dynasty. I distinctively remember seeing her gagged up, and violently tossed into a bath in an extremely dull, depressing room, which had obviously not been in use for quite some time. Her kidnapper constantly kept watch and was in possession of a gun. He made a number of threats to kill her if she did not comply with his orders. Although not an everyday situation, and one which would clearly be viewed as being over the top by some people, I felt compelled to watch since it provided excitement Although it was at times depressing, I still gained pleasure from it, perhaps as I was invited to let out some emotion as I felt sympathy for Krystle, and possible resentment towards the kidnapper. Another possible explanation could be that I was relieved not having been in the same situation as Krystle. This would not be perceived as selfish, simply that I was aware of the fictional nature of the soap. This story-line would almost inevitably have led to general discussion among the public who watched Dynasty as they discussed Krystle's fate. Attempts to predict future events would also arouse excitement and if correct, would provide a sense of satisfaction. Escapism could also result from such a scenario as the viewer is so engrossed in it, that they forget about their own lives for the duration of the episode. As a viewer of Dallas recalls: "...Perhaps for me it's relativizing my own problems and troubles or just escaping them" (Ang 1996:48-49). On a lighter note, comedy is occasionally present in soap operas, although it is rarely over the top. Examples include a recent brawl between Lou and Harold (age-old rivals) in the BBC's Australian soap opera Neighbours, which resulted in Lou falling into his pool. When troublesome characters are caught, this may also be perceived as humorous. Comic situations allow the audience the pleasure of laughing, and may enable them to relax. They may be able to relate to the characters, since such scenarios are often 'true-to-life'.

Despite the presence of melodrama in soaps, there is also a recognisable element of realism, which allows the viewers to become involved by means of relating themselves to the characters and situations. As Charlotte Brunsdon suggests, the reality of the problems and scenarios portrayed in soaps make them recognisable to the viewer, who is then able to empathise with the characters based on their own experiences. In his book Television soaps, Richard Kilborn connects this concept with catharsis, whereby the audience lets out emotion as events develop on-screen, making it a pleasurable, and possibly therapeutic process. The intimacy developed between the viewer and character enables the viewer to analyse, and reflect upon their own life, thus contributing to their sense of personal identity, which Brown perceives as being one of our needs.

The viewers would equally gain pleasure in having meaningful discussions about the soaps, as they are knowledgeable in the field of life, and so can draw from their own experiences. Possible comparisons may be made between 'real' life and life portrayed in soaps due to the subtle differences between the two.

The familiarity of soaps provides the viewer with what Brunsdon terms 'ritual pleasure'. They thrive on the fact that their favourite soap is scheduled throughout the week on a regular basis. They are familiar with each of the characters, with some of whom they have formed intimate relationships. They are equally familiar with the setting, which as Brunsdon points out, is introduced along with the credits before the action takes place. For example, viewers are given a 'mini-tour' of the main street in ITV's Coronation street (first broadcast in 1960) before the action begins. A map of the East-End is shown before the action breaks out in BBC's EastEnders. This knowledge means that the viewers are often able to predict the unravelling of events, with which they often take great pride.

Cliffhangers are a major feature of all soaps, and have a prominent place, often at the end of each episode. The intention is to make the viewer 'hungry for more', as the cliffhanger provides suspense. This ensures that the avid viewer will continue to watch, since they are eager to know what happens next. Even if they are able to predict what does happen, they will need to watch the following episode to see if they are correct. As Anne explained about Crossroads:

"...I like to know what's coming next and how it all ends up.." (Hobson 1982: 116). The above evidence therefore suggests that the various features fulfil what seems to be the everyday needs of their viewers.

In the light of this research, I myself conducted a mini-study. In all, there were 25 participants to whom I asked the question "Why do you like/watch soap operas?". The participants consisted of twenty females and five males, as only five of the males queestioned actually admitted to watching soap operas. Mostly all of the participants were aged 19 to 20. In order to back up or dispute the claims made, I observed the responses of my house-mates to the Australian soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away, and the British soap opera EastEnders. The participants involved were Robert J, Robert C, Amie and Kavita. The results were as follows.

Fourteen people stated that they liked soap operas as they are relaxing to watch, and don't require too much concentration to follow the story-lines. My 'household' observations backed up what I had found, as on a number of occasions, social interaction took place during the soaps without anyone losing the story-lines. Everyone seemed to be relaxed, taking each event as it unravelled-indeed, no-one seemed at all tense or nervous while watching, perhaps indicating

enjoyment. Most of the people who chose relaxation as a factor for watching soaps were female, with the exception of one male. Either the males didn't want to admit that soaps made them feel relaxed, or they weren't aware that this was the case. Here, the male-female ratio of 1:4 must also be taken into account.

Secondly, six people said that they watched soap operas as they were on at a convenient time. This certainly seemed to be the case, as my house-mates always made tea in time to see the soaps. In fact, I occasionally heard some of them (including males), plan out their time so that they could sit down to watch the soaps. Again, mostly females were aware that soaps were shown at a convenient time, whereas most of the males didn't see time as being such an important factor.

Six people (mostly males) suggested that they watched soaps as a means of filling time, so that they had something to do. Although this doesn't at first seem to be a particularly positive reason for watching soaps, It seems unusual that they would pursue an activity that they did not like, simply to pass the time away, unless there was absolutely nothing else to do. However, this situation seems to happen quite frequently, as Ang also found out when studying viewers of the 'super-soap' Dallas:

...after a few months it became so tedious that I didn't find it at all interesting any more...now I just have to watch it, no matter how boring I find it...I don't like watching TV much and so I find this ridiculous (Ang 1996: 14).

Ang suggests that one of the reasons why people watch soaps, regardless of whether they do or do not like them, is associated with advertising. Since Dallas began in America, a vast amount of merchandise followed. The scale of advertising was so great, that it was easy to get 'sucked in'. Although this may be a plausible reason for the viewers of Dallas in America, other factors would be involved, more-so in Britain due to the small scale of advertising.

The fact that viewers could relate to the characters on-screen was also important for five of the people interviewed. It was certainly the case that relationships were formed between the viewers and the characters on a number of occasions, as my house-mates and I watched various soap operas. One such occasion occurred on 29.09.97 when, during an episode of the soap Home and Away Shannon was writing a letter to her boyfriend, Lochlan, to say goodbye after she had decided to leave Summer bay with a friend. As we all looked on, Robert J. advised Shannon not to write the letter, clearly disapproving of what she was doing. He talked to the character as though he would have an influence on her actions. This response appeared quite interesting, as Robert had not admitted to relating with any of the characters when asked in the survey. A similar situation arose when Robert C. told Casey to "stop playing that dreadful music." as she was practising for an important competition. He too did not admit to relating to any of the characters on-screen. Either they wanted to retain their 'macho' image by not admitting that they could relate to such 'ludicrous' characters, or they simply didnn't realise that this was the case - it just happened subconsciously. As expected, the females in the house also related themselves to some of the characters, as they gave them advice and sympathised with their situation. One female, Kavita, even likened the character of Sam with her own brother, as he aggravated Tegan in the episode on 08.10.97. It seems that the females may have been more aware of this than the males.

The fact that the soap operas led to discussion was also pleasurable for five of the people interviewed. There was evidence of such social interaction as my house-mates and I watched soap operas, particularly during the soap operas themselves. For example, On 03.10.97, Robert J. and Amie placed a bet on whether Casey would win the music competition in the soap Home and Away. Also, on 08.10.97, Robert J. declared how awful the coffee shop looked in Neighbours. This led to Kavita disputing what he had said, which then led to a 'debate' between them. Such findings were also unexpected since Robert J. did not acknowledge that soaps led to social interaction on his behalf.

Four people that were interviewed claimed that soaps were part of their daily routine throughout the week. This was very evident, as everyone in the house sat down at the relevant times to watch their favourite soap operas - a sheer sign of


Four people whom I interviewed also revealed that they liked soaps for their entertainment value. This became particularly apparent on 07.10.97, when after an episode of EastEnders in which Billy had been kidnapped, Kavita exclaimed "It's getting exciting isn't it?."

The addictive nature of soaps was also noted by three of the people interviewed. They claimed that they simply had to watch soap operas, as a means of filling their needs.

Three people claimed that they watched soap operas in order to escape from their everyday lives and worries. This notion of escapism may be related to the viewer's interaction with the characters on-screen. As mentioned previously, as my house-mates watched soap operas, they often took the part of adviser, or merely ridiculed the characters. Either way, this would have detracted attention from their everyday lives, as they delved into the 'fantasy-world' of the soaps. On one such occasion, while watching Neighbours, Kavita commented on how awful Toad-fish's body looked as he changed out of his school uniform to impress a female admirer, by ridiculing him with the words: "Cor, what a bod". Similarly, in Home and Away, on 08.10.97, Amie attempted to divert Donald's attention to his wife, Marilyn as she exclaimed: "Look, Marilyn's doing something.", clearly agitated with his apparent ignorance as Marilyn attempted to act for a play she was to audition for. Neither of the males acknowledged escapism when interviewed, perhaps as they did not realise that they were escaping their worries, or didn't want to admit that they had any.

Three people also said that they watched soap operas due to the familiarity of their conventions.

This notion of familiarity became clear on a number of occasions, as Amie sang along to the theme tune of Home and Away, and Robert J. sang along to the Neighbours theme tune. Robert J. didn't acknowledge that he watched soaps due to their familiarity: perhaps as he wasn't aware of it.

Two people said that they were relieved by soaps as they often saw the characters as being worse off than themselves.The fact that soap operas allowed the viewers to laugh was also seen as important by two of the people interviewed.The pleasure of such laughter, relating to entertainment, became apparent on a number of occasions. One such occasion was on 08.10.97, as Amie laughed out aloud at Marlene's attempts to lie to her boss, Karl, about Sarah's application for secretary, as she did not wish to share her job, in the soap opera Neighbours. Also, while watching Home and Away, both Amie and Robert J. laughed at Marilyn's vulnerability while acting. Neither of the males chose laughter as a factor for watching soaps, but it was evident on all accounts that they did laugh during 'silly' scenes. Perhaps they didn't see laughter as being such a major factor.

1 person saw herself as being nosy, as she wanted to know what was going on in the lives of the characters. This need to know what happens became most apparent on 29.09.97 when Robert C. entered the room mid-way through Home and Away, and enquired about what was happening in relation to the Shannon-Lochlan storyline. This then led to a discussion about the plot with Robert J. This finding was quite surprising, as Robert C. had not admitted to watching soaps for the reason that he wanted to know what was happening. He did seem, however, to be interested in the plot, as did Robert J. who took up time and effort to describe what was happening.

The results obtained from the survey bear great similarities to the needs proposed by Compesi and Brown in their 'Uses and Gratifications' studies. This therefore suggests upon comparison, that Compesi and Brown were very accurate in their findings. The only exception to this is the importance of relaxation as a factor in watching soap operas. While Compesi dismissed this need, most people in my study (i.e. 14) gave it as a prime reason for watching soaps. In my study, two additional reasons were given for watching soaps that were not mentioned by Compesi or Brown.Two females suggested that the silliness of soap operas enabled them to laugh, while another female claimed that she watched soaps purely because there were "Good looking lads" in it.

The first factor, laughter, may be related to Kilborn's factor of releasing emotions, not empathising with the characters, but laughing at them. The second factor suggests that the participant gains pleasure from seeing people who she finds attractive, maybe deriving sexual pleasure. This theory is supported by Dennis Porter who suggests that the age and physique of many 'soap' characters may arouse unharmful sexual pleasure in the viewers.

Although the results of my study tend to support those of the 'professionals' Compesi and Brown, I realise that it is not without its limitations. First, I only received information from twenty-five people in my survey to represent the whole of Britain at least. The evidence used to back up such findings involved just 4 people. There wasn't much variation in age in both ceases, and a vast majority of the participants were female, perhaps supporting the theory that females tend to prefer soaps more than the males. However, we mustn't assume that it is only males who dislike soap operas. A large number of women don't watch them also, as became evident during my study. Even out of such a small group as twenty-five, three females suggested that they didn't like soaps, describing them as "naff" and even "crap". Each of them claimed that they watched soaps to fill time, while noting that only a small amount of concentration was necessary to follow the story-lines involved.

Therefore, despite the apparent vastness of the soap opera audience, we must also acknowleddge that there are people out there who don't watch them, and who have their own personal needs which are different from the many millions who do.


November 1997