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Soap opera is the most popular genre of television programming across the globe and has been the leading favourite of British television for the past forty-six years. The trend evolved from the radio soap operas of the 1930s and 1940s, surfacing first in the United States and later spreading across the world. It attracted large audiences consisting mainly of female listeners and with the growing popularity of television it soon became firmly rooted on the screen.
The long running Coronation Street was the first British soap opera to make a significant impact on UK drama in 1960s. Its aim was to target mainly working class people in creating a microcosm of the working world we live in, focusing on realism as opposed to the escapism forms of the American soaps. In order to conclude on whether the dominance of this genre is beneficial or detrimental to the future welfare of British drama, I’m going to study the pros and cons of soap opera as a form of British Television.
Over the years soap operas have been continuously praised and condemned by the general public and despite of its popularity the genre continues to carry the connotation of a degraded cultural form of television drama. There is the common belief that soap operas are for those with simple tastes and limited capacities, for the content and style of them are unable to truly challenge the viewers in the same way that the more serious single drama can. However, it is a known fact that soap opera is the most complex narrative form of all television drama requiring prior knowledge from its audience.
David Buckingham (Public Secrets: ‘EastEnder’s’ and its Audience) mentions the mental demands that soap operas require from a viewer focusing on the ability to recall past events when cued, to look into the future and speculate about forth coming events and to use the multi-plot narrative for ‘lateral reference’. Hence although the content may not be truly challenging it would be wrong to say that soap operas require nothing from their audiences for it is a general assumption that the average viewer is a ‘fan’ of the show.
Yet, it has been labelled as little more than “chewing gum for the eyes” (Richard Kilborn in Television Soaps), a harmful and corrupting product of broadcasting that feeds the soap viewers’ addictions with the so-called mindless forms of entertainment they offer. Issues of ‘influence over audience’ and the affects that the content may have on its viewers cause much controversy. There is the belief that as an active audience we are in control and therefore choose whether we watch something more challenging or something that we can watch unfold in front of us, no questions required.
For this reason we also have the ability to see what’s real and what isn’t, and yet, we have the concern of “cultivation differential”, where the viewer begins to accept the values portrayed in the soap operas as their own, or more so than the values of the world we live in. We must ask ourselves then whether soap operas are an accurate portrait of life today and with regards to this, how harmful can the programmes be if the audience begins to take the soap’s values as their own?
British soaps are watched for their realism having become our “virtual communities, doing more to break down social and class boundaries than any government leader could ever do” (Mal Young, BBC Television’s head of drama series). They cover a diverse range of issues, in particular domestic, from storylines of health, relationships, business and family, to the ever so popular murder and death. Based, for the most part, on problems experienced within personal relationships and family life the content of the soap is fundamentally humanised, and thus we find the lifestyles led on screen are not so different from our own.
They attempt to represent the realities of a working class life and confront many of the problems faced in our society, exploring all the different possibilities and affects of such struggles but never claiming to offer a single solution. The realism of these soaps is emphasised more so by the reasonably slow pace at which the narrative is allowed to progress appearing more or less to be ‘unravelling’ in real time. Viewers can often identify with the stereotype characters of the drama series that become almost existent to them.
However, there are much bigger dramas in our world than domestic murder and by resorting to melodrama it’s as if we are choosing a more safe and cosy view of society. So, should our soap operas be more demanding of their audiences, and should they be tackling greater issues becoming more like the golden ages of television when the programmes were revolutionary, making an impact on the viewers? I would argue that times have changed and soap operas, whether focusing on realism or glamorous escapism, are a form of harmless therapy for viewers to turn to, becoming a part of that world and forgetting theirs.
It is in single drama that we look to be challenged and if soaps began to address the more serious issues, encouraging us to question and think then I feel the need for single drama would soon disappear. It’s not so much the form or content of soap operas that may be detrimental to future welfare of British drama, but the way is dominates our television schedules. The real danger is that other forms of drama with perhaps more important/ meaningful messages may be overlooked and that is where we may lose revolutionary television.
It’s alarming how many hours of soaps and docu-soaps (reality programmes) are “choking up vast swathes of airtime like pondweed” (Adam Sweeting: Soap Springs Eternal: Guardian website). The former values of Lord Reith seem almost non-existent, for the once precious airtime to show variety is now seen as a mere tool for audience shares. The domination of this phenomenon has led television companies to believe that the somewhat cheap and open ended formats of soap operas are a much safer option than striving to make new original programmes with a challenging voice.
“The soaps do what they do well, but that doesn’t mean that should be the only form of drama on T. V, or that they should be the only sources of good, interesting actors” (Christine Geraghty ). Soap operas are beneficial in that they tackle the smaller issues in our society leaving room for other forms of drama to make greater impacts with more challenging storylines, confronting the greater political issues like terrorism and racism. The fact that soap operas are continuous and avoid narrative closure would make it more difficult, I believe, to create a strong drama series about a deeply serious and ongoing issue.
They are good at showing the domestic issues that many encounter and should rest at that. What is destructive to the welfare of British drama is that television companies are now avoiding more challenging storylines and forms of drama with the fear that they will lose money. Soap operas can easily recover but a single drama either works or ‘flops’. I feel that a balance is needed in that we have our intake of soap operas but there are so many crowding our television airtime that any more would be a waste and hinder other forms of more serious drama.
I find myself also questioning the continuity of its popularity, for if there are too many soap operas then we see the same issues occurring again and again. The interest may soon die as we seek for more challenging material and thus, the necessity for a balance is vital, in having airtime for escaping into another world, realistic or not, without having to think to much, and having time for the more serious programmes where we are left questioning.