Art and Entertainment

Marty Lederhandler/AP
Zsa Zsa Gabor and actor Anthony Herrera rehearse for "As The World Turns" in 1981.

The Rise and Fall of the Soap Opera

April 20, 2009
by Lindsey Chapman
CBS’s decision to cancel “Guiding Light” significantly furthered the decline of soap operas. FindingDulcinea examines the history of soap operas, and looks at where the shows are headed.


The American press created the term “soap opera” in the 1930s to describe a popular new form of “serialized domestic radio dramas.” The “soap” portion of the phrase stemmed from the household cleaning products being sold by companies who were the primary sponsors; “opera” signified an interesting melding of daytime shows and “the most elevated of dramatic forms.”

The advent of television meant soap operas would make an eventual transition from radio to the screen. On Jan. 31, 1949, the first daytime television soap opera debuted on a major network. An NBC station in Chicago aired the first episode of “These Are My Children,” a live, 15-minute program that lasted just 24 days.

“These Are My Children” was considered a failure, but it did launch the career of Irna Phillips, who went on to help create “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns,” “Another World” and “The Edge of Night.”

Over Time

In subsequent years, the appeal of soap operas skyrocketed, giving viewers memorable stories like the 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital” (which, incidentally, was the best-rated hour in U.S. soap opera history).

Moments like these are not lost on the actors who were part of them. Greg Vaughan, who plays Luke and Laura’s son, says he finds himself “in awe” watching actors Tony Geary and Genie Francis work together as Luke and Laura.

“There is just so much that is great about ‘General Hospital’ and the history of the show. It’s been on television for 45 years, and the fact that I am a part of that is really cool.”

The End of an Era

But for other shows, history hasn’t been enough to keep them going. After nearly 75 years on the air, CBS decided recently to cancel “Guiding Light” in September of this year. The program, which began as a 15-minute radio show during the Great Depression, has seen its audience continue to shrink in recent years, making it less appealing to advertisers.

“Guiding Light” is noteworthy not only for how long it’s been on the air, but also for being the first soap opera to have African American stars like James Earl Jones. Calista Flockhart and Kevin Bacon also made appearances on the show.

Despite an attempt by producers to rename the drama and make it “edgier,” the effort failed. “Talk about a grand old oak falling in the forest,” television historian Tim Brooks stated. “But there’s not much forest left.”

Where Is the Audience Going?

Times have changed from the soap opera’s early years. Stay-at-home moms were once the target audience for soaps, but with more women joining the workforce, their appeal has waned. Many women still at home are tuning in to cable programs, which aren’t limited by the same thematic restrictions.

Times may be tough, but not everyone is giving up on the future of soap operas. Lynn Leahey, editorial director of Soap Opera Digest, believes that years from now, “(daytime dramas) will still be around.” Though Leahey continued, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to watch them from noon to three o’clock on network television.”

Referencing the cancellation of “Guiding Light,” Ron Raines, who played Alan Spaulding on the show, remarked, “I don’t think any of the other shows want any of us to go off. We’re all in this together.”

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