Are soaps in danger of extinction?
The streaming era has also coincided with the rise of “prestige” television. Soaps used to thrive off a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), where viewers would feel left out if everyone else seemed to be watching. But from Succession to Game of Thrones and Killing Eve, Big Little Lies and Euphoria, the most talked-about shows are now high-budget spectacles. Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the most expensive TV show ever made, with a budget of £399m for the first season, eclipsing the latest season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, which cost a reported £232 million.
In this new TV environment, episodes are often longer and seasons are shorter, while the actors are frequently Hollywood stars now moving freely between the big and small screen. A limited series like HBO’s Mare of Easttown, starring Academy Award winner Kate Winslet, captivated viewers in 2021 and gave its audience a huge payoff after just seven hour-long episodes – a much smaller time investment than most major soap storylines. “Viewers are now much more used to watching shows with fewer episodes and flipping between shows, rather than sticking with a show for a long period of time,” Bryan says. “And right now, younger viewers maybe aren’t as keen on soaps compared to a very polished, very expensive-looking drama.”
The perception of soaps as “low brow” dates back to the genre’s origins. Soaps became popular in the US before the UK. In fact, the BBC’s first radio soap opera, 1941’s Front Line Family, did not initially air in Britain at all but in North America. The US’s first daytime TV soap opera, These Are My Children, arrived in 1949, followed by Britain’s first TV soap opera, the BBC’s The Grove Family, in 1954. The soap opera form gets its name from the US, where they were produced by companies such as Procter & Gamble, who used them to sell cleaning products, including soap, to a daytime audience of mostly women. US soaps have always been a staple of daytime TV, whereas most soaps in the UK air in the evening. Generally speaking, US soaps tend to be more glossy and “aspirational”, following the lives of wealthier people. British soaps revolve around everyday communities of working and middle-class people, often with a pub as a central fixture. (There are exceptions, like the BBC medical soap Doctors).
Elana Levine, professor of media, cinema and digital studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History, tells BBC Culture that the perception of soaps as “low art” is connected to their original association with women. More so than other mediums, soaps have put women in prominent, significant roles and made them central to the narrative. Over the years, Levine says soaps have explored concerns that have been historically associated with women, so there is an element of misogyny in how easily they are deemed frivolous. “Soaps revolve around interpersonal relationships, family, questions of trust and honesty, treasured and private secrets,” she says. “All humans care about those things. But culturally, at least in Western cultures of the 20th Century and beyond, those things have been feminised, meaning they’ve been associated with women.”
Yet the irony is that now it faces a threat from another genre that is also repeatedly, and some would say unfairly, dismissed as lowbrow. Reality TV is often derided despite being one of the most influential genres of the 21st Century. But its unstoppable rise has presented further difficulties for soaps. Reality shows are generally cheap to make by comparison, and a show like Love Island in the UK (which has also spawned a hit US version, screening on Peacock) has managed to bring in millions of viewers every night for many weeks. “Right back to the rise of Big Brother [in the early noughties], reality shows have been able to create national conversations,” Bryan says. “Since then, I think soaps have found it a little bit harder to do that.”
What’s more, “structured” reality shows, like Made in Chelsea in the UK or Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise and Netflix’s Selling Sunset in the US, which follow the lives of wealthy people, brand themselves as “living soap operas”. And in recent years, there has been a noticeable audience crossover: several well-known soap stars, like Lisa Rinna and Eileen Davidson, have joined the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, while their co-star Erika Jayne landed a recurring role on The Young and the Restless. “Younger viewers who may have watched soap operas can get some of those same pleasures and enjoyment through reality TV,” says Levine. “Reality shows being similar to soap operas is part of what has allowed for their success. But it’s also made soap operas less prominent and secure as a cultural form.”
Losing the plot
Added to that, there’s a question around whether soaps, in trying too hard to snare audiences’ attention, have in fact lost something of what made them special. There has been a long tradition of soaps tackling social issues, ahead of other mediums. In the UK, the first same-sex kisses on TV, between two men and two women, were both in soaps: EastEnders in 1989 followed by Brookside in 1994. Alongside Nicholas Donovan, Cashman was one half of the first gay kiss on British TV. The scene provoked a tabloid backlash, including a notorious article written in The Sun by Piers Morgan.