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Understanding Soap Operas: The Origin, Uniqueness, Misconceptions and Ethical Concerns

Analyzing Soap Operas. A Brief History

The soap opera genre originated from American radio in the 1930s, and owes its name to the sponsorship of the programs by large soap powder companies. They were targeted at women, particularly housewives, and designed to entertain, without distracting them from there daily chores while their husband was out working.

They were formulated to be easy listening and numerous Storylines woven into one episode. Basically unlike radio plays or melodramas, there were no ending points only ending storylines. Part of this assignment is to review modern day Soap operas, which have now evolved to Television and to examine the ideolology and certain traditions behind them. I included a recording of Eastenders, which was taken from UK Gold. It was interesting to breakdown the Scene and analyze the technical details as well as the subtext of the program.

The title sequence, is very simple, it began in the river Thames, for about half a second the screen is completely green, then very quickly, accompanied by the familiar theme, the camera zoomed out, whilst rotating clockwise to revel a colour map of London ( Interestingly not just of the East end of London). The River Thames remaining central and the main focal point within the golden triangle of the frame. The primary meaning of the map is nothing more than a map of London, a nice pictorial, aerial view.

The semiotic meaning however is considerably different, It suggest Entertainment, Scandal, maybe time to stop doing what you are doing and relax. Even Before the title, which is indecently one word, Eastenders appears, the visual image has captured peoples attention, The Distinctive theme tune has in its own right become an audible code, to Provoke the same response from the viewer, even if they are at that point not in the same room as the television. Its Become an alarm bell to tell them that the program has begun. The word Eastenders again has more meaning than what it is , a word. It has developed into a logo and is always used in any form of advertising, in its own font. The title sequence lasts for a little over 20 seconds but sends out many messages within that time.

Technical Difference Between Modern Soaps

Televised Soap Operas, especially British, are all quite similar in the way of how they are constructed, social issues they tackle, types of characters they portray, and the way scenes are shot, although each one does retain its individual look and atmosphere, to keep its artistic originality from the rest. The fist Scene of Eastenders that I recorded, was composed of only 10 shots and 3 very simple camera angles. They all remained even and rhythmic, composed of 1 long shot and the rest mid shots of the two characters, talking . The shots were simply two different over the shoulder shots, depending on which character was talking.

This is mainly done for two reasons, firstly a logical technical reason, that due to the tight schedule of the episodes, The director and cameramen, havent got the resources to devise, interesting and new camera angles. Secondly this sort of Camera work and quit editing, is pretty much a convention in all soaps, it avoids distancing the viewer. The whole point is to draw people in and make them part of the narrative. it is in the naturalist tradition, Providing a window on the world D. Chandler. The lighting is made to look completely natural, and is filmed in a realism documentary way. The first scene, is relatively boring, two people discussing their personal financial difficulties in a private setting. This sets the atmosphere for what is to follow. The audience knows that it will show gossip and other intimate secrets about the characters. In fact this is a definitive convention across the board, with the soap opera genre. They are all based on Gossip and that is how the shows hook the audience, because they form an indirect relationship with the characters, and want to Know what happens next. The Viewer, unlike any other genre, has the advantage of knowing more than the characters do, giving the audience to engage in informed speculation of events to come, before they actually happen.

Other soaps such as Coronation street, follow a similar pattern with camera shots and angles but convey there characters, in a slightly more lighthearted way. The feel can be at times lighthearted and has a large amount of characters that portray the stereotyped image of the fool( such as Curly Watts). However the social and moral obligations to the public regarding, issues of rape, affairs, drug abuse, unemployment, etc is still dealt with in a responsible manner. Coronation Street is the Longest running soap in Britain, and has at times been criticized, for growing old with its audience, Characters such as Ken Barlow, who have been involved from the start of the show(1960), symbolizes more of a tradition, in keeping the programs roots, more than likely the role that Pauline Fowler plays in Eastenders. Involved in very little large audience drawing plots but is there to bounce other characters of off. She is a well established member of the community. Which is really a form of Ideology of how each soap chooses to represent that community, More often than not its based on the area its set in, and the characters are just as stereotyped as the location portrayed. For example Coronation street., offers a nostalgic perspective on a rapidly declining Industrial town in Manchester, most characters are working class, and the women, strong willed, self opinioned northerners.

The advantage with stereotyping characters in this way, is that they can be developed depending on the storylines they are involved in, then when this has ended return to their usual status until another situation arises. When a character on occasion may act out of context, the audience is more willing to suspend their disbelief because, they know very little about the characters in the first place. It has been suggested that the Characters are purposely kept very one dimensional so when a topical or controversial subject arrives, the audience has the advantage of feeling they would be able to deal with that easier or in a more responsible way, therefore giving the viewer that feel good factor.


Previous to what I suggested that each, Soap Opera chooses its individual way to represent, The Characters there is a common element that has to apply to all. In order to create the tension and drama the soap needs to offer certain types of conflicting Characters must be present. The Bastard, The Tart, The Good Moral Person The Business Man The Villain and The Bitch. All this types of Characters are present throughout the tangled storylines. When one off these characters is written off, (there may be a Brief morning process for the audiences benefit) another similar character is written in.This brings me to another point that I only realized while watching the rerun of the scene on the tape. Because it was recorded from UK Gold, the episodes are old, I showed very little interest in the story because I knew every thing, and how it was going to end. The plots were old news. So this suggests that the present episodes are designed for, viewing once only, they are disposable TV.

It also proves to be the case with the Characters, all the time they are present they serve to entertain us, and in extreme cases maybe part of our lives. When that character leaves the series, our attention is all to quickly diverted elsewhere, to the next big scandal. It gets to the point when you simply forget that character even contributed to the Show, a case I discovered when watching my recorded episode. Many a time did I think oh I forgot he used to be in it etc. Also giving a certain amount of evidence that there is any leading or anchor member of the cast, who is not disposable.

Moral and topical issues, within soaps

British Soaps, although do not have a legal obligation to deal with topical and controversial issues in a responsible manner, appreciate that it is an essential part of the convention to do so, especially to maintain high audience ratings.The BBC, who are responsible for making Eastenders, maintain their motto TO INFORM, EDUCATE AND ENTERTAIN. They are aware of the fact they are a public service station, and aim to produce Eastenders as so it is a benefit to the public, and is taken seriously. Producer Julia Smith, declared that We dont make life, we reflect it!.

She also suggested that there is no social issue that would not be tackled, in some form or another, and in the most realistic way possible, incorporating storylines, using characters who were homosexual, unemployed, single mothers and so on. We didnt want to fudge any issue except politics and swearing.

In my Opinion although, stated from the BBC, could be applied to any other British soap, from any other commercial television station. Although I have noticed that Eastenders has always had a large number of ethnic minorities, incorporated in the cast and has portrayed many in a very realistic light, not always dwelling on generalizations of arranged marriages and coloured people always being involved in crime. Not that other British soaps do! But It is a far cry away from having a token black man or family present, that most other soaps portray.It has also been suggested that, soaps can help educate young people and adults on dealing with life issues, families may sometimes refer to a soap in order to address a subject, with inquisitive children.

Another theory that I personally find quite far fetched is that by the use of close up camera shots on actors faces, people learn how to read people and distinguish the difference between, what is said and what is meant the subtext. I think it would be a little native to take this statement to seriously, although I do agree it could have some influence.


This Essay can only really be applied to the British soap opera genre, as it seems each, country has its own form of conventions when dealing with soaps.Dallas and Dynasty, American 1980s soaps, took a whole different approach on how to hook the audience. It offered exotic locations and dealt with issues of high power business dealings, giving the audience a fantasy world, as opposed to the constructs of realism which British soaps try to focus on.

All in all in terms of whether soaps have kept any of there tradition from the early days of radio, I think the answer is Yes, admittedly they have updated themselves, with technology and modern social problems, but due to the redundancy and repetition, that make interrupted viewing possible, and the fact that many women, can catch up from friends at work the following day ( soaps could be described as socializes ), it does suggest that they are made in a way that they can be heard as well as seen.

Another important factor, which I should have mentioned earlier is the way, that soap operas rival each other. There is a constant battle for ratings and this is only enhanced by the fact that, soaps are not just left on the TV, they invade our everyday lives as well. Magazines are full of soap updates and articles on the Stars personal life, and battles with their individual problems, such as alcoholism or illness, Does this add a soap opera to the soap itself? Also There are numerous unofficial web sites run by fans, where you can go in chat rooms and discuses the latest, stories, and characters.

It does seem that whether we take a great interest in the programs or not, the Soap opera world goes far beyond that, possibly to the point it has become Britains Mini Hollywood.

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