The creator of the first soap opera was Irna Phillips, the hard-luck daughter of Jewish immigrants in Chicago. Phillips was working at radio station WGN, reading inspirational and morally uplifting quotations for a program called Thought for the Day when the manager asked her to produce a 15-minute drama aimed at housewives. The year was 1930, and Chicago's business elite was worried about the impact of the Depression on the city's large working-class population, which included many recent immigrants from Europe and the American South. So when two Chicago companies (one a soap maker) agreed to sponsor the new show, all parties understood that the goal was not just to sell soap but also to convey inspiration and moral uplift in a compelling form.
So Phillips created Painted Dreams, a tragic-comic series about Mother Moynihan, an Irish widow who dispenses tough love to her unmarried daughter and a female boarder. The show was a hit, and in 1937 Phillips created a soap opera for NBC, The Guiding Light, which became the longest-running series in the history of broadcasting, airing its final TV episode in 2009. Over that 72-year period, The Guiding Light underwent a transformation that has implications far beyond the realm of American daytime drama.
The "guiding light" of the title was the lamp in the window of Reverend John Ruthledge, a character modeled on Reverend Preston Bradley of Chicago's nondenominational People's Church, who had helped Phillips recover from an out-of-wedlock pregnancy ending in desertion and stillbirth (events she later wove into the plot). For the next 30 years The Guiding Light continued to revolve around a moral center: first a succession of pastors, then a family patriarch named Papa Bauer, a German immigrant who had arrived in America penniless and worked his way into the respectable lower-middle class.
But the moral center was already disappearing when Papa Bauer met his demise in 1973. Instead of an uplifting saga watched by tradition-minded women struggling to hold families together amid economic hardship and the disruptions of urban life, The Guiding Light became a lurid parade of adultery, divorce, addiction, suicide, and crime, watched by welfare mothers, teenagers, and college students. Other long-lived soaps, such as Search for Tomorrow, Days of our Lives, and The Edge of Night followed suit. And 1973 was also when the sexual revolution arrived with a soap aptly titled The Young and the Restless.
Life Imitates Art
The soap opera has obviously been shaped by the times. But by reaching into millions of lives on a daily basis, it has also shaped the times. The power of media to do this should not be overstated. Back in the 1930s, many Americans became convinced that film and radio had unprecedented power to mold public opinion, and both the private and public sectors sought to exert more control. Hence the Production Code adopted by the motion picture industry in 1930, and hence the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. Over the last 50 years these controls have relaxed. The Production Code was replaced by the ratings system in 1968, and today most advertisers care little about content, as long as a given program delivers the requisite number of "eyeballs." FCC guidelines still prohibit nudity, profanity, blasphemy, and graphic mayhem on the broadcast networks, but the networks find plenty of ways to titillate and thrill within those guidelines. As for cable and the Internet, they have never been subject to the "raised eyebrow" of the FCC.
Behind this relaxation is the conviction, nearly opposite to that of the 1930s, that the media have no impact whatsoever, at least on adults (on children, the jury is still out). Yet this conviction is no more correct than its predecessor. The media do not brainwash us, but neither do they simply roll off our backs like the proverbial water off a duck. What they do is condition us, gradually and over time, to accept, or at least view as normal, attitudes and behaviors we might otherwise reject. This conditioning power can be used for good or ill. A soap opera can either have a moral center, guiding the audience, or it can have none, leaving the audience misguided. I say mis-guided because there is no such thing as un-guided. Art may imitate life, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, life also imitates art.
The Sudsing of Prime Time
In the late 1970s soaps took on a new aspect when Dallas, a five-part CBS miniseries about a rich, quarreling Texas oil family, was turned into a "prime-time soap" lasting 13 seasons. The second season ended with a cliffhanger, in which the colorful, scheming main character, oil baron J.R. Ewing, appeared to have been murdered. The details were left to the opening episode of the following season, which was further delayed by a writers' strike. When that episode finally aired in November 1980, it broke all previous ratings records.
Dallas departed from the previous format in which every episode worked as a self-contained whole. Inspired by its success, other prime-time soaps such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest (about another rich, quarreling oil family and a rich, quarreling vintner family, respectively) began running multiple story arcs week to week, and linking seasons with cliffhangers. The format soon spread to cop shows (Hill Street Blues), hospital shows (St. Elsewhere), and lawyer shows (L.A. Law). Today, weekly dramas such as Law & Order, CSI, and House contain both single-episode and multiple-episode story arcs.
All these shows have found success overseas. By the late 1980s Dallas was broadcast in 57 countries to an audience of 300 million. Law & Order, CSI, and House are among the world's most popular programs. The American daytime soap has also made its way into the global market. For example, The Bold and the Beautiful, a spin-off from The Young and the Restless that began production in 1987, is currently aired in 110 countries. Not only that, but according to the CBS website, many foreign channels air The Bold and the Beautiful in prime time.
The Sense of an Ending
Despite these successes, the BBC states that "the number-one form of human entertainment on the planet" is not the American soap but the Latin American soap, or telenovela. On its continent of origin, the telenovela dominates prime time, attracting the highest advertising revenues and audience shares that often approach 90%. Around the world, telenovelas have an estimated audience of 2 billion, from Russia and Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Malaysia. They also have a large following on Spanish-language channels in the United States.
Indeed, it seems that the only audiences who do not embrace telenovelas are those who speak English. A notable exception is the Colombian Yo soy Betty, la fea (I am Betty, the ugly one), about an unlovely businesswoman who by making herself indispensable to her boss wins his heart. To date there have been 20 foreign adaptations, including the American Ugly Betty, which ran on ABC between 2006 and 2010. The success of Ugly Betty sparked a brief telenovela fever in America, but it quickly died down as non-Hispanic Americans reverted to their previous dislike of the genre's relatively low production values and high passion quotient.
One reason for the greater global popularity of telenovelas is cost: Latin American producers charge less for their products than do their North American counterparts. But there's a more compelling reason: unlike the typical U.S. soap, which runs as long as ratings and revenues permit, the typical telenovela runs between six and twelve months, then reaches a conclusion in which all the loose ends are tied up. This limited span preserves what literary critic Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending." Inherent in any form of storytelling is the expectation of a morally satisfying resolution, in which good is rewarded and evil punished. (As Kermode argues, this is true even in sophisticated narratives that refuse to end with a moral—their refusal is their moral.)
Not surprisingly, there are few morally satisfying resolutions in the open-ended format of the U.S. soap. This wasn't a problem in the early days, because each soap had a "guiding light" character keeping tabs on the others. But when that light guttered out in the '70s, the open-ended format began to take its toll. For example, every one of The Bold and the Beautiful's 6,064 episodes (as of this writing) has been about the sex lives of the Forresters, a rich, quarreling fashion family. And the female lead, Brooke Logan, has at last count been married five times to the eldest Forrester son, three times to the father, and once to the younger brother. It all brings to mind the old minstrel act in which a man explains how, through various tangled kinship relations, he ended up being his own grandfather.
The Bold and the Beautiful will not end when Brooke realizes which Forrester she truly loves, or even when she discovers that she is her own grandmother. It will end when the ratings dip below a certain level, and its overseas distributors decide that their audiences are ready for a headier dose of American culture—Jersey Shore, perhaps. As for the higher-quality prime-time soaps, they typically hold out the promise of a morally satisfying resolution but fail to deliver one, because they don't want to foreclose the possibility of being renewed. This is why, after the first season or two, even the best dramatic television series—The Sopranos, The Wire—lose what moral clarity they originally possessed, as most of their characters never have to reckon with the consequences of their actions.
The opposite is true of the classic telenovela. The most beloved telenovela of all time, a 1969 Peruvian production called Simplemente María (Simply Maria), is all about a morally satisfying ending. Produced in black and white and lasting 448 episodes, the series tells the story of a village girl who goes to work as a maid in the city, only to be seduced and abandoned by a rich medical student. Fired from her job, María supports herself and her son while taking literacy classes and learning to sew on a Singer sewing machine. Eventually María marries Esteban, her kindly teacher, and becomes a successful fashion designer.
When first broadcast in Peru, Simplemente María was so popular, 10,000 people showed up for the taping of the wedding episode in a Lima church. More significant, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of housemaids enrolling in adult literacy and sewing classes, and a surge in sales for Singer, which later presented a gold sewing machine to Saby Kamalich, the actress who played María. When Simplemente María had a similar impact in other Latin American countries, a Mexican producer named Miguel Sabido began to wonder whether the telenovela might be harnessed for what he called "entertainment-education."
Sabido and his colleagues at Televisa, Mexico's largest commercial TV channel, believed in cooperating with sponsors and the government to create socially beneficial programming that was also profitable. So after conducting a study of the Simplemente María phenomenon, Sabido developed a method in which a drama is built around a government-approved cause—adult literacy, gender equality, child development, family planning—and the characters are divided into three groups: true believers, scoffers, and doubters (who just happen to resemble the program's target demographic). At the end, the true believers and converted doubters are rewarded, the scoffers are rebuked, and a prominent citizen appears in the role of Aesop reiterating the moral of the story.
Sabido used this method to produce five telenovelas between 1979 and 1982, all of which earned competitive ratings. Then he went global, working with the Indian government to produce a telenovela called Hum Log (We People), which aired on the state-owned network, Doordarshan, in 1984. Hum Log was a huge success, attracting an average audience of 50 million (out of 80 million Indians with access to television at the time). But it also illustrated the limits of the genre. The government-approved cause originally woven into Hum Log was family planning. But a drop in the ratings prompted a switch to "mutual respect among family members," most saliently the respect of husbands for wives, and the need for parents involved in arranging marriages to consider the wishes of daughters as well as sons. These themes were well received, but Hum Log did not alter certain deeply ingrained attitudes. For example, a character intended to be a negative role model—a submissive, self-sacrificing grandmother—was cited as positive by 80% of the viewers in a national poll.
Entertainment-education is not unheard of in the United States. Many Americans between the ages of 30 and 50 will recall the ABC After School Specials that purported to teach valuable life lessons to children and teenagers. In the 1990s, a TV host named Sonny Fox joined forces with Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to persuade soap producers to include socially beneficial messages. One result was the inclusion of an AIDS subplot in the 2001 season of The Bold and the Beautiful, which prompted thousands of viewers to call a posted 800-number sponsored by the Center for Disease Control. This kind of short-term effect is acknowledged every time a trade group or nonprofit presents an award to a soap producer for including a lesson about this or that worthy cause. What is not acknowledged, however, is the long-term effect of post-1970s soaps, which appears, after four decades, to be greater public acceptance of morally obtuse sexual behavior. At least that's how our soaps look to the millions of people around the world who prefer telenovelas.
The Ramadan Soap
Another name for entertainment-education is propaganda, and the latest chapter in the history of the soap opera is the appropriation of the genre by authoritarian governments. In no country except perhaps North Korea are the masses still bludgeoned with true propaganda, the equivalent of Stalinist films about collective farms joyfully fulfilling the latest five-year plan. Instead, the didactic soaps currently produced by the state-controlled media of China, Russia, Iran, and the still-standing dictatorships of the Arab Middle East are both popular and entertaining.
In the relatively wide open 23-nation Arab satellite TV market, there is even some room for real competition. With financing from the Gulf kingdoms and production facilities in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai, and Damascus, the Arab soap, or musalsal, dominates the prime-time schedule, especially during Ramadan, when families gather for Iftar, the sunset breaking of their daily fast. Before the mid-1990s, Iftar was devoted to feasting and storytelling: today it is devoted to feasting and TV. And during the late evening hours, when the children are asleep, dozens of Ramadan soaps compete to become the Arab equivalent of "must-see TV."
The first generation of Ramadan soaps was made by Lebanese and Egyptians, the old masters of Arabic-language popular culture. But these were soon joined by the Syrians, the new masters of dodging the genre's many critics: officials of the producer's own government, officials of the 22 other governments in the market, Gulf financiers, established Islamic authorities, outlawed Islamist radicals, and an exceedingly diverse viewership. The Syrians gained a reputation for successfully running this gauntlet while also producing taboo-breaking fare. For example, in 2006 Syria produced musalsal about government corruption, the connection between terrorism and organized crime, and the difficulties facing university students.
But there are taboos and there are taboos. Ramadan this year falls in August, when long hot days of hunger and thirst give special intensity to Iftar. All the more reason to create musalsal that speak to what's on people's minds. But that probably won't happen, because not even the boldest and most beautiful producers dare tackle the recent upheavals. In Egypt, the new government will undoubtedly censor any attempt at a fictional portrayal of the revolution. In Syria, the besieged regime has taken time from repressing its citizens to order several current productions cancelled or postponed. And in the Gulf, the princes are tightening the reins as well as the purse strings.
This does not portend a vacuum, however, because in recent years two new players have moved into the Arab market. One of these, Iran, has become quite adept at producing historical dramas with political subtexts that appeal to Arab viewers. But after the violent suppression of Iran's green movement in 2009, the state-controlled Iranian TV industry has shown no signs of wanting to venture in the direction of popular uprising, even in a remote historical setting.
That leaves the other new player: Turkey. Turkish television was deregulated in the 1980s, and for the first few years broadcasters filled air time with old soaps and telenovelas from the Americas. Then Turkish producers began to create their own telenovelas, often dealing with the tensions between secular, Kamalist values and resurgent Islam. Between 2005 and 2007, one of these, Gümüş (Silver), enjoyed a modest success in the Turkish market, then got sold to MBC, the Saudi-owned company that dominates the Arab airwaves.
MBC's channels are free-to-air, meaning non-subscription, so they reach everyone in the region who has access to a satellite signal. Thus it was a major event when Gümüş, translated as Noor (Light), exploded in popularity. The plot was hardly original: a young woman from the provinces agrees to an arranged marriage to the son of a wealthy Istanbul family, only to discover that her handsome new husband still pines for another. Like María before her, Noor pulls herself together, learns to sew, and embarks on a career in fashion. In the end, she not only wins her husband's heart, she also transforms him into the very model of a modern egalitarian husband.
Noor became the most-watched show in the history of Arab TV, with the final episode attracting 85 million viewers, including more than 51 million adult women (roughly half the total female population of the region). One measure of Noor's impact was an abrupt rise in tourism between the Arab countries and Istanbul, where hundreds of thousands of Arab women dragged their husbands on "Noor Tours," in the hope of making them more appreciative and supportive. And perhaps even more worthy of note, hundreds of thousands of Arab men were apparently willing to be dragged.
Across the political spectrum, we Americans talk a lot about gender equality in the rest of the world, especially Muslim-majority countries. But when it comes to doing what Irna Phillips did for the immigrants in Chicago-creating stories that help tradition-minded people cope with disruptive change—we are not even part of the game any more. Our soaps attract plenty of eyeballs around the world, but not because they are inspiring or uplifting. On the contrary, they are generally regarded, by non-Muslims as well as Muslims, as titillating, shocking, even degrading. This may be good for the entertainment industry's bottom line, but what does it say about America?