Soap operas once ruled the roost when it came to daytime TV. Their heyday seems to be behind them, but there’s quite a few still kicking around. The storylines are juicy and they often act as a breeding ground for actors who go on to become big stars—but sometimes, the drama behind the scenes is even more compelling than what happens on the air. Discover these juicy facts about soap operas.
1. And Now a Word from Our Sponsor
Have you ever wondered where soap operas got their name? When they first aired as radio programs back in 1931, soap companies sponsored them, which accounts for the soap portion of the name. Opera is a nod to the melodramatic nature of the characters and storylines, and the similarity they share with operas.
2. Target Audience
Not surprisingly, the target audience of soap operas was housewives who stayed home during the day while their husbands worked. Daytime serials focused mostly on female characters and multiple generations of their family, and were full of romance and mystery—all packed into a live 15-minute show.
3. Dominating the Radio Waves
Soaps gradually grew in popularity throughout the 1930s, and by 1941, soap operas made up around 90% of all sponsored daytime radio programs. After WWII, once television became common in more households—but it meant the end for the radio soap, the last of which gave up the ghost in November of 1960.
4. We Had a Good Run
The longest-running soap opera in history was Guiding Light, which spent 15 years on the radio and continued for another 57 years on TV. Surprisingly, the show was based on creator Irna Phillips’ personal experiences. Phillips was an absolute magnet for melodrama in her personal life. Sadly, Guiding Light aired its last episode on September 18, 2009.
It was the end of an era.
5. Based on a True Story
Irna Phillips knew loss from a tragically young age. When she was just 8 years old, her father passed away, leaving behind her and nine other siblings—but the heartbreak didn’t stop there. When she was 19 years old, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. She used the experience to inform her writing on Guiding Light.
She also created soap opera mainstays As the World Turns and Another World. Busy lady!
6. Couldn’t Stand Him
Just because you play lovers on a soap doesn’t mean you get along in real life, and this was particularly true for Lisa Rinna, who was part of super couple Bo and Billie on Days of Our Lives in the early 1990s. On an episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, she confessed to hating her co-star Robert Kelker-Kelly. Could have fooled us!
7. It’s a Matter of Data
If you’ve been hoping to find your favorite soap available on DVD/Blu-Ray, you’re likely in for a long wait. Considering that most American soaps have racked up 30+ seasons and thousands of episodes, there’s too much data that would have to go into the sets. For now, we’ll have to make do with the highlights.
8. First of Its Kind
In the history of soaps, only one daytime serial has ever been released to the public in DVD format. In 2011, a collection of 20 popular episodes from As the World Turns was released as a 4-DVD set, featuring notable weddings, scandals, villains, and special anniversary episodes from 1979-2010. Thanks for the memories!
9. Power Couples
In the early 80s, a new term emerged to describe highly popular soap opera couples. When General Hospital’s Luke and Laura became a mainstream sensation, they coined the phrase “supercouple.” Since then, people have used the term to describe countless popular and powerful celebrity couples, such as George and Amal Clooney. Goals!
10. Daytime Diva
One of the most popular soap-opera actresses of all time is Susan Lucci, who portrayed villainess Erica Kane on All My Children for a whopping 41 years. Her iconic status earned her the title of “Daytime’s Leading Lady.” She also reportedly had a salary worthy of a diva, earning $1 million per year as far back as 1991.
11. Always a Bridesmaid
Susan Lucci may have been #1 with her fans, but when it came to winning the industry’s highest honor, luck just wasn’t on her side—to a nearly absurd degree. She was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for a staggering 19 consecutive years before winning the award in 1999. When she finally did win, she concluded her speech by promising to go back to work on Monday and “play Erica Kane for all she’s worth.”
12. Hooking the Kids
The most coveted TV demographic is the 18-49 age range, and in the late 1950s, the producer of As the World Turns conceived a special summer storyline featuring the elopement of two teenaged characters to attract younger viewers. Since then, soaps deliberately push younger characters and storylines to the forefront in the summer months, hoping to capture that key group.
13. Family Feud
Once upon a time, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar had a sweet gig as Susan Lucci’s daughter on All My Children, but the mother-daughter relationship allegedly soured for a truly melodramatic reason. Gellar was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 1994 and Lucci wasn’t. Lucci claimed that the story was false, but they’re not exactly close friends either.
14. And Now for Something Completely Different
By the mid-1960s there were plenty of soaps on the air for viewers to choose from, but none were quite like Dark Shadows, which ran from 66-71. The gothic-themed show featured vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, witches, and even time travel, and while it was highly popular with younger viewers, the network considered it “unproductive” and canceled it to save money.
15. Making it in Prime Time
As soaps grew in popularity on daytime television, they also leapt over to primetime television, beginning with the show Peyton Place in 1964. The long-running show created a format that’s still often used in primetime serials, featuring storylines that extended over multiple episodes and a chronological storytelling structure. This format reached its apex in the 80s with shows like Dallas and Dynasty.
16. Tackling Taboos
There have always been subjects that TV shows won’t touch with a 10-foot pole, but in 1964 Another World made history by being the first show in television history to include a plot about abortion. A character had an illegal abortion that left her unable to have kids, and it opened the door for other soaps to tackle the issue.
17. Defining Moment
In 1973, All My Children also ventured into new territory when Susan Lucci’s character had the first legal abortion on TV. It was also the only time that the story was featured on the soap, because as creator Agnes Nixon explained, they wanted to cover issues in order to educate the public and not to create controversy.
18. Miracle Growth Syndrome
Time definitely works in strange ways on soap operas, as is evidenced by a bizarre phenomenon known as “Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome.” It refers to a trope where one day a character is a little kid heading off to boarding school in Switzerland, only for them to return many years older just in time for a summer storyline. What are they putting in the water in those Swiss schools?
19. Facelift Pioneer
Jeannie Cooper, who portrayed Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless, made history in 1984 by having her character get a facelift on TV at the same time as her real-life procedure. The storyline was described as “TV’s first extreme makeover,” and it helped make the subject more mainstream.
20. Move it Back
Once the top-rated show in the 12:30 pm time slot on CBS, the long-running soap Search for Tomorrow was moved to 2:30 to make room for Young and the Restless. This proved to be very bad for ratings, and when the network refused Proctor & Gamble’s request to move it back to its regular slot, it was sold to NBC.
21. Canceled Again
Poor Search for Tomorrow just couldn’t catch a break. After airing for a few years on NBC, it was permanently canceled in December 1986 because it was losing to the exact show that replaced it. At the time, it was the longest-running daytime television show in history, with a 35-year run over both networks.
22. The Exorcist Meets Daytime
One of the craziest and most popular storylines in daytime history was the time that Marlena was possessed by the devil on Days of Our Lives. The show went all out and even had her levitating, but thankfully her spouse John Black was able to draw on his past life as a priest and exorcise her demons. Close one!
Actresses Kimberlin Brown and Hunter Tylo, who portrayed Shiela Carter and Taylor Hayes on The Bold and the Beautiful, became good friends when Carter joined the show—until everything fell apart during Tylo’s divorce. Brown and her husband were asked to appear as character witnesses during the hearings, but instead of supporting their friend, they sided with Tylo’s soon-to-be ex-husband instead.
24. Everybody Loves a Villain!
Villains and villainesses are some of the juiciest roles that a soap-opera actor can play, and they are definitely fun to watch. Joan Collins’ Alexis Colby became an instant smash when she made her debut on Dynasty in the show’s second season, and she ranked 7th on TV Guide’s 2013 list of “the 60 nastiest Villains of All Time.”
25. Where Did He Go?
Usually when a character leaves a show some explanation is given for their absence, but in a truly bizarre move, the producers of Days of Our Lives couldn’t be bothered to explain fan-favorite Bo Brady’s disappearance when he was written off. On the show, he left on holiday with his wife and daughter, and he was never mentioned again. It’s like he was never there.
It may be hard to imagine, but some soap opera actors have spent decades playing a single character. Currently, actor William Roche of Coronation Street holds the Guinness record for the world’s longest-serving soap star, and most time spent playing a single character, having appeared in his 10,000th episode in February 2020.
27. I Knew Him When…
You might be surprised to learn that several of Hollywood’s A-listers started out on a soap. Famous alumnae include Brad Pitt, who had his first speaking role on Another World in 1987, Leonardo DiCaprio, who appeared on Santa Barbara when he was 10, and Julianne Moore, who played twins on Another World from 1986 to 1988.
28. Wedding of the Century
Wedding of the century may be an overstatement, but Doug and Julie’s wedding on Days of Our Lives was such a huge event that it made the cover of Time Magazine in 1976. The wedding attracted a record 16 million viewers and signaled the growing popularity of the genre. No wonder the magazine dubbed soaps “TV’s richest genre.”
29. Breaking the Record
In 1981, another soap opera supercouple tied the knot, drawing a record 30 million viewers to General Hospital. Luke and Laura’s wedding remains the most-watched episode of any American soap in history, and it’s still talked about by fans. It even took the #35 slot on TV Guide’s 100 Most Memorable Moments on TV—and there have been a lot of memorable moments!
30. Who Done It?
Dallas hit ratings gold with their “Who Shot J.R.” cliff-hanger, and it became such a phenomenon that odds-makers were taking bets on who the shooter was. For the entire summer, people were seen wearing t-shirts referencing the mystery, and star Larry Hagman was offered £100,000 while on vacation to reveal the culprit.
31. Best Kept Secret
The mystery of J.R.’s shooter was so well-kept that neither Hagman nor the cast knew who it was. Every person in the cast and crew was filmed shooting J.R. in order to keep it secret, and it obviously worked, because 86 million people tuned in to find out the answer. That was more than voted in the US election that year!
32. For the Guys
The daytime drama Edge of Night was originally intended to be a television version of the radio show Perry Mason. That didn’t work out, but it was different than any other soap. The central character was a crime fighter, and the stories were largely about dealers, dirty cops, and the mafia, which made it really popular with men.
33. The Dead Don’t Die
In soap opera land, dead characters often don’t stay dead, especially when nobody actually sees a body. Notorious villain Stefano DiMera on Days of Our Lives had more lives than a cat, dying and coming back to life a total of 13 times. The actor playing DiMera died in 2017, but the show has been vague about the character’s fate, so anything is possible!
34. Heart-Wrenching Moment
In 1994, viewers of General Hospital mourned along of one of their favorite couples when their daughter was tragically left brain dead after a bus accident. The story also raised public awareness about organ donation when they donated her heart to save her cousin, who had Kawasaki disease and needed the transplant to survive.
35. Television Novel
Americans aren’t the only ones who love their soaps! A telenovela, often described as a “Spanish soap opera,” is similar to an American soap but with one significant difference. A telenovela tells one finite story over about a year rather than the continuous open-ended format of the soaps we know and love.
36. For the Millennials
Beginning in the 2010s, a new term was coined to describe a new category of telenovelas that appealed mostly to millennials. A Millennial telenovela tackles modern political and social issues with storylines that are a lot more involved than traditional soaps and more cutting-edge. In other words, a permanent summer storyline.
37. Who Says Radio is Dead?
People in the UK love their soaps, and believe or not, one of the most popular dramas airs exclusively on the radio! The Archers has been airing on BBC Radio 4 since 1950 and logs over 5 million listeners each night. The program is second in ratings only to news and is the world’s longest-running drama in any format.
38. Not Quite So Rich and Famous
In a departure from their American cousins, British soaps tend to focus on working-class communities and regular people, rather than the super-wealthy and glamourous. People obviously respond to them, because shows like East Enders are among the highest-rated and longest-running shows on British TV, and even the Queen is supposedly a fan.
39. Who Am I?
One popular soap opera trope is when a character suddenly comes down with a case of amnesia. Using the device gives writers license to re-write a plot or change the personality of a character from bad to good or vice-versa, and in most cases, they get their memories back at a suitable point much later on.
40. Will the Real Roman Please Stand Up?
In the case of Days of Our Lives, amnesia was used to bring back the presumed dead character Roman Brady, with a new actor playing him. The show explained the change by claiming he’d had plastic surgery, but things got sticky when the original actor returned to his role in 1991. How did they explain the two Romans?
They said the new Roman was a different character who had been brainwashed. Alrighty then!
Victor Newman may be a popular villain on The Young and the Restless, but off-screen, actor Eric Braden has also been known to act like a villain. In 1991, he and Peter Bergman, who portrays his on-screen nemesis Jack Abbott, came to blows off-screen. The producer immediately threatened both actors with replacement, and they’ve managed to keep it civil ever since.
42. A New Feud
Bergman wasn’t the only co-star that Braden feuded with. He reportedly also didn’t get along with Michael Muhney, who portrayed his son Adam Newman, and it’s been suggested that Muhney was fired in 2013 as a result. Nobody knows exactly what happened, and the actor hasn’t confirmed or denied it.
43. An Agonising Choice
When tragic star Rock Hudson appeared on Dynasty in 1984, he was faced with a difficult decision. The storyline called for him to kiss co-star Linda Evans. However, the actor had a secret that made him question whether or not he should go through with it. He didn’t want his AIDS diagnosis getting out, but also didn’t want to risk infecting her.
He decided to kiss her, but kept it chaste.
44. Imports Only
Despite the popularity that soaps enjoy north of the border, there are very few Canadian soaps, and they rarely last long. At least, not the English ones. However, French-language soaps known as téléromans are hugely popular in Quebec. Les Belles Histoires des pays d’en haut, which aired for 14 years on Radio Canada, put the genre on the map.
45. Swinging Downward
Once upon a time in the 80s, a daytime soap could average as many as 14 million viewers an episode, and 15 different soaps were on the air. Since the mid-90s, both ratings and the number of soaps on the air have fallen, and today only four daytime soaps remain on the major US networks. Network budget cuts and different viewing habits played a part, but those weren’t the only reasons.
46. It’s O.J.’s Fault
In 1995, the trial of O.J. Simpson had people glued to their TVs, which pre-empted soaps and other daytime programming. The trial also had all of the drama and intrigue that drew people to the soaps, and it turned out that watching a real-life soap opera unfold was way more exciting than fiction.
47. And the Kardashians
In many ways, the Kardashians have also played a role in the decline of soaps. Part of what drew viewers to soaps was the emotional investment that they made in the characters, and that fascination has transferred to reality TV stars. It’s also considerably cheaper to produce with similar results, so networks have pivoted to fill the air with reality programs.