Soap Operas As A Social Force

As a radio genre, the daytime serial drama was created with the American housewife in mind. Sponsored by household products, broadcast in daylight hours most likely to appeal to homemakers, and heard by an audience that was ninety percent female, for three decades these so-called soap operas engaged, entertained, and educated millions of women Monday through Friday, from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. That the soaps were well-received by their intended audience is seen in the fact that daytime serials lasted into the early 1960s, far beyond the date when most dramatic and comedic features disappeared from radio. In fact, one scholar has made a substantial case for the notion that traditional radio programming died on November 25, 1960, the day when four long-running serials—The Second Mrs. Burton, The Right to Happiness, Young Doctor Malone, and Ma Perkins—were broadcast on CBS for the last time.

Despite their chronic popularity, like many forms of popular culture that enjoy mass acceptance, soaps were often the object of contempt. This was first noticeable in the terms applied to them. When they emerged in the early 1930s, they were properly called serials since their stories were never completed in one program and, like the romance fiction and movie serials from which they gained much of their inspiration, their plots might be expected to continue for many broadcasts before reaching a full conclusion. Before the end of the decade, however, trade publications sarcastically labeled them "washboard weepers," "sudsers," and "soap operas" because they were melodramatic and usually sponsored by manufacturers of facial soaps or soap powders.

More debasing attacks, however, came from critics inside and outside the radio industry. Dr. Lee De Forest, one of the developers of radio, scorned soaps as "tripe" and contended that they "could be ordered off the air very easily without much of a cultural loss to the American people." Marion Dickerman, the education director of the American Arbitration Association, assailed them as a "deluge of dirt" in which the “clear boundary edges of the moral codes are smeared and obliterate.” The editors of Variety felt that soap operas were guilty of providing a "malnutritious diet of pap." And humorist James Thurber poked derisively at them as a simplistic, formulaic sandwich whose recipe was:

Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.

Perhaps the most vitriolic attack on the serials came from a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Berg, who in the early 1940s inspired a strong movement against soap operas. Berg contended that they appealed to the basest passions in civilized man, and in time of war were "little short of treason." Most colorfully, Berg described the soaps:

Pandering to perversity and playing out destructive conflicts, these serials furnish the same release for the emotionally distorted that is supplied to those who desire satisfaction from a lynching bee, lick their lips at the salacious scandals of the crime passionnel, who in the unregretted past cry out in ecstasy at a witch burning.

Soap operas, however, were not without their defenders. Irna Phillips, one of the most prolific and successful creators of daytime genre, argued many times that her stories were simply reflections of reality. According to her, "The serial drama is not 'such stuff as dreams are made of.' It is as fundamental as life itself. Our day-by-day existence is a serial drama." Drs. W. Lloyd Warner and William E. Henry of the University of Chicago concluded in 1943 that, "By dramatizing the hopes and fears of the average American housewife, and her standards of right and wrong, the radio serial tells stories which point out good and evil in a way that ordinary people can understand."

Hobe Morrison, the prestigious critic for Variety, felt that many soaps had critical roles in American society. He specifically cited The Goldbergs, a serial featuring a Jewish family living in New York City, as promoting religious and ethnic tolerance, for "The message is there and, in the serial's years of daily broadcasting into millions of homes, [it] must have had a definite, if immeasurable, effect." Similarly, a study group in 1947 contended that Big Sister had a powerful social effect in that it curbed neuroticism, strengthened marriages, provided techniques for coping with emotional problems, improved women's sense of security and importance, and had a positive effect upon listeners' personalities. Even the critical Thurber concluded that the soaps were a form of daytime “morality play” avidly followed by millions of listeners.

The most telling defense of soap operas, however, lay in the economics of daytime radio. By the late 1930s the soaps had become a significant source of revenue for the networks. Expenditures for daytime radio advertising rose from $11,331,882 in 1935, to $26,701,845 in 1939. Furthermore, sponsors were able to utilize a greater percentage of the time in a soap broadcast than any other form of radio programming. In 1939 a study made at Kansas State College showed that in the average fifteen-minute serial, 17.8 percent of the time—two minutes and forty seconds—were spent advertising. This was in excess of two and one-half times the amount of time spent advertising on one-hour evening shows. Even thirty-minute evening programs used only 10.4 percent of their time with the advertiser’s message. The soaps also were inexpensive for sponsors to produce. In 1946, for example, the average cost of a typical program—fifteen minutes a day, five days a week—was only $1,400 for actors, writing, and technical assistance.


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