Evelyn: [about a telenovela] So, you see that stripper? She used to be a nun and she's pregnant with the butcher's baby, but she doesn't know that the butcher is her second cousin.
Wilhelmina: A story as old as time.
First there was the radio soap opera, so named because the high drama was interspersed with adverts for soap (and in the case of Proctor & Gamble, the sole sponsor and producer for many of them). But there's no soap radio anymore; it has moved on to television. A soap opera is a drama with a large cast experiencing dramatic events in their day-to-day lives, broadcast five days a week. Designed to be viewed intermittently, so that a single event may be stretched over three or more days.
Frequently brings characters Back from the Dead (to the point that on Friends, Joey, after being killed off from Days of Our Lives, poked fun that he could come back, and he did), features onscreen screaming matches and has every imaginable configuration of characters sleeping with each other. Soap operas watched by fictional characters always turn this drama Up to Eleven, described by the trope Soap Within a Show.
There are two mains schools of Soap Opera, the "Anglo" School, common to the USA and UK; and the "Latin" School a.k.a. "Telenovela" or "Culebrón" (from "culebra", a word for "snake", which alludes to their length), which is the standard in every Latin nation from Mexico southwards. The principal difference between both schools is how long their continuous production runs: "Anglo" soaps are typically Long Runners, easily extending themselves for years and even decades when successful (the record-holder being (The) Guiding Light, 1937-2009), while the longest "Latin" soap lasted four years, with the average time being six to ten months. This difference holds globally: for instance, Arabic soaps are quite obviously of the "Latin" School, running for short periods of time (sometimes even just one month: Ramadan, when their viewers are frequently too tired during the day to do anything other than watch TV). Japanese, Korean, and other Asian dramas also resemble this school.
The main difference within the Anglo school is that US soaps often feature filthy rich characters with big houses and glamorous clothing (think Dallas or Dynasty), Australian ones usually feature middle class suburban white people, often young and healthy (Neighbours, Sons and Daughters, Home and Away), while the British soaps are either lower-middle class (Brookside) or grimly and grimily working class (Eastenders, Coronation Street). The feature common to all three flavours is that there is no one main character; rather, characters drift in an out of focus as the storylines go on. Some characters may be more memorable or have more influence on The Verse than others, but nobody can be said to be the protagonist. (See also: Soap Wheel.)
The Latin Soap Opera (AKA the telenovela) has two main styles: the classical, or "pink", and the "modern". The first style centers on classic and melodramatic pure love stories with poor, Naive Everygirl heroines that are often Too Dumb to Live, while the second tries to use resources from other genres and explore modern social issues without neglecting the love story side. Stereotypically, the pink telenovela is a Mexican and Venezuelan staple, the modern style is predominant in Colombia and Brazil, and Chilean telenovelas are a mix of both.
You can see the level of respect that schools have for their productions by the timeslot they put them: Spanish and Portuguese speakers often run their soaps in Prime Time, as do the Brits with their best soaps and favourite Aussie imports; whereas US stations traditionally quarantine soaps in an early morning or early afternoon timeslot (except of course for Soap Net, a satellite channel entirely dedicated to them, a channel going away at the end of December for Disney Junior). That being said, daytime soaps were reliable moneyspinners for the American networks from the days of Radio all the way into The Nineties, and served as a career springboard for many actors and actresses who went on to great success in more "legit" film and TV productions.
Nowadays, however, that is becoming increasingly less the case. It would seem that in America, daytime soap operas are at the beginning of their end. Four of the longest running and most successful soaps in history, Guiding Light was cancelled in 2009, As the World Turns in 2010, All My Children in 2011 and One Life to Live in 2012, and many are saying that they are the first, but definitely not the last casualties. There are several popular theories as to why this is happening:
- The first is the feminist movement and the rise of women in the workforce. When soaps began, women were still primarily housewives who would be home during daytime, which is the domain of soaps in America. However, as more and more families became two-income families, there simply weren't as many people home to watch.
- The second is that the TV landscape in general has inverted in America. Originally, soaps were allowed to be edgy while Prime Time was more conservative. (Back in the '50s, I Love Lucy's Lucy and Ricky Ricardo weren't allowed to say the word "pregnant", and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Laura Petrie was criticized for wearing pants.) As primetime TV has gotten edgier, daytime TV has, conversely, gotten somewhat stodgier. They seemed to have intersected during the mid-1970's, when Erica Kane and Maude Finlay both got landmark abortions withing a few months of each other. Soaps had a surge during the Eighties with the likes of Supercouple Luke and Laura, but at that point, Prime Time was creating edgy shows with topical themes such as Roseanne and The Golden Girls, and Soaps began to decline. In addition, the soap opera has become part of the DNA of television drama—it no longer needs to be contained in just daytime serials.
- This could be related to the above in that, with more women going into the workforce rather than becoming stay-at-home housewives, the women who still take the latter route are more likely to do so out of choice rather than due to pressure from their husbands and society. As such, they're likely to hold more conservative views vis a vis gender roles, gay rights and other social issues, causing the people running the soaps to make their own programming more conservative in order to hold their viewers. It also explains why prime time has taken on the soaps' old edginess—the liberal-leaning housewives who watched soaps before the rise of feminism have changed into liberal-leaning working women who watch prime time shows like the men do.
- The third theory cites two specific events in the late '80s and early '90s as the reasons why audiences started tuning out -- the 1988 WGA strike and the OJ Simpson trial. The former caused the soaps to run without experienced writers, leading to a sharp decline in quality, and coverage of the latter not only knocked the soaps off the air for several weeks, but it provided viewers with a Real Life soap opera to enjoy. Declining viewership caused the networks to put less effort into their shows, creating a vicious cycle of sinking quality and ratings.
- The fourth theory (and a conspiracy theory) is that the networks want to get out of the soap business because they are so expensive to produce compared to talk and reality shows, especially given that the above three factors have been cutting into ratings for upwards of two decades. However, soap opera fans are notoriously loyal (it is often the show that bonds generations of mothers and daughters), so the networks have been deliberately sabotaging their soaps, slashing budgets and hiring writers with contempt for the genre in an effort to drive fans away. Less fans means less ratings means that the soap can be canceled as a "business decision" with relatively minimal blowback. But if they actidentally cause Springtime for Hitler they're not gonna complain.
Many in the industry predict that while the soap opera will live on in American TV, the last of the American daytime serials will be off the air by 2015. SOAPNet, the one cable network dedicated to the genre and where most of the programs repeat, will leave the air in early 2012 to be replaced by Disney Junior, and its end was used as an excuse by ABC's daytime chief to kill All My Children and One Life to Live.
Practically every nation on earth has soap operas (radio and TV), and loads of soaps are one thing you can always count on an expatriate/tourist station for any given country carrying (except for military broadcasters, obviously).
Examples from the "Anglo School"
- All My Children
- Anna und die Liebe
- The Archers (radio soap)
- As the World Turns
- The Bold and the Beautiful
- Coronation Street
- Dark Shadows
- Days of Our Lives
- General Hospital
- Guiding Light
- Home and Away
- One Life to Live
- Pobol y Cwm
- Santa Barbara
- Shortland Street
- Sunset Beach
- The Young and The Restless
Examples from the "Latin School"
- La Impostora ("The Impostor')-A rich woman tricks a poor lookalike into taking her place so she can be free to have an affair. One of the most popular novelas ever, it's been remade several times.
- Kassandra, a classic tale of Switched At Birth who become the most famous telenovela in the world during the early Nineties.
- Crystal : two woman who raised over their Cinderella Circumstances, mother and daughter, cross their paths; tragedy ensues as the former ruins the life of the latter while unknowing of their real relationship. Remade several times.
- Esmeralda (and its similarly-titled epygones Topacio and Ruby)- all are about poor, blind women named after gemstones.
- El Derecho de Nacer, ("The Right To Be Born") which was born on the radio and has had countless TV remakes.
- Senda De Gloria, (Path of Glory) A historical soap opera. It was one of the first telenovelas that did not shy away from showing how brutal the Mexican Revolution was, and how it shaped modern Mexico. Notable also for the fact that Televisa took a lot of pains to ensure they got everything right. It was Screwed by the Network due to a political problem between the ruling party and the son of one of the presidents shown there.
- Los Ricos Tambien Lloran ("The Rich Also Cry"), which was the first soap opera that Televisa exported to countries outside of the American continent. It became very famous in the ex-USSR countries and brought fame to Verónica Castro, the actress who played the female lead.
- The "Trilogy of the Marias" (Maria Mercedes, Marimar, and Maria La Del Barrio) , a group of soaps with "Maria" in some part of their title, that catapulted their shared main actress, Mexican singer Thalia, from mere local fame to international superstardom.
- Escrava Isaura ("Isaura the Slave"), about a white slave on Colonial Brazil.
- Chocolate com Pimenta ("Chocolate with Pepper"), famous Brazilian soap taking place in the 1920's.
- Vale Tudo ("Anything Goes", famous 80s Brazilian soap)
- O Clone ("The Clone", Brazilian soap about a guy, his twin brother and his clone, along with some stereotypes of Arab culture and very narmy soundtrack)
- Pobre Diabla ("Poor She-Devil") (In Spanish "poor devil" means "loser")
- Pasion de Gavilanes ("Passion of the Hawks")
- Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, revamped in America as the Dramedy Ugly Betty; THE most successful Soap in history, it's been imitated all around the world.
- Café con Aroma de Mujer ("Coffee with the scent of a woman"), the previous most successful soap and a classic of The Nineties, set in Colombian coffee plantations.
- Amar en Tiempos Revueltos ("To Love in Turbulent Times") and Calle Nueva ("New Street") are two successful Spanish culebrones ("big snakes"- that's slang for a soap... on account of their being as long as snakes.)
- Corazon Salvaje ("Wild Heart"), an Historical Fiction-based novela about a sensual and rebellious man named "Juan del Diablo" (Juan the Devil). It has seen a lot of remakes ever since it was made.
- Rebelde Way and its remake Rebelde ("Rebel"), a Teen Drama in soap opera clothing, each one spawning musical groups.
- Rubí: One of the few telenovelas in which the main character is also the villain, as she's a huge Gold Digger.
- Anjo mau / Angel malo: Another telenovela which has a Gold Digger Anti Heroine, but now in ambiented in Brazil (or Chile, if we see its remake).
- Though not a Soap Opera, Lorena in The Brothers Garcia loves Telenovelas, and in one episode tries to break the record of most telenovelas watched in one sitting. She barely misses it, giving up when she realizes how melodramatic they are, and decides to become an activist for social change unlike the characters in the ones she watches (likely of the "Pink" subcategory) who quietly suffer.
- Zorro: La Espada Y La Rosa ("The Sword And The Rose"). Yes, there was a Zorro telenovela (loosely inspired by Isabel Allende's Hotter and Sexier version).
- ¿Dónde Está Elisa? ("Where is Elisa?") is a Chilean night telenovela (a new telenovela format in which the series is aired around 10 PM so it can be Darker and Edgier / Hotter and Sexier than the standard) about what happens when the daughter of a powerful family disappears. Includes actress Paola Volpato's incredibly scary Yandere Consuelo, bringer of a HUGE twist: Elisa was not only was kidnapped by a lover who is also her uncle as well as Consuelo's husband, but she actually gets shot to death.
- La Madrastra ("The Stepmother"), another Chilean soap but better known by its Mexican remake, about a woman who, while attempting to solve the Miscarriage of Justice who left her in prison for two decades, ends becoming the stepmother of her own children (who were told she died and were too young to remember her when she was sent to jail). And that's before the plot becomes truly convoluted.
- Series/Sos mi vida
- Los Titeres ("The Marionettes"). Classic Chilean telenovela from The Eighties in which a Greek girl gets throughly broken and humiliated by her evil cousin and her friends in The Sixties, and returns twenty years later to both have revenge and to face her own ghosts. Famous due to both the incredibly well-done script (written by Chilean playwright Sergio Vodanovic), the end that the Big Bad got ( losing her mind when her plans fail, and then mentally reversion to a childish mindset ), and the enormously creepy]] OP sequence