Anyone over the age of 25 will remember a time when soaps ruled the prime-time schedules. During the 80s and 90s, shows like Dallas, All My Children and The Bold and the Beautiful dominated the US networks, while here in the UK we were inundated with both Australian soaps like Neighbours, Home & Away, Sons & Daughters and The Sullivans as well as our own crop including Coronation Street, Eastenders and Brookside.
US soaps were filled with bold and beautiful characters who seduced viewers with their glamorous and unfeasibly complicated lives. Australian soaps provided us here in the UK with an achievable fantasy of sun-kissed surfer babes who lived lives nonetheless very similar to our own. British soaps, meanwhile, were the very meat and two veg of television; normal people, just like us, dealing with the intricacies of real-life just as we did.
Of course, that is precisely what all soap operas had in common. No matter their circumstances, whether ultra-glamorous or working class, soap opera characters dealt with the nitty-gritty of human relationships in scenes that we could all relate to. Perhaps our own lives never provided quite as much drama as a soap character faced, but this was exactly where the greatness of soap operas lay.
On the one hand soap operas were fantasy; pure escapism and simple sensationalism. But on the other, they genuinely did make viewers confront moral dilemmas and situations that they may never have experienced in real life. In that way, they opened out viewers’ realms of experience; they prime-time US television; General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. The most recent ratings for Days of Our Lives show a new low among the group who used to be their target audience; female viewers aged 18-49. While the major UK soaps remain popular, Australian soaps such as Neighbours and Home & Away have all but disappeared from UK TV schedules, and are certainly not a talking point as they once were. The latest ratings at digitalspy.com show that they are frequently moved out of the way for more important events, and are seen as a disposable part of the schedule. Even the confronted taboos head-on and tore them apart without a qualm, and I mean every taboo.
Today, the popularity of soap operas is at an all-time low. There are only four currently on air on major UK soaps seem to be most popular with the older generation, so it remains to be seen whether even they will survive over the next few decades.
So what happened to our love of beautiful people, evil twins and incestuous affairs? Reality television happened of course.
Ever since a Dutch TV show called Nummer 28 began filming the real lives of a group of students, the world was hooked. Here were soap operas with real life participants; they weren’t just like us, they really were us! The same voyeuristic urge that was satisfied by soaps was doubly satisfied by reality television, and came with the added excitement of unpredictability.
What is more fascinating than the reality TV show itself is our preoccupation with it. What exactly is it about the mundane lives and real reactions of people that we find so fascinating? Why, when we have our own lives to lead, do we so intensely enjoy observing the lives of others from afar?
Perhaps it is because, in truth, the reality television show provides the exact same distorted mirror that soap operas once did. Sure, it is real life, but not as we know it, Jim. These are situations which have been filmed in such a way as to heighten the drama, whose cast are often encouraged to behave in a certain way if not directly given a script.
Mark my words; it won’t be long before reality TV producers find a way of incorporating the evil twin and hilarious back-from-the-dead scenario into their shows. The soap opera is dead, long live the soap opera!
Love it or hate it, it seems that reality TV is here to stay. But perhaps it’s time you tore yourself away from that screen and spent some time on your real-life love life. Find out how your partner feels about reality TV with the DiscoveryGame Fixed on Reality TV.