|A SOC SPECIAL REPORT|
The daytime hours on The Big Three networks aren't just filled with meaningless fluff to fill the timeslots between the morning news programs and the primetime lineup. Soap operas continue to supply millions of people around the world with an escape from their every day lives.
In addition to entertaining, soap operas continue to be a forum for the discussion of topical social issues in America today. While daytime audiences tend to skew more towards more conservative views, there have been some surprisingly "progressive" plots in recent years.
In 1973, on the heels of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, All My Children aired a storyline in which Erica Kane underwent television's first legal abortion. Some 20 years later, the ABC soap revisited the issue when a character decided to terminate a pregnancy caused by a sexual assault.
In the late 1970s, Days of our Lives courted controversy when it aired daytime's first interracial romantic pairing. Even in today's soaps, networks executives still find writing for same-race couples less likely to rock the boat.
In 1992, One Life to Live injected the bitter taste of reality into its romance and fantasy by addressing the AIDS epidemic. As the culmination of a summer-long plot examining homophobia, eight sections of the Names Project AIDS Quilt were displayed in the first-of-its-kind display in a commercial/entertainment genre.
Similarly, ABC's General Hospital also tackled story that delved into the AIDS epidemic. The show earned critical praise for the love story of young lovers Robin and Stone, a story that ultimately ended with one of the show's main characters contracting HIV. For a period of several years, the show also incorporated a Nurses' Ball storyline to commemorate World AIDS Day.
Throughout parts of the 1990s and 2000s, All My Children featured numerous storylines involving gay and lesbian characters. In 1996, the show focused on the controversial practice of aversion therapy, in which homosexuals are attempted to be "cured" of their homosexuality. In 2004, the groundbreaking show featured the first lesbian kiss.
To address the changing ethnic diversity in the United States, in 2001 The Bold and the Beautiful became the first American soap opera to simulcast each broadcast in Spanish.
In 2004, The Young and the Restless invested time in a story that explored the foster care system in America. The storyline was driven by Emmy-nominated actress Victoria Rowell (Drucilla Winters), who herself had been in foster care. In 2001, Y&R began an extended look at the health issues of those afflicted with diabetes.
While some viewers lament that - such as in the case of All My Children's homosexuality storylines - others' values are being forced upon them, there are proven studies that soaps' teachings do come with a great deal of reward.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that nearly half (48%) of regular viewers of soap operas - those who watch at least twice a week - learned about a disease or how to prevent it from a soap opera in the past year. More than one-third (34%) took some action as a result, such as discussing it with others, giving advice or calling a doctor.
While some still poke fun at daytime television - for several months, late-night television host David Letterman has poked fun at NBC's Passions for a storyline that involved an orangutan by the name of BamBam - many former soap stars have come to embrace their daytime roots. Former All My Children star Kelly Ripa landed a plum role as Regis Philbin's sidekick on a morning talk show and she also appears as a co-headliner on her own primetime series, Hope & Faith. The Young and the Restless main heartthrob Shemar Moore has appeared in numerous feature films and has never shied away from admitting that daytime television helped to launch his career. Other stars that made stops in the land of the soaps on their way to eventual stardom include Demi Moore, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Mel Gibson, Whitney Houston and Selma Hayek.
Watching soap operas has always been a "dirty little secret" for many viewers. For years, the soaps have been viewed as a lesser form of the television medium. But that seems to be changing.
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Soap operas are definitely in trouble, but will this long-running genre come to an end?