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Hintergrund: Love and Hate

Stories That Just Keep On Going

There is love and there is hate. There are secrets as well – plenty of them. There are the rich and the powerful – and the ordinary people of everyday life. There is alcoholism, abortion and adultery. And you could probably go through the entire alphabet to z for zombie – and still not have covered all the issues that soap operas have picked up on over the decades.

Soap operas are great at telling stories. Anything that can happen to a person in a lifetime – soap operas will show it to us. Life in soap operas may seem overly dramatic or even unrealistic – but it's definitely never boring. Because we identify with the characters, we feel with them and we want to know what happens next. And there is always something happening next.

That's because the one main characteristic that all soap operas share is seriality. The story never ends when the episode is over – it will continue in the next episode. So once you've seen one episode, you will be hooked and tune in again.

Clean Entertainment For Yesterday's Housewives

Even though today both men and women watch soap operas, they were originally designed for women. In 1930s America, they were the ones staying at home while their husbands went to work. While the women were doing the housework, they liked to listen to dramatic stories on the radio. These shows were often sponsored by manufacturers of soap – more specifically, of household cleaning products that the housewives were supposed to buy. So the radio dramas were called "soap operas" – an ironic term because the dramas were far from being operas, the highest of all art forms.

The American soap opera "Guiding Light" for example mainly dealt with the twists and turns in the life of a lower-middle class family called the Bauers. It was first broadcast on the radio in 1937, transferred to TV in 1952 and only cancelled in 2009, making it the longest story ever told in broadcasting.

In the 1950s, most soap operas broadcast one 15-minute episode each weekday. As their popularity grew, they extended their episodes to half-hour and later to one-hour instalments. In the 1980s, the first primetime serials were developed – they were not shown during the day but at night and were made not for housewives but for a younger, more mixed audience. Famous examples include "Beverly Hills, 90210", "Melrose Place" and "Dawson's Creek" in the 1990s. In the 2000s, shows like "Desperate Housewives" or "Grey's Anatomy" became extremely successful as well. At the same time, with more women going to work during the day, the daytime soap operas started to decline. Since 1999, no new daytime soap has been created in the USA. Additionally, many veteran soaps like "Guiding Light", "As The World Turns" (airing since 1956) or "All My Children" (airing since 1970) have been canceled since 2009.

From London's East End To Munich's Lindenstraße

  • Ein Blick in eine Straße mit Wohnhäusern, einem Kiosk und Geschäften; Rechte: WDR Germany’s oldest soap is set in the Lindenstraße.

While the US soap operas are frequently set in a glamorous environment and feature rich, beautiful and powerful characters, soaps in the United Kingdom are about working-class people in an everyday environment. One of the most successful UK soap operas, the BBC's "EastEnders", focusses on the inhabitants of a street in London's East End. In 1986, 30.15 million people tuned in for the Christmas Day episode of "EastEnders" and made it the highest-rated programme in UK television history. When Princess Diana was buried in 1997, the TV broadcast of the funeral attracted only about two million more viewers.

ITV, another big TV broadcaster in the UK, has been showing "Coronation Street" since 1960. This soap opera was a model for Germany's first soap, "Lindenstraße". Just like "Coronation Street", "Lindenstraße" is set on one particular street and tells the story of the people living there. It was first broadcast in 1985 on Das Erste and except for two episodes during the 2012 Olympics, it has been shown every week continually for three decades.

It took until 1992 for the next German soap opera to appear: like "Lindenstraße", "Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten" was modeled on a foreign example – the Australian soap "The Restless Years". It was broadcast by RTL and was a huge flop in the beginning, getting bad ratings and bad reviews alike. But RTL stuck with the experiment and "Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten" became very successful in the late 1990s.

Soaps With A Plot: Telenovelas

Many people believe that soap operas were not invented in the USA but in Latin America as telenovelas. This is not completely accurate, however, because a telenovela is different from a soap opera. Telenovelas are generally written with an ending in mind. They normally run for about a year or less while soap operas are made to run for years, even decades, if the ratings permit it. Still, there are some obvious similarities between soaps and telenovelas. For example, they started to appear on television at a similar time (at the beginning of the 1950s) and often tell romantic stories of love, hate and betrayal, set in a working-class or a glamorous environment. But because a telenovela has an ending, a lot less characters and plot twists are needed. They normally tell the story of one main character, often female, with a couple of supporting roles.

While they've been popular in Latin America for over 50 years, German TV stations started to produce their own telenovelas only a few years ago. In 2004 the ZDF introduced the very successful "Bianca – Wege zum Glück". A little later, Sat.1 produced "Verliebt in Berlin". The story about ugly duckling Lisa Plenske did not really stay true to the telenovela genre: rather than ending after 225 episodes, Sat.1 kept it going for 645 – and therefore almost made it into a soap opera.