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Account for the Popularity of British Soap Opera Essay Sample

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Account for the Popularity of British Soap Opera Essay Sample

The soap opera genre was derived from a format first experimented with through radio broadcast. However as television developed into a more accessible medium soap opera spread its wings and in 1960 the first televised soap opera was born. Coronation Street was the name of the first programme; it offered a nostalgic perspective on northern industrial working-class life.

Soap opera presented in a serial format allowed continuation of a theme of narrative that was never before presented. Indeed the genre of soap opera itself has changed the way in which drama is presented to the viewer. The most important element in the genre is the lack of closure to any one of many simultaneous narratives interwoven over a number of episodes. These narratives can be shown from a range of perspectives, contradictive or supportive of one another ultimately allowing the viewer their own interpretation and appraisal of the life of the characters portrayed. Charlotte Brunsdon goes on to argue that the question guiding a soap story is not ‘What will happen next?’ but ‘What kind of person is this?’

Tania Modleski (1982) argues that the structural openness of soaps is an essentially ‘feminine’ narrative form, that pleasure in narrative focuses on closure, whilst soaps delay resolution and make anticipation an end in itself. She comments that the viewer has inscribed upon them the desire to be the ‘ideal mother’ to the characters by listening to their problems and resolving the difficulties from her omnipresent viewpoint.

There are many theories that the soap opera genre has a greater appeal to women than men. It is argued that the linear structure of action/adventure stories which in the majority appear as series’ or films, appeal to a more masculine viewpoint. This is argued to be because of a need for a straight forward resolve, action and consequence. A series or film format promises ultimate resolve and therefore closure not just for the characters but also for the viewer, whilst the soap opera format provokes contemplation, reasoned argument and debate. What should the character do next? Why did the character do that? A format which builds storylines one after the other, resolving one narrative whilst hooking the audience into the next, in this way ensuring an active audience for a theoretically infinite time period.

The need for ‘gossip’ in every day life is pandered to by the soap opera, not only do the characters gossip but so do the viewers, this shared sense of inner knowledge provides not only a talking point for viewers but a selling point for producers. For example the recent Eastender’s advertising slogan “Everyone’s Talking about It” featured representations of a wide cross section of society to demonstrate to those ‘not talking about it’ that they were not part of the soap opera ‘gang’.

The need for people to feel part of something much larger than themselves is a great selling factor. Whilst the producers and writers of soap opera strive to reflect realism, those viewing the soap opera strive to escape their own reality. It has been questioned that soap opera is not only used as a device for entertainment, but the largely issue-based plots instrumental in the decision making of those who are experiencing those issues in their very own lives.

The foregrounding of the story and backgrounding the use of the conventions of the medium (e.g. invisible editing) creates a ‘transparency’ of style which encourages viewers to regard the programme as a ‘window’ on an apparently unmediated world.

The storyline or plot of the soap opera is an important factor to attract an audience. No discerning soap opera viewer will watch an unbelievable or boring story unfold. The power of certain storylines to overflow into the reality of everyday life (slippage) has had a large effect in attracting a wider audience. For example two recent storylines that caused much debate included the Coronation Street ‘Free Deirdre’ campaign, where a soap character was wrongfully imprisoned. This particular storyline created a nationwide press campaign and even intervention from the prime-minister himself.

The Eastender’s storyline which sparked mass debate was the ‘Who Shot Phil Mitchell?’ mystery, generating press attention and even t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I shot Phil Mitchell’. The ability soap opera creates to blur reality with fiction is an attractive bubble in itself. This ability to craft debate not only in social situations but also in political or media circles, about a fictional storyline gives soap writers a great deal of power.

The British soap opera owes a great deal to the social realist tradition, begun in the late 50’s which developed into the kitchen-sink style of theatre. Social realism emphasises the relevance of an event or occurrence, reflecting everyday social problems recognisable to the working class. Within this style plausibility and credibility are also valued.

This feature of soap opera, the connection with a working class, ordinary life, and the reflection of ordinary events to construe the realism that its creators strive for creates an interest in itself. Before the birth of soap opera there were few accessible mediums through which the working class could be entertained or communicated with.

The creation of theatre de complicite in the twentieth century had given fuel to a working class theatre movement with pioneers such as Bertolt Brecht bringing light to the lifestyle of those struggling to survive. The didactic approach pioneered by Brecht is often found within some modern soap operas; both Brookside and Eastenders have been critised for some overtly issue-based plots.

The working class subject matter discussed through soap opera is another highly appealing factor; it is only in relative history that the story of working class characters has come into the foreground. The connection with viewer and character is again strengthened by the use of the powerful but sympathetic semantic.

However unlike working class theatre, the prime-time slots given to soap opera have been able to reach a wider audience. The accessibility of the soap opera, clever scheduling; when most working class would be at home from work, having eating their dinner and possibly looking for some mild form of entertainment.

Although the function of the BBC soap opera Eastenders is primarily to entertain rather than provide revenue for the channel, it cannot be disputed that soap operas are a lucrative area for creation of revenue. Spin-off programmes, late-night editions, books, web-sites and fan merchandise create for the company an ability to raise further funds.

Commercial channels like ITV and Channel 4 have another way of raising revenue. The immense popularity of their soap opera’s means that the advertising space available before, after and in-between the soap’s time-slot command a very high price. The money that commercial channel’s such as these can command for sponsorship from certain companies is also a very lucrative opportunity.

The money gained from the popularity of such soap opera’s means that over time more money has been spent on improving them. Early criticism about poor actors, bad scripts, wobbly sets and quality of production have been laid aside by increased funding that ultimately benefits both company and viewer.

The popularity of the soap opera is again high-jacked by the channel schedulers who are able to place new or less successful programmes before or after the soap opera to give the soap opera viewer a taste of a programme the channel may wish to launch. This effect is sometimes called hammocking. Recently ITV have been showing Coronation Street in two half hour parts, the break between the two sections was given to a less popular but issue-based news programme, more often shown later in the evening. The desired effect of this hammocking is that the viewer does not bother to change channels between the two sections and therefore become interested in the in-between programme, perhaps choosing to continue watching it when it is moved back to its former position on the channel’s schedule.

The most important factor that accounts for the popularity of soap opera is the ability of the soap opera to entertain. Without entertainment the soap opera would inevitably fail. The imitation of real life, stereotyped, with the boring bits cut out that allows viewers to escape, re-evaluate the situations and provide them with an acute sense of power over the characters they are watching.

The combination of factors such as reality, ‘invisible’ editing, and cliff-hanger episode closes to ensnare viewers to watch the next episode to find how the story resolves attract the masses of viewers to the soap opera.

The Broadcasters Audience Research Board’s own research indicates this mass popularity through its insightful ratings polls, with the most popular British soaps like Coronation Street and Eastender’s attracting up to 16 million viewers for crucial storylines.

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