Thursday, June 11, 2020
Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History, 1950s-1980s

A Lecture by Elana Levine

Listen to the lecture here.

During the heyday of network television, soap operas functioned as a reliable staple of daytime entertainment. Their baroque narratives—replete with romance, betrayal, and tragedy—successfully hooked generations of viewers, who tuned in faithfully each afternoon for the latest installment of series like Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, and As the World Turns. Scholar Elana Levine was one of the millions of women caught up in the soaps. She became “a serious soap watcher” during her ‘80s adolescence, a commitment that would continue for years thereafter. “General Hospital was my show,” she explains, “but I knew about all of them through my voracious consumption of fan magazines. In the decades to follow, I kept watching, time-shifting every episode throughout high school, college, working years, graduate school, my job as a professor. I moved, attained degrees, dated, broke up, lost my dad to cancer, got married, had two kids, lived a life, watched GH.”

Levine is our guest this week, and she speaks on her new book, Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History. She discusses the ways that daytime soap operas offer insight into the evolution of American television as a business, a storytelling medium, and a space for framing ideas about social identity, especially around gender, race, and sexuality. This talk focuses on the period of growth for daytime soap opera, from its transition out of radio in the 1950s through the early 1980s. While men still dominated the broadcast industry, women creators largely controlled daytime’s dramas, shaping them in ways that spoke to feminized interests and concerns. At the same time, the production and business practices of soap opera provided an economic foundation for the “network era” of American TV, building the power of the three national broadcasters (ABC, NBC, CBS).

Beginning in the 1960s, the programs began to engage directly with contemporaneous social issues, including race relations, generational conflict, and women’s liberation, often treating such matters earlier, and in greater depth, than prime time. The early 1980s would be the peak of soap opera’s popularity and profitability, but also would mark a turn away from engagement with social controversy and an embrace of fantasy. The gradual decline of the economic and cultural centrality of daytime soap opera from the 1980s on would parallel the shifting fortunes of broadcast television, as first cable and then the internet would come to displace network TV. Much as in soap narratives themselves, what happens to the daytime tv soap, its slow-moving plot, is not nearly as surprising or enlightening as how it happens. The innovations and interventions of soap opera have indelibly influenced American television, and their effects are still felt to this day.

Elana Levine is Professor of Media, Cinema and Digital Studies in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.