Why You Might Never See The Way Soap Operas Were Intended Ever Again

Dramatic stories and small morality tales based on family were how soap operas began in the early decades of the 20th century. According to Soap Hub, Irna Phillips, who became known as the "Mother of Soaps," started her career in 1930 as an actor who then started writing these 15-minute stories for radio that didn't have a beginning, middle, or end — but instead continued the next day and the next day after that. "Painted Dreams" is often considered the first soap opera, written by Phillips and airing on Chicago's WGN radio station. Sponsored by household cleaning products from Procter & Gamble, these continuing stories on the radio soon took on the name "soap opera" (via The Saturday Evening Post).

Eventually, Phillips decided she needed more than 15 minutes to tell her stories and started creating soap operas for a new medium, television. She doubled the time, increasing the episodes to 30 minutes long, and that's how fully immersing oneself in the lives of soap opera characters began. They came into your living room, first in black and white and then in living color, and you couldn't wait to see what happened the next day. "As the World Turns" was the first soap Phillips brought to television, creating a genre that lives on to this day. However, Phillips couldn't even begin to imagine how soaps are produced in the 21st century — or how they are watched.

The 1980s ushered in a new way of watching soap operas

With the advent of the VCR, soap viewing — and television viewing in general — began to change in the 1980s, according to LifeSavvy. School teachers who could only watch an entire network afternoon lineup when they were home for the summers, could now record that lineup and watch it each night. While audience members would still have to wait to see what would happen the next day, which is the draw of soaps, fans could now watch more shows and watch them at their own convenience, while fast-forwarding right through all those pesky commercials for ... soap.

By the end of the decade, weekly soap opera magazines offering spoilers also changed how people watched soaps by teasing plots a week ahead so that fans weren't as surprised as they once were. Knowing what to expect was a different phenomenon for soap fans, but the thrill of watching it play out on TV was still there. While Daytime TV Magazine was first published in the 1970s, it focused more on the stars' lives than story previews. But Daytime TV eventually made way for Soap Opera Weekly in 1989, followed by other weekly publications focusing on spoilers and story preview photo features. This included Soap Opera Magazine, Soap Opera News, and Soaps In Depth (via Soap Hub). Soap Opera Digest, which first started publishing in the 1970s, also went to a weekly format to compete, including spoilers on the cover.

The Internet age makes soap watching interactive

Decades ago, when your grandmother watched her soap operas, there were only family members and close friends to discuss her "stories" with. Magazines allowed fans to write letters with their views and sometimes see them published, and readers' polls gave fans a sense of what other fans were thinking, but in the 1990s, all that changed.

Not only did soap fans have magazines with plot lines given away in advance, but they also had America Online message boards and chat rooms, where you could watch your soaps and have conversations with like-minded fans from all walks of life in real-time. Those message boards eventually moved onto soap opera websites like Soap Central and Daytime Royalty. Social media brought interactive soap watching to new heights. It offered instant responses and group commentary, allowing "Soap Twitter" to thrive day and night, and turning soap watching into a group activity.

Soap binge watching became a 21st-century phenomenon

With streaming platforms becoming more relevant as the second decade of the 21st-century came to a close, the idea of waiting an entire day — or worse, an entire weekend — to see what happens on a soap has been partially eliminated. All four of the remaining network daytime dramas — "Days of Our Lives," "General Hospital," "The Young and the Restless," and "The Bold and the Beautiful" — can be found on streaming platforms by evening after that day's episodes air on traditional broadcast television. "DOOL" streams on NBC's Peacock platform, "GH" streams on Hulu, and "Y&R" and "B&B" stream on CBS All Access, per Soap Opera Network.

With viewing habits changing, interactive watching available thanks to social media, and stories spoiled thanks to websites like Soaps.com and Soap Hub, soap operas are not watched the way they were intended when Irna Phillips first started writing her continuing radio dramas in the 1930s. But, they still deliver the same thrill when you see your favorite pair kiss, the same familiar feeling when a longtime character enters a scene, and the same sense of wanting to know what comes next, even if you can see what comes next almost immediately. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and soap operas still remain a very large part of American lives.