7 things you should absolutely know about TV soapies

2014-08-22 07:00
Days of Our Lives Emmys

Cape Town - It’s a case of life imitating art as the drama over the Generations cast reaches new levels - drawing in politicians, TV execs, stars and housewives alike. Everyone has an opinion on soap operas, but what do we really know about them? Channel24 finds out.

1. Soapies have nothing to do with operas

The first soapies weren’t even on television - they were serialised dramas that were aired on the radio. The credit for the first soapie usually goes to an American series called Painted Dreams which was aired in 1930 for WGN radio in Chicago.

The name ‘soap opera’ came from the fact that the makers of soap and other household products - such as Proctor and Gamble or Palmolive - would sponsor the programmes.

The word ‘opera’ is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek - a symbol of the irony between the domestic goings-on in soapies and the high-brow dramatic form of the opera.

2. Soapies are sexist

Soapies didn’t always occupy the prime time slot on nighttime television. In the early days of the American soapie, the programmes were timed to coincide with housewives’ breaks during the day - creating an opportunity for advertisers to sell cleaning products.

Though the scheduling has changed, it has always been assumed - often by people who have never even watched them - that soapies are a women’s thing.

For Robert C. Allen, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University, those who watch soapies are all too often stereotyped as working-class housewives who "allow the dishes to pile up and the children to run amuck because of her ‘addiction’ to soap operas".

Allen argues that soapies continue to "carry this sexist and classist baggage", despite the fact that for half a century soap operas have cut across social divides to offer the "most narratively complex" drama on television.

3. Soapies have been used as birth control

In 1970s Mexico, the national television network Televisa was accused of crude social engineering, according to a report in the University of Washington’s Conservation magazine.

The network developed a soap opera formula in which viewers were encouraged to relate to morality tales. Its main soapie, Accompany Me, focused on a poor woman in a large family who decides to limit her own family size by using contraception.

According to research by the country’s National Family Planning Program, half a million women enrolled at family planning clinics while the soap was on, and contraceptive sales rose 23 percent in a year.

The method caught on, prompting copycat shows such as Jamaica’s Naseberry Street and Kenya’s Tushauriane (“Let’s talk about it”). The running of both shows coincided with a drop in the national fertility rate, with Kenya’s fertility rate falling from 6.3 children to 4.4 children.

Further research by scholars Robert Jensen and Emily Oster, has found that simply by giving a village in India access to cable television, fertility rates can be curbed by the same amount as increasing the length of time girls stay in school by 5 years.

(Members of the 7de Laan cast. Facebook)

4. Soapies are the most popular thing on SA television

Reaching almost 2 million viewers every day, soap operas are the biggest crowd pullers on South African television.

According to the South African Audience Research Foundation (SAARF) soapies make a "clean sweep" of the competition - beating everything including sport, reality and drama

Our next favourite programmes are educational, followed by dramas, movies and actuality programmes. Meanwhile, news programmes rank sixth and sports wallow at ninth position - pulling in just under 170 000 viewers each day.

5. SA soapies carry a message

South Africa’s longest running soapie Generations has led the way for other soapies, depicting a modern, urban world with a comfortable black middle-class.

Jyoti Mistry, head of television studies at the University of the Witwaterstrand School of Arts in South Africa, has said previously that shows such as Generations give "blacks a sense of identity and pride...That’s the success of the show...It’s a fact that you can be black and successful".

The themes of nation and unity also run strongly through our soapies - most obviously in Soul City’s theme song which calls for all races to "stand together" and "live as one".

Meanwhile, Generations proudly claims to have been "born and bred in South Africa". It claims "to have not only survived political and social changes during this exciting period, but also to have evolved in tandem with our nation from the birth of its democracy in 1994 to the present time".

(Members of the Generations cast. Facebook)

6. The British government has funded SA soapies

In 2008, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) pledged £14m  (R249m) over four years to help the South African soap Soul City to be rolled out across eight southern African states.

Designed to promote public health, the show was exported to countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe - all of which had adult HIV prevalence rates above 20% at the time.

Soul City was originally set up by health NGOs in 1994 and it is not the only African soapie to catch the eye of DfID.

Together with the family planning agency Marie Stopes International, DfID was also behind funding for Kenya’s Makutano Junction - a prime time staple with 7 million viewers.

7. South Africa itself has been compared to a soapie

In December 2012, the international media commented on South Africa’s "grim" status - with Nelson Mandela’s failing health, 34 workers killed at the Marikana mine, reports of corruption running rife in the ANC and the downgrading of the country’s economy.

But the BBC’s Africa correspondent Andrew Harding told his readers to remember that crisis is "something of a speciality" in South Africa.

He went on to say that if South Africa were a television show "it would probably be a Mexican soap opera - raucous, full of absurd, repetitive plots, with the promise of imminent disaster and salvation around every corner".

He added: "It is as if the nation cannot quite let go of its genuinely miraculous, dramatic past and accept the fact that it has become just another messy, complicated country."

- Channel24

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