soap opera

The US television network has canceled the The Guiding Light; the last episode will air in September. The soap opera has been on the air for 72 years. (It started as a radio program in 1937 before transitioning to television in 1952. Soap operas melodramatic serials with long plot arcs that have traditionally been aimed at the housewife demographic. (Evidently, the decline in stay-at-home women, along with the low production costs of “reality” television, are the driving force behind the cancellation of the soap.

Soap operas are so called because their original sponsors were soap companies. The Guiding Light was originally sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. The term dates to at least 1939. The 24 August 1938 issue of the The Christian Century included this:

These fifteen-minute tragedies...I call the “soap tragedies”...because it is by the grace of soap I am allowed to shed tears for these characters who suffer so much from life.

By the next year, Newsweek had this in its 13 November 1939 issue:

Transcontinental Network bubbled up out of the “soap operas.”

The use of opera can be compared to its use in horse opera, film jargon for a Western that dates to at least 1927.1

1Oxford English Dictionary, soap opera, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 3 August 2009 . 

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