Well, thanks to the very helpful An institutional history of soap operas, I’ve found the answer takes us back to the 1930s. Radios were becoming more widespread and station managers wanted to gain the attention of women who were generally listening to programs while cleaning their houses.
They employed writers and actors to produce serial stories that would particularly interest women, and therefore be attractive to manufacturers of products that women used in the home. These stories were often very melodramatic, similar to opera story lines. They were also frequently sponsored by companies that produced detergents and soap — and so nicknamed, ‘soap operas’.
In 1934, major cleaning product manufacturer Procter and Gamble was the first to successfully transition its radio soapie (Guiding Light) to television, and it aired until 2009. Procter and Gamble also owned and produced another five successful television soap operas. This was a distinctively different model from advertisers that paid for advertising space on network-produced independent dramas. It gave Procter and Gamble a great deal of influence and some critics say the soap manufacturing giant baulked at storylines in which adultery and other ‘immoral’ behaviour would go unpunished.
A crucial element of all soap operas remains the open-ended nature of the story with each episode ending with a promise that the storyline would be continued in the next … this is kind of like the washing, when you wash and dry your garments with the knowledge that after you’ve worn them, you’ll go through the ritual again.
Unless, that is, you take advantage of our November deal and get two loads of laundry washed, dried and folded for $49.
Imagine the anticipation, the suspense, the thrill, the joy ….
(Or you can just simply be grateful that Ainslie Laundrette, your favourite soapie, continues to air six days a week).