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May 2017
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This is not a recent phenomenon but only recently has it become recognised and been the object of many studies. Addiction to soap operas or television series is different to a simple addiction to television as it deeply affects the subconscious of the victim, which can have serious consequences, especially on a relational level and it can even result in illness.
Diversely from other television programmes, like situation comedies or dramas, soap operas contain elements which act on the viewers subconscious, encouraging an addiction that is not easy to give up, also because we do not often know that we are addicted and, if we are, it is often hidden (or understated) by the ‘addict’. 
What exactly are soap operas and television series and what makes them harmful to individuals compared to other television programmes?

More than seventy years of history

The term ‘soap opera’ refers to the type of sponsorship that helped create and develop these programmes. The first soap opera that aired was on an American radio station in January 1931 and it was called ‘Clara, Lu’n Em’. It was a programme centred around the daily life of three women, Clara, Lu and Emma, and it was sponsored by a company called Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, which specialised in domestic and personal hygiene products. However, the main company that worked on popularising the programme was Procter & Gamble, the manager of which, Neil McElroy (who consequently become the secretary of Defence of the United States government), was considered the inventor of the soap opera in its televised form, which was made to be purposely interrupted by adverts, almost always about detergents, because they were aimed at a specific target for many years: housewives. Procter & Gamble, the leader in the field of advertising and commercial communication, sponsored, among others, the transmission of ‘The Guiding Light’, which started on the radio in 1937 and which moved to television in 1952, until 2009 when it ended and was consequently awarded the prize of the longest lasting soap ever. It was not, however, the first soap to appear on television, as this record belongs to ‘Faraway Hill’ (1946), which came on every week, and ‘These Are My Children’ (1949) holds the record as the first soap to come on daily, for fifteen minutes. From 1940-1970, soap operas had a huge and loyal fan base and in the 1980s there was a soap opera boom, during which the popularity of some characters in television series - and as a result of the situations that the characters were in - allowed soap operas like "General Hospital" to reach the likes of 30 million viewers. After the 1980s, this phenomenon noticeably changed from a productive point of view thanks to the emancipation of women and the need for women to contribute financially to the family, thus spending less time at home. From the mid 1970s, soap operas were successfully exported out of America to places like Italy, where commercial television stations began airing these programmes and introducing the practice of advertising interruptions, which was the life blood of soap operas from a productive point of view. In the same period, South American television series became popular in Italy, which had also once begun as radio programmes, were produced in places like Cuba, Mexico and Brazil and which were also sponsored by cleaning and personal hygiene products. However, diversely from the American programmes, they were aired during ‘prime time’, thus benefiting from a more heterogenic audience and not just housewives. Although television series were subsequently produced and made in almost all Latin America countries, the soap operas that were more widely known outside of these countries were mainly the Brazilian ones which, by playing on sensitivity and moving away from the socio-cultural situations that were occurring at the time in the country, were the most exported in the world, especially to Africa and Europe.

Characteristics of soap operas and addiction

Both products – soap operas and televisions series – are, from a narrative point of view, similar to melodramas and the difference between them, apart from the settings, can be found in the use of human feelings: in soap operas, the emotional hardships of the characters (the foundation of both types of programme) only aim at stimulating the story for the audience, in a context where other elements are in play, such as family dramas, competition and work, etcetera. In television series, the hardships are the heart of the storyline, influencing the actions of the characters who are characterised by their constant unhappiness and inability to emotionally come into their own. Furthermore, these programmes are often set in past times, whereas soap operas are set, almost exclusively, in modern times.
However, these are not the things that get us addicted. The most important thing is being a serial product which is structured in short episodes broadcasted regularly, every day, at the same time. With respect to the structure, the difference between soap operas and television series is that the latter only lasts for a certain amount of seasons, which usually have a total of around 200-250 episodes. Soap operas, on the other hand, do not have a predetermined running time and they can go on for years, only stopping if they lose a substantial amount of spectators. The fact that there are so many soap operas and television series available means that followers (the majority of which are females, and mainly retired females) watch more than one soap opera or television series, however it is not common that people become addicted to more than two programmes. The storylines of soap operas and television series are made to catch your attention in a very short amount of time. Following this, whilst retaining the characteristics of simplicity and immediacy in the development, things continue in such a way as to hold the viewer's attention, especially near the commercial breaks, which should keep you from changing channels.  


Addiction is stimulated by the regularity of the storylines and people can show withdrawal symptoms just from missing one single episode. The most obvious symptoms of addiction occur at weekends when the programme is not shown. If a viewer is organised, he/she records episodes so as to watch them again during the weekend, thus maintaining some kind of contact with the object of their addiction, whilst others who do not do this will show signs of strong states of anxiety, agitation and detachment from real life. The storylines will always be at the centre of their thoughts as they are easier to deal with than problems in real life. Empathy with the characters creates a state of confusion for addicts as they will no longer be able to distinguish fiction from reality, coming to the point where they think the characters from the soap operas really go through what happens on the screen. Finally, addicts emotionally participate in the characters’ hardships, more than is expected from a normal viewer, especially if a character has similar personality features to those of the addict, which trigger identification mechanisms. 

More generally, obsessions with soap operas can cause serious harm to relationships, irreparably affecting relationships between friends, colleagues or relatives. 

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