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Monday, January 23, 2017
Why Did Soap Operas Look Different From Other TV Shows?
Soap operas, "soaps" or "my stories," as many a grandmother has
called them, are dramas presented in a serial format on daytime
television or radio. Their name comes from a time when old serial dramas
broadcast on radio had soap manufacturers (Procter & Gamble and
Lever Brothers, to name a couple) as sponsors and/or producers. They
also, you probably remember, looked really really crappy.
There are two main reasons for this lack of visual quality, both of
which were rooted in the problem of soap operas' time slots and
scheduling. Daytime TV shows generally don't pull in as much advertising
revenue as evening programs, and many soap operas air daily instead of
weekly, so low budgets, short production times and quick turnaround are
the name of the game.
Soap opera lighting is a major reason the shows look the way they do.
Backlighting, part of the three-point lighting setup often used in
television production, helps "lift" actors out of the background. This
is especially useful for productions that are shot on a lower-quality
medium and in small interior sets, which soaps often are.
The problem is
that shooting on videotape on a small set can reduce the subtlety of
the lighting technique. Actors in the foreground often wind up very
noticeably backlit, something that doesn't happen on shows with larger
sets, or shows that are recorded on film.
Soaps and other lower-budget shows also look "off" because they're
often evenly lit across the entire set to facilitate simultaneously
shooting with more than one camera. This lighting/shooting method means
the actors can move around and the lights don't have to be reset for
every shot. This allows for fewer takes and costs less, but it also
means more diffuse, less natural-looking lighting in the final product.
The filming medium (that is, what the show is recorded on) and the
way the show is shot make up the the other half of the equation. Soaps
have often been shot on various types of video tape to keep costs down, and compared to prime time shows and big budget
movies shot on film, they can look a little flat. Shooting with
videotape also gives you a lower resolution, and to compensate, soaps
have always made heavy use of close-ups.
Time and budgetary constraints and the multi-camera setup also
require soaps to edit differently than prime time shows. Soaps usually
use static cameras, since dollies would mean more opportunities for
mistakes, more takes, and more cost.
Angle shifts are usually
accomplished by cutting from one camera to another and any movement
tends to be simple zooming, which you're about as likely to see in a
movie as you are to see sweeping pan shots and long-take tracking shots
on daytime TV.
Of course, daytime soaps have taken a big hit in recent years, and only four of the classics—The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital and Days of Our Lives—remain on air. They all made the switch to broadcast in high definition, which was a costly upgrade, but one that greatly improved viewability. For a couple of years, All My Children and One Life to Live briefly found
new life on Hulu, where they were also filmed and streamed in high
But old habits die hard, and the term "soap opra effect" still persists as a way to describe the glossy, overly polished look that shows or TV settings can take.