The name soap operas dates back to the 1930s when daytime drama programmes were broadcast on radio in the US. They were targeted directly at a female audience (presumably housewives) and so soap manufacturers sponsored the programmes to advertise their brands to their primary consumers. Soaps have always been extremely melodramatic with high emotional content, exploring the domestic and personal worlds of their characters.
For a soap to appeal to a large and diverse audience it has to involve characters that will appeal to a wide range of people. There has to be a character that has similar traits to people known by a viewer for the viewer to really engage in the soap. For example, if you look at characters in Eastenders, you have the helpful problem solver in Dot Cotton and quite the opposite to her is the ruthless villain type character in Phil Mitchell. Phil Mitchell is a character that everyone can relate to as everyone knows someone who is a bit of a rogue and slightly evil. Soaps also need a large number of characters so that they can continually rotate plot lines and therefore keep viewers interested in the soap by producing new stories in every episode. Characters that an audience enjoy watching are ones that they can build up a love hate relationship with.
Ian Beale from Eastenders is an example, when things are not going his way you begin to feel sorry for him but when he is successful he is arrogant and rubs it in his fellow characters faces and he then becomes an annoying character. There have been occasions when the audience have confused reality with the soap world e.g. the Release Deirdre campaign that was ran by the Sun. It is instances like these that show how popular some characters can be to all members of a large and diverse audience. People can also develop a real-life hate for characters as when these characters have merely been shopping in the supermarket, people have threatened them because of their on screen characters storyline!
By introducing dramatic and sometimes extreme storylines, a producer can capture the attention of a large audience. The typical melodramatic characteristic of soap is the notorious cliff hanger e.g. the sight of Phil Mitchell lying on the ground after being shot by a fellow character, not known to the audience. This is a clever media technique that entices the viewer into watching the following episodes that will reveal who was involved. It is a good way of enticing all members of a large audience into watching a soap as it involves an occurrence that could happen to any member of that audience in everyday life and it is not just appealing at one section of the audience (e.g. teenagers).
When soaps are trying to attract new viewers to their programme they will introduce a new controversial storyline that will have some sort of twist to it to entice people to watch it. They will publicise these episodes highly in the hope that new people will be attracted to the soap.
The moral stance and informative nature of soap storylines means that some viewers are attracted due to their realistic and education insights. It is evident that soaps often focus on issues that are socially shunned and unless introduced in soaps, they would never be brought up as a topic of conversation between two people (e.g. Mark Fowlers HIV disease or a Rape storyline).
It is important to keep in mind that the realism of a soap opera can only truly be judged by those living in the area which it is set (e.g. people from the East-end of London are the ones who truly understand the setting of Eastenders). British soaps are often viewed as being realistic because of their emphasis on the everyday happenings of life and their depictions of the working classes who in reality constitute the mass of the British population. This realism appeals to a large and diverse audience because it allows viewers to put their knowledge of the world and knowledge of the conventions of television into play.
The camerawork of soaps is also highly influential in how much the audience is appealed to soap. The close-up camera shot characteristically used in soaps enables viewers to focus on the characters emotions and to understand most, if not all of the actions depicted. Many viewers obtain please from being able to acknowledge the true emotions of the characters when they typically put on a brave face and hide their true feelings e.g. Alfie Moon in Eastenders is continually putting on a brave face even though his marriage is falling to pieces. In this way, the characters are emotional representatives inviting the audience to partake in the arising issues and conflicts in order that they make seek temporary solutions to the problems they are experiencing in real life.
Another determining factor in soaps is the time that it is set in. Time is the foundation upon which the soap is organised i.e. a soap is in parallel to real life time and viewers can see things such as snow on the ground during a winter episode of Eastenders. This appeals to viewers because is allows them to imagine the goings on between episodes and again, adds to the realism of soap, which is such a major factor in determining if the audience are drawn to watching it.