The term soap opera originated from radio dramas being sponsored by soap manufacturers.
A soap opera is a radio or television serial dealing especially with domestic situations and frequently characterized by melodrama and sentimentality. The term soap opera originated from radio dramas being sponsored by soap manufacturers.
BBC Radio's The Archers, first broadcast in 1950, is the world's longest-running radio soap opera; the world's longest-running television soap opera is Coronation Street, first broadcast on ITV in 1960.
A crucial element that defines the soap opera is the open-ended serial nature of the narrative, with stories spanning several episodes. One of the defining features that make a television program a soap opera, according to Albert Moran, is "that form of television that works with a continuous open narrative. Each episode ends with a promise that the storyline is to be continued in another episode". In 2012, Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Lloyd wrote of daily dramas,
Although melodramatically eventful, soap operas such as this also have a luxury of space that makes them seem more naturalistic; indeed, the economics of the form demand long scenes and conversations that a 22-episodes-per-season weekly series might dispense within half a dozen lines of dialogue may be drawn out, as here, for pages. You spend more time even with the minor characters; the apparent villains grow less apparently villainous.
Soap opera storylines run concurrently, intersect and lead into further developments. An individual episode of a soap opera will generally switch between several different concurrent narrative threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another or may run entirely independent of each other. Each episode may feature some of the show's current storylines, but not always all of them. Especially in daytime serials and those that are broadcast each weekday, there is some rotation of both storyline and actors so any given storyline or actor will appear in some but usually not all of a week's worth of episodes. Soap operas rarely bring all the current storylines to a conclusion at the same time. When one storyline ends, there are several other story threads at differing stages of development. Soap opera episodes typically end on some sort of cliffhanger, and the season finale (if a soap incorporates a break between seasons) ends in the same way, only to be resolved when the show returns for the start of a new yearly broadcast.
Evening soap operas and those that air at a rate of one episode per week are more likely to feature the entire cast in each episode, and to represent all current storylines in each episode. Evening soap operas and serials that run for only part of the year tend to bring things to a dramatic end-of-season cliffhanger.