Why Do Soap Operas Look Different From Other TV Shows?

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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 few) as sponsors and/or producers. They also, you might have noticed, look really really crappy.

There are two main reasons for this lack of visual quality, both of which are 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 tunraround are the name of the game.

The Lighting Game

Soap opera lighting is one big part of how programs look.

Backlighting, part of the three-point lighting set up 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.

On Tape

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 videotape 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 closeups.

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.

As of last year, The Young and the Restless and General Hospital were the only US soaps shot in High Definition. All My Children and One Life to Live are supposed to make the switch sometime this year. Will HD make them look any closer to other TV shows? Who knows? I'm afraid I'll get sucked in if I start watching.

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July 12, 2010 - 12:28pm
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