This month’s exclusive research by NOP reveals the remarkable popularity of soap operas with the British population, and their far-reaching influence on the real lives of their fans. Nearly three-quarters of all adults aged over 15 had watched or listened to at least one soap in the four weeks before the research – nearly as many as the number who have read one issue of a daily newspaper.
Interest in the soaps is spread across series and channels. Nearly two-thirds of the population watched more than one soap; a fifth had watched three, and three out of ten often watched four or more. Two- thirds of viewers, therefore, are spreading their attention across three or more programmes.
Viewers named more than 15 series that they had seen at least once in the past month, but the market is radically divided between mass and minority appeal series. Three out of the top six soaps are home-grown. Coronation Street, East-Enders, Emmerdale, Neighbours, Home & Away and Brookside attracted more than a fifth of all adults; none of the others took more than four per cent.
Television is winning the soap war hands down. Only four per cent of the population had listened to Radio 4’s Archers. Coronation Street and EastEnders, by contrast, had both been watched by more than half the population, and Emmerdale and Neighbours had each been seen by a third of all adults.
The top three series are home-grown. Coronation Street has the highest number of regular viewers, with 45 per cent of all soap watchers trying to catch most episodes. EastEnders was almost as popular, with 40 per cent watching regularly.
A quarter of the soap audience watched Emmerdale regularly, well ahead of the 15 per cent achieved by Neighbours and Home & Away with 14 per cent, and Brookside with 12 per cent.
Nine out of ten female viewers follow at least one soap regularly, compared with seven out of ten men; and women are twice as likely to watch all the episodes of three or more sagas.
Only two-thirds of ABs and three-quarters of Cls are regular watchers, compared with 86 per cent of C2DEs. Young viewers are far more attached to the soaps than their elders; making up nearly half of those who try to watch every episode of three or more soaps.
Favourite soap opera
NOP asked everyone who had watched or listened to at least one soap episode to name their favourite soap opera. Coronation Street and EastEnders divide the honours between them, with 34 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote respectively. Emmerdale came a distant third, taking 17 per cent; but none of the other series managed to win one in ten of watchers. Brookside took eight per cent, Neighbours six per cent and Home & Away four per cent.
There was a strong regional element in viewers’ preferences. Nearly half of all Northern viewers named Coronation Street as their favour-ite, and EastEnders increased its hold amongst Southern viewers to 42 per cent, making them both clear favourites in the regions where they are set.
EastEnders appeals to a younger audience than Coronation Street or Emmerdale. More than half of those choosing EastEnders as their favourite soap were under 35, compared with a quarter of Coronation Street and Emmerdale fans.
Attitudes to soap operas
In spite of the recent rallies and protests caused by soap “injustices”, most watchers have a strong grasp on reality. Two-thirds of viewers stated firmly that the soaps are “just entertainment”, and only five per cent disagreed. But the programmes do play quite an important role in forming their audiences’ views and opinions. Nearly half the watchers agreed vehemently that the soaps “raise issues which should be discussed”, and only one in ten dismissed the idea.
The majority of watchers also acknowledge a direct personal influence on everyday life. Two-thirds feel that soaps “have an influence on how people behave”, and six out of ten discuss what happens in the soaps with their friends and family.
Given the hair-raising events which form the weekly sagas – murder, rape, addiction and infidelity – it is disturbing that two-thirds of viewers feel that the stories are “very true to life”.
But direct emotional impact is being kept within bounds by most people; the majority – three-quarters of watchers – claim not to be “really upset” if they miss their favourite soap (although perhaps this just reflects the prevalence of video-recorders).
The impact of the soaps’ popularity extends beyond television into other spheres of entertainment; a fifth of watchers admit to making a purchase or an outing because of a soap tie-in. This rises to two-thirds of the serious fans – people who watch three or more series. Gossip seems to be the strongest motivation. Some 12 per cent of all viewers – and nearly a quarter of multiple viewers – have bought a news- paper or magazine to read about a soap star. Five per cent have bought one of the soap fanzines, and a similar number have purchased a book or annual about one of the programmes. Five per cent have gone to an event to see a soap star; slightly fewer – three per cent – have bought a product because of a tie-in.
Programme spin-offs are more popular among the under 25-year- olds – four out of ten have consumed at least one; and they form the most significant market for the fanzines, annuals and events. Three times as many women as men have bought a newspaper or magazine to read about a soap star; they are twice as likely to go to see a character or buy a book – and they make up nine out of ten buyers of the fanzines.
Cadbury’s sponsorship of Coronation Street is well-established in public awareness. Eight out of ten soap-watchers named Cadbury correctly as the sponsor, and there was no attribution to other chocolate manufacturers. Among 15- to 24-year- olds – one of the prime target markets for the product – awareness reached 86 per cent, showing that a soap tie-in offers a bonus for advertisers, as well as more direct spin-offs.
73 per cent of all adults watched a soap in the past four weeks
82 per cent of viewers try to watch all the episodes
Coronation Street and EastEnders are the two most popular soaps
79 per cent of viewers named Cadbury as Coronation Street’s sponsor