"Downton Abbey" has become my latest addiction, after taking a brief break from "Blue Yonder" (no spoilers please - I just finished Season 2). It is rare that I find anyone who doesn't already watch the show (which probably doesn't speak much about my pop culture awareness). But when I do, the person in question usually says it's "like a soap opera" in a vague air quotes-like gesture which usually signifies they are not interested. This lead to me wondering - does Downton count as a soap?
Full disclaimer: I'm not a fan of soap operas. The only one I ever watched with any regularity was reruns of "Dark Shadows" on the SyFy (then Sci-Fi) Channel in high school. I caught little bit of "Passions" when my sister was watching it at the time and thought "This is weird . . . even for me". That said, as a fanboy, I do sympathize with soap fans. Both mediums have endured varying degrees of snobbery, and as serial narratives, both mediums are probably more similar than we'd like to admit.
The Wikipedia definition of soap opera is "an ongoing, episodic work of dramatic fiction presented in serial format on radio or as television programming." As you'll probably notice, this covers a broad spectrum of shows, which I'll cover later. TV Tropes has a more specific definition - a large cast experiencing day-to-day dramatic events in their day-to-day lives, broadcast five days a week. This definition narrows it down quite a bit. And to further this distinction, it separates soaps into two camps - the Anglo-school of USA, Britain and Australia, and the Latin school associated with telanovelas. For the most part, either camp is populated my the most recognizable form of soaps - the daytime soap operas. These are the soap operas we usually catch when we're home sick from work or school - the one with tense close-ups, dialogue which spans several commercial breaks and marriages which last about as long as comic book deaths. For better or worse, this is the what people think of when they hear "soap".
From the TV Tropes definition, "Downton Abbey" really doesn't fit the bill. Yes, there's a very, vey large cast experiencing some very dramatic events in their day-to-day lives (ranging the Titanic to the the Spanish Flu), but the narrative itself is not day-to-day. The action jumps anywhere from a couple days to a couple years between episodes (by my count the show has advanced about eight years in the span of sixteen episodes). And of course, the show is not seen five times a week, disqualifying it from the daytime soap category. But "Downton Abbey" does fit the Wiki definition of a soap opera - as does almost any ensemble drama you could care to names. Heck, you could even argue "Game of Thrones" is a soap opera (which probably has just as many marriages. And deaths).
So here's my theory (from the probably skewed perspective of a guy who doesn't know anything about soap operas). While their daytime counterparts are in decline, soap operas have been assimilated into various facets of primetime. It started in the 80's with shows like "Dynasty" and "Dallas" (which is more popular than ever). You can trace this lineage all the way to present hits like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Revenge", but like I said, it doesn't take to connect the character arc-based narratives to all ensembles, ranging from "Lost" to the "West Wing".
Here's the answer to the question "is Downton Abbey a soap opera": yes, it is - just not the kind of soap you're thinking of. Virtually every genre and medium has to change in order to survive, and soap operas are no exception. Over time, the term "soap opera" might become a misnomer, especially if daytime dramas continue their downhill spiral. But as it stands now, it's not a good idea to dismiss a show for just being like a soap opera. Chances are, you're probably watching a soap opera already - you just don't know it.
(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder this week!)