American daytime soap operas are the longest stories ever told in human history. These dramas, and kindred genre, like prime time soap operas, Latin American, Francophone Canadian and Russian telenovelas, and Korean dramas set in contemporary settings make up a huge share of a television watched in the world. Important subsets of Japanese manga and anime likewise are more similar to the American soap opera genre than anything else in American culture.
American daytime soaps have much not to like. They are so voluminous, with several hundred hours of episodes a year, that they are difficult for non-obsessed people to follow; have low production values driven by their high output, low budget nature; are notorious for plot holes and over the top dramatic devices needed to keep the long series interesting over very long story lines; and discourage new series from being developed because the genere leaders are so dominant which in turn locks series into their formative era.
Most kindred genres address this by having much more compressed story lines, which stories told in a couple of dozen to ten dozen or so episodes in most cases. This produces stronger stories, makes them more accessible to viewers with less time, and makes it easier to invest more in the production quality of individual episodes. Their addition to melodrama also undermines their efforts to convey emotions in a powerful way.
But, while some soap opera concepts, like the production side virtues of having multiple parallel story lines and an ensemble cast have spread to non-soap opera genre programs, like the prime time science fiction genre NBC series Heroes, the bad reputation that the flaws of soap operas have spawned in the U.S. market have also squeezed more innovative and well executed versions of the genre that have come up abroad from taking hold American culture -- in print and in comics, as well as on television, leaving important gaps in television between sitcoms, action oriented productions and reality shows, and in novels between high culture American literature and short single plotline pure romance novels.
"Chick lit" and books like Kelley Armstrong's "Women of the Otherworld" series are starting to fill the void from the edges, but books with involved multi-character plotting, in contemporary settings about people who beyond high school age and have families remains surprisingly rare.
It isn't clear how much longer the days of the soap opera will last. They peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. But, the rise of the working woman and the rise of cable and satellite television which provide more television choices during the day, have undermined the genre. It will be interesting to see if foreign competition, now increasingly making its way into U.S. markets on DVD, will e replicated in the U.S.