The lack of widespread success for anthology-style shows, however, demonstrated what would become a truism of programming philosophy; viewing audiences prefer series with recurring casts of familiar characters. This piece of television wisdom is the motivating factor behind both episodic dramas and situation comedies, and it has shaped the style of programming that has dominated the airwaves since the early 1960’s. The episodic dramatic series has taken many forms and covers a wide range of genres, from Westerns and crime shows to medical dramas and soap operas, and has managed at its best to surpass in quality the majority of Hollywood feature films released in any given year.
Of all the genres that have played an important part in television drama, none owes a greater debt to its radio forebears than the soap opera. Beginning in the 1950’s, series such as General Hospital, As the World Turns, and Days of Our Lives became the backbone of daytime television, engaging loyal viewers with their ongoing emotional melodramas. Later popular additions to the genre included One Life to Live, The Bold and the Beautiful, Another World, and All My Children. If prime-time series concentrated on new stories each week, soap operas examined the loves and losses of their recurring casts of characters, and just as live television drama had helped launch the careers of many notable actors of the 1950’s and 1960’s, so daytime soaps provided a springboard for the careers of such performers as Meg Ryan, Morgan Freeman, and Demi Moore. Perhaps no form of television drama has shown the endurance of the soap opera, and although changing social mores and relaxed censorship restrictions have served to spice up their content, the shows themselves remain constant in their approach. Working under enormous time constraints, soap operas retain a degree of the rawness and immediacy of early live drama, although the quality of work involved is generally far lower.
In 1964, the first prime-time version of a soap opera made its appearance. Based on the best-selling novel by Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (1956) premiered on ABC in September of 1964 and was an immediate success. Telecast two to three nights per week during most of its five-year run, the show brought daytime television’s blend of scandal, intrigue, and melodrama to a nighttime audience that watched in droves. The show launched the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, among others, and paved the way for the later prime-time soap operas that would dominate television in the 1980’s. Their arrival was heralded by Dallas in 1978, a series that would go on to achieve international popularity and make its central character, Larry Hagman’s unscrupulous J. R. Ewing, one of the most famous characters in television history. Adding opulent wealth to the familiar soap-opera formula, Dallas inspired several imitators and garnered one of the highest television ratings ever with its much-hyped “Who Shot J. R.?” second-season opener. The show also inspired several imitators, including the popular Dynasty and the 1990’s Melrose Place, and would give rise more than a decade later to a subgenre of teenage soaps that included Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Westerns, long a favorite of Saturday matinee film audiences, became among the most popular shows on the air. If theater had been the chief inspiration for live television productions and radio the source for soap operas,...
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