Television Drama Analysis

The Rise of Television Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the late 1940’s, television was a technology in search of content. Yet radio, its closest relative, could provide only limited inspiration because of the key difference between the two mediums. Despite early predictions, television was not simply “radio with pictures.” Actual radio with pictures would have offered the sight of actors speaking lines into a microphone while technicians supplied sound effects and music to one side. What television required of its content was that it provide the visual imagery that radio left to the listener’s imagination. What had taken place in the mind of the radio listener would now take place on the screen of the television viewer.

With New York City as their headquarters, it was not surprising that the networks turned to the legitimate theater for programming ideas. The alliance between live theater and television was established early, when NBC in its experimental stages offered New York viewers a production of Rachel Crothers’s play Susan and God (pr. 1937), with actress Gertrude Lawrence. DuMont, lobbying hard to prove its worthiness for a broadcasting license, offered the first regularly scheduled live dramatic series, Television Workshop, to a limited audience during the early 1940’s. NBC followed suit with NBC Television Theatre in 1945 and later with Kraft Television Theatre in 1947, a show that would prove to be among the most important in shaping the face of...

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Television’s Golden Age

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By 1948, all four networks were offering their viewers live drama, and the period often referred to as television’s golden age had begun. With hours of airtime to fill and budgets underwritten by powerful sponsors, live television drama became a testing ground for talented young actors and writers and a showcase for the kind of work that had previously been available only to paying audiences in theaters. Viewers could see Maurice Evans performing the plays of William Shakespeare, a live 1954 production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, or a young Sidney Poitier—one of the first African American actors to appear on television in a leading role—in Robert Alan Arthur’s A Man Is Ten Feet Tall.

During this era, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from their competitors and establish their own niche in a rapidly burgeoning field, several shows specialized in particular forms of television drama. Robert Montgomery Presents offered adaptations of popular films and managed to lure such Hollywood stars as James Cagney and Claudette Colbert to the small screen. Philco TV Playhouse began in association with Actors’ Equity and presented adaptations of Broadway plays before joining with Book-of-the-Month Club and featuring dramatizations of current novels. The U.S. Steel Hour also drew on the legitimate theater, offering a production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play Hedda Gabler starring Tallulah Bankhead, while Goodyear TV Playhouse offered a wide range of original teleplays, including several by the young Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky’s Marty, telecast in 1953 and regarded as one of the finest dramas in television history, would reverse the trend of borrowing from other media when its feature-film adaptation received an Oscar as Best Picture in 1955.

Perhaps the two most highly acclaimed live dramatic series during the 1950’s were Playhouse 90and Studio One. Each in its own way represented not only that which was best in television drama but also that which was unique. For five years, Playhouse 90 produced weekly, ninety-minute live dramas, sparing no expense on either production values or talent and setting a standard of excellence that is still singled out as an example of the best that television’s golden age had to offer. Incredibly, the series’ second telecast was the landmark Requiem for a Heavyweight, written by Rod...

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Anthologies and Episodic Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although live television drama was at the heart of the medium’s golden age, it was in the realm of the prerecorded dramatic series—and its comedic counterpart, the situation comedy—that television would find its most lasting voice. Episodic series, performed live, had also been a staple of radio programming, although the technological advantages of television and the longer running times of the shows allowed television drama series to develop in ways that had not been possible on the radio. That development took two distinct paths: the weekly anthology series and the weekly episodic drama.

Of the two, the anthology series is by far the road less traveled. Its earliest example was Four Star Playhouse , which each week offered a filmed, thirty-minute drama featuring one of its four stars, Charles Boyer, David Niven, Dick Powell, and Ida Lupino. In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock lent his considerable presence to the anthology format with Alfred Hitchcock Presents which he hosted for ten years. Thirty-minute, and later hourlong, tales of suspense with surprise twists at the conclusion characterized the show, which also played with the medium of television itself in Hitchcock’s droll introductions and conclusions of each episode. Often mocking his commercial sponsors, Hitchcock would also negate any possible censorship problems over an episode’s content by adding a humorous coda that seemed to belie a story’s message of evil triumphing over good.

The most ambitious and successful anthology series was Serling’s The Twilight Zone which used the genres of suspense and fantasy to tackle such subjects as intolerance, racial prejudice, and human beings’ capacity for violence and greed. Introduced each week by Serling, the series combined the best elements of live television drama—solid writing, talented casts, serious subject matter—with the added advantages of filming. Often dismissed at the time of its initial run as simply a science-fiction or horror series, the show later grew in critical stature. In the early 1970’s Serling would return to the anthology format with the horror series Night Gallery, the pilot of which contained a segment directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Made-for-television Movies

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Surprisingly, with Hollywood to draw on as an example, the concept of movies made for television did not keep pace with other forms of television drama. NBC began experimenting with the idea in 1964, but it was not until 1966, with Fame Is the Name of the Game, that the format really began to gain popularity. Aired as part of the network’s popular Saturday Night at the Movies, which featured broadcasts of Hollywood films, the film earned impressive ratings, as did Serling’s Doomsday Flight later that year.

The success of these two projects sparked what would become an important part of network broadcasting fare. Although many made-for-television movies are mundane and unexceptional—or, conversely, a format for titillating or headline-grabbing subjects—they have also done much to bring a variety of social and personal issues to the small screen. In the 1970’s, several notable television movies were aired: Brian’s Song drew praise for its touching story of football player Brian Piccolo’s death from cancer; My Sweet Charlie dealt with the controversial subject of an interracial love affair; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman traced the history of African Americans from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement; and That Certain Summer presented the story of a young man dealing with his father’s homosexuality.

The made-for-television movie proved to be a boon for television actors who longed to play serious roles outside their familiar series personas. In the mid-1970’s Sybil, which was telecast over two nights, Sally Field offered a harrowing portrait of a young woman suffering from multiple personalities, while in 1984 both The Burning Bed, featuring Farrah Fawcett as a victim of domestic violence, and Something About Amelia with Cheers star Ted Danson in a drama about incest, engaged viewers with unnerving social issues. Abortion, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), Alzheimer’s disease, school desegregation, homelessness, and the nuclear holocaust have also found their way to the small screen via television film, making their presence felt among less notable efforts.

The Miniseries

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Once the idea of the television film was established, the groundwork was laid for a dramatic format eminently well suited to the medium: the miniseries. What the miniseries could offer was the opportunity to tell a complex story in greater depth than the traditional two-hour length of a feature or television film would permit. This structure lent itself especially well to adaptations of novels, which did not need to be drastically edited when presented in the miniseries form. NBC’s The Blue Knight in 1973 defied conventional programming wisdom by scheduling its four installments on consecutive nights, paving the way for the popular QB VII and Rich Man, Poor Man, which at twelve episodes, was one of the longest miniseries.

In January of 1977, ABC broadcast the landmark miniseries Roots. Adapted from the best-selling book by Alex Haley, it would become one of the highest-rated series in television history, as audiences watched in unprecedented numbers the saga of a black family from the slave-trading days to the aftermath of the Civil War. Produced by David Lloyd Wolper, the series boasted an exceptional cast, a powerfully written script, and a subject of both sweeping historical scope and intimate emotional detail. The popularity of Roots stunned skeptics who doubted that television audiences would commit to better than a week’s worth of viewing. Shogun, Holocaust, and The Winds of War, all of which followed Roots in the next decade, would also enjoy remarkable viewer response before the format began to fade in popularity. War and Remembrance, the latter series’ sequel, failed to match the success of its predecessor, and the longer miniseries gave way gradually to two-night series. Given the proper subject, however, the format remained capable of resurrecting its earlier success, as in the case of Lonesome Dove. Not only a miniseries but a Western as well in a medium that had pronounced the genre officially dead, Lonesome Dove garnered not only critical acclaim but also a rapt viewing audience in the 1980’s.

Cable Television

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After decades of relative stability, television as a whole underwent perhaps the most dramatic change since its inception with the emergence of cable networks in the early 1980’s. Not surprisingly, the astonishing growth of cable television had a significant effect on the face of television drama. Originally seen primarily as forums for broadcasting theatrical feature films, cable channels such as Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime expanded since the early 1990’s to include significant amounts of original programming. HBO won acclaim for its films The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Barbarians at the Gates, And the Band Played On, and Miss Evers’ Boys, and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and The Corner, while Showtime garnered praise for its films Bastard out of Carolina and an adaptation of Twelve Angry Men and the miniseries Hiroshima.

Mining the realms of both the made-for-television movie and the weekly series, cable networks in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century have taken advantage of their exemption from the censorship restrictions that apply to commercial networks to explore areas of drama that were previously untouchable on the small screen. HBO explored the topic of abortion in the film If These Walls Could Talk, while its sequel focused on the subject of lesbianism. Original cable series have also achieved critical acclaim, most notably HBO’s The Sopranos with its complex, often violent look at the life of a Mafia don and his family.

British Television

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

No discussion of the miniseries—or indeed of television drama—would be complete without the inclusion of British television. The format of the miniseries did not originate with American television; it was borrowed after the success of such British dramas as The First Churchills, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and The Forsyte Saga on American public television. The Prisoner, shown on CBS in 1968, also captivated viewers with its enigmatic tale of a former secret agent held against his will in a nameless village, as did the witty, sophisticated spy series The Avengers from the same period. Although British programming also featured episodic series that returned from year to year,...

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Reality or Unscripted Television

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

An odd stepchild of television drama is the so-called reality show, a strange hybrid of soap opera, miniseries, game show, and documentary that has been the source of much critical controversy. While theoretically not a fictional storytelling format, the structure of shows at the turn of the twenty-first century such as Survivor and Big Brother is in fact as preplanned and controlled as any episodic television series and therefore merits a mention in the history of dramatic programming. Each episode’s events unfold around a series of activities dictated by the shows’ creators; only the dialogue and individual interactions are left to chance. Indeed, it can be argued that even these are in some measure predetermined through the selection of contestants whose personalities are likely to clash or bond in specific ways. Editing choices also manipulate the viewer’s perceptions of each contestant/character while shaping the dramatic arc of each week’s installment. The emergence of the reality show may be seen as part of an oft-criticized trend in television toward the blurring of the line between reality and fiction, or news and entertainment, and there is unquestionably a connection between news shows that use performers to reenact actual events and unscripted shows that use real people to provide dramatic entertainment.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Hawes, William. Live Television Drama, 1946-1951. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Covers the early years of live drama. Particularly valuable are the notes and appendices listing all episodes of many dramatic series.

Kisseloff, Jeff. The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. New York: Viking, 1995. An interesting, informative oral history with actors, directors, writers, and producers; contains extensive coverage of the medium in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. A comprehensive show-by-show guide providing running dates, networks,...

(The entire section is 207 words.)