The History Of TV Dramas
Pamela Douglas (Screenwriter) gives expert video advice on: When did dramas come to television?; Why are dramas so popular with audiences? and more...
When did dramas come to television?
From the earliest time of television - I think I'm going back to the 1950s - there was something called Playhouse 90, which were movies basically, 90 minute movies. Nobody does 90 minutes on TV anymore, but they were plays for television. From the earliest time there were two forms on television. One was the variety kinds of shows and the other was dramas, which come from radio dramas that preceded them. Dramas have always been part of television.
What is a 'teleplay'?
A teleplay is a screenplay to be aired on television. It's exactly the same as a screenplay for movies, except that it has a shape that will fit television better, meaning that it may have different act structures or it may have different time constraints. It may have also, be closer to the kinds of material that television is likely to use.
How long have dramas been around?
Dramas have been around for as long as mankind has been around. There is no difference between the people outside of caves sitting around a fire recounting the quest of who just slayed some kind of beast and brought home the meat, and much of what we see today, especially in movies. Beyond that, the ancient Greek principles of storytelling, as found in Aristotle and elsewhere, apply as well today as they ever did.
Has the drama grown with television?
Dramas have grown marvellously with television. The whole world of dramatic writing has evolved in just the last few years. At one time, dramas were two hour movies where you had a predictable beginning, a three act structure, and an end. Television has changed all of that, particularly around the time of Hill Street Blues, which was a groundbreaking show. The creators of that show, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, at the time, realized their stories were spilling over the edges of the hour. The notion of closing out a story within a given time frame was false to the way life worked and did not give due justice to the stories that people needed to tell. They decided to go ahead and allow that spill-over by having episodes continue with arcs that went through multiple episodes. That opened the door to the long narrative, to telling stories that increased in depth rather than width. In other words, the stories grew as the characters and their relationships were revealed.
Why are dramas so popular with audiences?
Dramas are so popular today because of people's involvement with the characters. It isn't because they have to necessarily find the next step of a story, it's because they need to find out what will happen to somebody they love or fear for.
Why do networks keep producing dramas?
Networks produce dramas because they make revenue. At this moment, comedy is not faring well on networks. Dramas attract huge, huge audiences. It's not that strange to hear of 20 and 30 million people tuning in for an episode of a very successful show, such as Grey's Anatomy or, at one time, Lost. Not every series has giant numbers like that, but across the slate the networks are proud of their shows that win awards. It puts a gloss over all their other divisions, and essentially it's about success as well as prestige.
What impact has the drama had on television?
Drama has become emblematic of quality on some of the networks, or it has given a face and a personality to what all of their fare has to offer. One example is Friday Night Lights on NBC. Friday Night Lights is not a show with high ratings; NBC renewed it because of the tremendous love for it among the fans as well as the critical acclaim. Drama is beloved by networks or featured by networks partly just as a matter of business, but it's also a matter of identity in some cases.
What are the most influential dramas on television?
If you go back to Hill Street Blues, for example, in the 1980s, we're talking about the beginning of the parallel story telling, of the very long narrative, of story lines that have multiple episodes, of huge ensemble casts, and great depth and honesty in story telling. That was one of many early iconic TV drama shows that started the golden age which we're in now. There have been many wonderful shows since then - Homicide: Life on the Street, which still is a network show, St. Elsewhere, and others. Coming to closer time, the advent of HBO and those high quality dramas, most especially The Sopranos, added even more depth to what you could do with characters and with story telling and with the kinds of material that the audience would accept and love. So HBO opened the door to a lot with The Sopranos and other fine shows. There are outlets all over the dial; Showtime is doing some interesting programming, as is the Sci-Fi channel. While most of it is the expected stuff, they have the brilliant drama Battlestar Galactica, which is another ground-breaking show because it defies stereotypes and categories in the depth of the stories and the subject matter they can tell. That was also true, by the way, of West Wing. So, all of these have moved television to a level of serious critical consideration and artistic consideration that had not existed before the 1980s.
How have TV dramas evolved over the years?
TV dramas have evolved by taking chances. The frightening prospect of bean counters - business people rather than artists - becoming increasingly in charge of networks has threatened to put a dampener on the very creativity that has now created a golden age. Fortunately, networks are not the only outlets any more. The era of the three big is long gone. Those who dare to do exciting, innovative, honest, deep subject areas and characters are succeeding with their audiences.
Are digital video recorders changing television?
DVR has created a revolution in television viewing. The notion of recording to watch anytime you want, which was familiar with TiVo and has now included other methods, is putting power in the hands of the viewers. DVR is completely upending the old network idea of scheduling. It's also challenging the way ratings are figured, because if you only count viewers who are watching at the assigned time, in some cases you may be losing most of your audience.
How are DVDs of series changing television?
It's not just DVR technology that is changing to give viewers choice. It's also the prevalence of DVD viewing of TV series. There are people who are not watching shows at all when they air, but are waiting for the box sets to come out and watching the entire season as one would look at a 22 hour movie.