The Evolution of American Television Storytelling

By Michelle Donnelly · April 14, 2015

For the first thirty years of its existence, television was skewered as basic entertainment for the masses. Horace Newcomb, in his 1979 book Television: The Critical View, sites the then widespread view that “excellence in television is taken to be the exception with continual surprise.” The last fifteen years, on the other hand, has been an impressive period of growth and creative expansion. There are several factors that contributed to this evolution, but one could argue most important was the radical transformation in storytelling techniques. Here, we lay out television’s progression from what was once deemed low quality fare to what is now considered true artistic craft.

In 1945 there were reported to be less than 10,000 television sets in households across the United States. The immediate post war economic boom saw that number increase to 6 million by 1950 and by 1960 that number would swell to 52 million. Television programming was in its infancy. Radio stars like Milton Berle and Jack Benny transitioned to television with their own variety shows. In 1949, The Lone Ranger aired and in 1951, the police drama Dragnet became a hit. 1951 also saw the premier of I Love Lucy and the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, which began a 35-year run.

Until about the 1960s, so-called anthology showcases dominated the airwaves. Considered the first golden age of television dramas, writers such as Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayefsky would present stand-alone stories for each, usually live, telecasts. Often celebrities in the own right, these were the earliest creators of prime-time dramas. At the end of this golden age, three networks dominated television, live telecasts were rare and advertising was booming. Soon programming was divided between the dramatization of long-form stories where plots unfolded over a series of episodes (called serials; mostly commonly seen in soap operas) and the episodic format, where new situations would both arise and resolve during each episode. Gone were the once celebrated anthology writers.

Shows such as Bonanza, Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show are classic episodic television. Their aim was to maximize audience viewership and minimize confusion feared to occur if audiences were given multiple plotlines and intricate characterizations. The major and most important way television storytelling changed over the years is in its increasing fluidity between the episodic and the serial form. In this modified form, characters and relationships emerge through central plot developments and across episodes. Multiepisode arcs tell lengthy stories with more fully developed characters that are involved in more detailed and robust relationships.

One of the first precursors to this eventual evolution was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. While following an episodic format, the show was unique in that it allowed for story arcs that saw its characters change over time and which highlighted these characters in more realistic and complex relationships. Likewise, the show M*A*S*H created deep character enrichment through the building of interpersonal relationships while it also provided searing social commentary. No longer just content with portraying situations and relationships predicated on laughs, these writers expanded beyond sketch comedy to develop intricate stories between complex characters.

Besides these outliers though, prime-time television remained divided between serials and episodic shows. The inherent limitations within the network television format are obvious and contributed to the hesitancy to inject more complex narratives. Commercial interruptions disrupted the flow of storytelling. Being limited to a half hour or an hour time period made it difficult to unfold the necessary elements required to tell a linear story that contained a beginning, middle and an end. The need for episodic shows to supply the audience with enough information so a stand-alone episode would make sense to the casual viewer on top of the realities of syndication, which relied on the ability to view episodes in no particular order, further restricted a writer’s creative abilities.

It was the dearth of quality programming that caused Horace Newcomb to lament that television had not “realized that the regular and repeated appearance of a continuing group of characters” could be “one of its strongest techniques for the development of rich and textured dramatic presentations.” He claimed that episodic television that until then had required a dramatic conclusion at the end of each self-contained episode both limited the ability of the audience to bond to characters and inhibited artistic expression. With no sense of continuity, television lost its chance to fully engage an audience. Soon though, an era of experimentation and challenges to the existing modes television storytelling emerged. Audiences would be given the chance to view increasingly complex narratives that more richly developed its characters and allowed for deeper examinations of intricate subject matter.

Certain changes in the industry helped lay the groundwork for this evolution. The growing power of independent stations in the 1970s challenged the tight control that the three major networks previously held and Norman Lear would be the most prominent creator to use this avenue. Lear’s show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was part soap opera that utilized multiple storylines, but also part satire of a soap opera. Further, it was part comedy, but at times conspicuously not funny, while also being part drama that dealt with overtly political and social issues. Simply put, the show did not fit easily into the elementary genre requirements that the major networks found so appealing. After the networks passed, Lear approached independent stations and was ultimately able to find an audience. In two seasons, the show aired 325 episodes and went on to enjoy a fruitful life in syndication.

Then, in the late 1970s, soap operas began to appear on prime-time television. The success of Dallas (1978-1991), Knot’s Landing (1979-1993) and Dynasty (1981-1989) was a key factor in the transformation of story structure for prime time hour-long dramas. Taking a nod from these serials, dramas began to interweave multiple storylines across episodes. Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) has been noted to be the first one to do so, but closely following was St. Elsewhere (1982-1988). Also notable is Twin Peaks (1990-1991), which with an art house sensibility mixed soap opera and mystery to create dramatic characterizations throughout multiple storylines. Shows such as The X-Files (1993-2002), ER (1994-2009), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and The West Wing (1999-2006) continued this trend in fine fashion.

Networks coveted a series like The West Wing because it uncovered a previously untapped demographic ripe for advertisers. What one author calls a “boutique audience,” these educated and informed viewers were an audience that previously stayed away from television. Central to a network’s function is its relationship with their client advertisers and the goal of programming had been heretofore to strengthen and encourage its audience to tune in so they can be subjected to their advertisements. With the emergence of quality cable programs and the success of HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), which the Writer’s Guild named “the best written TV series of all time,” that landscape radically changed and networks took notice. The success of progressive network shows such 24 (2001-2010) and Alias (2001-2006) seemed an encouraging sign, so when in 2001 the networks suffered a dramatic drop in advertising revenues, it seemed a setback when they drastically revamped their 2002 schedules to reflect what they called more audience friendly fare-aka episodic television.

Early on, it was clear that narratively complex shows engendered viewer loyalty and the Internet provided a forum for increased audience participation and discussions about these narratives. Through online forums, blogs, chat rooms and fan websites viewers discuss these complexities not only with other viewers but with creators as well. Real time Twitter discussions while a show airs allow for up-close, interactive and personal communication with creators that not only provides feedback for those creators, but also increases audience understanding of creator objectives while it solidifies and expands a show’s fan base. This active audience participation has more than proven to the industry that audiences hunger for narrative complexity and it has encouraged the development of more like-minded shows. The challenge for these shows though, is whether in the end, the payoff is worth it. Series such as Lost, Alias, and more recently, How I Met Your Mother faced backlash when they seemingly didn’t live up to audience expectations for payoff, thus confusing viewers over whether its extended and passionate loyalty was worth it.

Arguably the most successful entity in this new era of television production is HBO and other networks have taken notice. The result of this increased competition? The shape of television is changing at a breakneck pace. While HBO continues to take risks and deliver groundbreaking television with shows like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective and Veep, there are also high quality competitors. Showtime is known for shows such as Dexter, Weeds, Homeland, The Affair and Nurse Jackie and Netflix which has House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and it’s most recent addition, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Daredevil. Then, there is relative newcomer Amazon, who reportedly spent $100 million in the third quarter of 2014 alone on original programming and has Woody Allen developing a yet to be announced show. This so called “indie TV” may truly have earned its badge as it has been reported that the master of indie film, John Sayles has joined the movement by scripting an independent pilot called Dr. Del, which has yet to find it a home.

Advantageous to cable and its original programming are that they are not constrained by the issues that plague network television writers including network censorship and ad breaks that result in the need for intershow cliffhangers. Previously, limited network budgets discouraged what seemed to be extravagances such special effects and elaborate shooting locations, but no longer. In fact, it appears that in this new atmosphere, creative freedom abounds regardless of price as outlets push the boundaries of original programming to unknown limits. And with this radical transformation, the stigma of television storytelling is long gone. In its place, television is gaining recognition as the most desirable place for artists to practice their craft and where creativity and preeminent storytelling is not only encouraged but also rewarded.

In the last thirty years, one cannot help but notice that television viewing has become more audience centric. A record number of channels to choose from as well as streaming and VCR/DVR capability have shifted control to the viewer. Gone are mandated network schedules and in is binge watching. No longer constrained by previous storytelling mores, both writers and series creators have responded in kind with the production of high quality material. The trend seems to be here to stay, as viewers seem to be fully enjoying the rewards of this long coming evolution.