Serial (radio and television)

Serial (radio and television)

Serials in television and radio are series, often in a weekly prime time slot, that rely on a continuing plot that unfolds in a serial fashion, episode by episode. Serials typically follow main plot arcs that span entire seasons or even the full run of the series, which distinguishes them from traditional episodic television.

Serials rely on keeping the full nature of the story hidden and revealing elements episode by episode to keep viewers tuning in to learn more. Often these shows employ recapping segments at the beginning and cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Such shows also place a demand on viewers to tune in every episode to continue learning of the unfolding mystery. The inventionof DVRs and TiVo have made following these type of shows easier which has resulted in increased success and popularity.

With the success of shows like "24" and "Lost" in American prime time television, several new shows have aired in the 2006 television season in the same genre. In British television, "serial" is also synonymous with the American term "miniseries" - a short-run series with one title and plot. The conclusion of the serial is sometimes, but not necessarily, the end of the program as a whole, as sequel serials will sometimes be made.

Worldwide, the soap opera is a notable derivative of the serial. However, it has come to have such clear paradigms of its own that it is more frequently thought of as a genre unto itself.


The term "serial" refers to the intrinsic property of a series —namely its order. In literature, the term is used as a noun to refer to a format (within a genre) by which a story is told in contiguous (typically chronological) installments in sequential issues of a single periodical publication.

More generally, "serial" is applied in library and information science to materials "in any medium issued under the same title in a succession of discrete parts, usually numbered (or dated) and appearing at regular or irregular intervals with no predetermined conclusion."Reitz, Joan M. (2004). [ "Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science"] . Retrieved 15 March 2006]

The term has been used for a radio or television production with a continuously evolving, unified plot and set of characters, spread over multiple episodes. While American television has introduced some serial elements into their narratives, true, episodically numbered serials are rare in modern US television. They are generally used within episodic series to generate ratings spikes, and are usually limited to two parts. In the US, the most common form of the serial remains the miniseries.


With the advent of television and the decline of the movie-going audience, production of serials ceased due to the decreasing audience (and revenues). But the serial lived on, moving instead to the small screen and the world of TV reruns.

The television serial format as we know it today actually originated in radio, in the form of children's adventure shows and daily 15-minute programs known as "soap operas" (so-called because many of these shows were sponsored by soap companies, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble). Soap operas were specifically engineered to appeal to women (clearly to entice them to buy more soap). They usually ran from Monday through Friday at exactly the same time every day. A show called "The Smith Family" which ran only one night a week on WENR in Chicago during the early 1930s was credited as the "great-granddaddy of the soap operas" by radio historian Francis Chase, Jr. One of the other shows that helped pioneer the daytime soap opera/serial was "The Guiding Light", which debuted on NBC radio in 1937, and is still airing today on CBS Television (where "Guiding Light" has been since 1952). Some of the characters in soap operas have been portrayed as long-suffering (a common theme even in some of today's serials along with the social and economical issues of the day). Children's adventure serials were more like film serials, with continuing characters involved in exploits with episodes that often ended in a cliffhanger situation.

"Guiding Light" and such other daytime serials such as "As the World Turns" (premiered in 1956), "General Hospital" (premiered in 1963), "Days of Our Lives" (premiered in 1965), "One Life to Live" (premiered in 1968), "All My Children" (premiered in 1970), and "The Young and the Restless" (premiered in 1973) were popular in the Golden and Silver Ages of television and still are today.

Aside from the social issues, the style and presentation of these shows have changed. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s the drama was underscored with traditional organ music, and in the 1970s and the 1980s a full orchestra provided the score, the daytime dramas of today use cutting-edged synth-driven music (in a way, music for soaps has come full-circle, from the keyboard to the keyboard).

The nighttime serials are a different story, though the concept is also nothing new. In the 1960s, ABC aired the first real breakthrough nighttime serial, "Peyton Place", inspired by the novel and theatrical film of the same name. After its cancellation, the format went somewhat dormant until the mid-1970s when ABC themselves brought it back with, of all things, a comedy soap (aptly called "Soap"). Although the show was controversial for its time (with a homosexual character among its cast roster), it was (and still is today) a cult classic.

The era of "primetime soaps" (as they are often called) really began to reach its peak when CBS began to air "Dallas" (which re-propelled Larry Hagman to stardom) in 1978. It was with this show that defined the end-of-season cliffhanger (with its "Who Shot J.R.?" and "Bobby in the Shower?" storylines) that is still utilized in many of today's series (whether serials or not).

In the 1980s, there were other nighttime soaps as "Dynasty" (ABC's answer to "Dallas"), "Knots Landing", "The Yellow Rose", and "Falcon Crest". There were some serial shows such as "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" that did not officially fit into this category, but were nonetheless ratings hits season after season. As the 1990s came to a close, the primetime soap as an official format slowly passed into the sunset, where it largely seems to remain as of the middle of the first decade of the 21st century in the U.S.

However, the primetime serial structure can still be seen today in such contemporary U.S. shows as "The West Wing", "24", "Alias", "Lost" and "Veronica Mars". Series such as "E.R.", "House" and the "CSI" franchise feature ongoing characters and story arcs, but episodes are more-or-less self-encapsulated and so the series fall into a more conventional drama category.

The term "serial" has become outdated, however, and viewers now speak in terms of these shows making use of "story arcs." In addition, it has been noted that the use of cliffhangers is still prevalent in adventure shows, its just that they are now typically used just before a commercial break and the viewer need only wait a few minutes to see its resolution. In addition, "24" and "Alias", as well as other series such as "" have also extensively made use of the traditional end-of-episode cliffhanger format. This often applies to their season finales which often end in a cliffhanger that would only be resolved in the next season's premiere.

In British television, the term "serial" is a synonym for "miniseries".cite web|url=|title=Awards Categories|publisher=British Academy of Film and Television Arts|accessdate=2007-05-07] In some cases — such as the costume drama "Pride and Prejudice" (BBC One, 1995) or the contemporary social drama "Our Friends in the North" (BBC Two, 1996) — these are stand-alone dramas, and at the conclusion of the last episode, the program itself ends. In other cases, perhaps most famously the original series of "Doctor Who" (1963–89), the programme is made up of a continuing series of different serials.

Popular serial dramas

* "90210" (2008-present)
* "The 4400" (2004-2007)
* "24" (2001-present)
* "Alias" (2001-2006)
* "Angel" (1999-2004)
* "Babylon 5" (1994-1998)
* "Battlestar Galactica" (2004-present)
* "Brothers & Sisters (2006-present)
* "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003)
* "Charmed (1998-2006)dubious
* "Damages (2007-present)
* "Deadwood" (2004-2006)
* "Desperate Housewives" (2004-present)
* "Dexter" (2006-present)
* "Fringe" (2008-present)
* "Gossip Girl" (2007-present)
* "Grey's Anatomy" (2005-present)dubious
* "Heroes" (2006-present)
* "Jericho" (2006-2008)
* "The L Word" (2004-present)
* "Lost" (2004-2010)
* "Nip/Tuck" (2003-present)
* "The O.C." (2004-2007)
* "One Tree Hill" (2003-present)
* "Prison Break" (2005-present)
* "Queer as Folk USA" (2000-2005)
* "Queer as Folk UK" (1999-2000)
* "Rome" (2006-2007)
* "Roswell" (1999-2002)
* "Smallville" (2001-present)
* "The Sopranos" (1999-2007)
* " Standoff" (2006-present)
* "Supernatural" (2005-present)
* "" (2008-present)
* "Twin Peaks" (1990-1991)
* "Veronica Mars" (2004-2007)
* "The West Wing" (1999-2006)
* "Wildfire" (2003-present)
* "The Wire" (2002-2008)

Popular serial comedies

* "30 Rock" (2006-present)
* "Arrested Development" (2003-2006)
* "Chuck" (2007-present)
* "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (2000-present)
* "Entourage" (2004-present)
* "Extras" (2005-2007)
* "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (1976-1977)
* "Reaper" (2007-present)
* "The Office (UK)" (2001-2002)
* "The Office (US)" (2005-present)
* "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" (1959-1964)
* "Soap" (1977-1981)
* "Weeds" (2005-present)


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