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My recollection of the prime-time television I watched growing up -- the 70s and 80s plus whatever were on at the time -- are almost invariably of episodic television. At the end of each episode, everything that had happened was completely and forgotten, and the show effectively "reset" for the next episode. This included not just the obvious sit-coms, but also dramatic shows like sci-fi, cop shows, etc. I don't remember any show that stands out as paying the least attention to "continuity".

The only deviation here were soap operas, which were just a bunch of overlapping, long-running storylines woven together, but those seemed to be the exception to the rule, and only a handful showed up on prime time.

By the late 90s it seemed like there was a change, to the point where everything but sit-coms were more serialized. Episodes were still self-contained but also fit together into longer, multi-episode, season-wide or even multi-season story arcs. Things that happened in one episode would be written in to subsequent episodes on a regular basis.

For some reason, the two shows that always stick in my brain when I think about this are Golden Girls (one of the last shows I remember from living at home) vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of the first shows I remember from living on my own.) and how dramatically different those shows treated continuity. These days, most dramatic television seems to make at least some effort to be internally consistent from show to show.

Am I just mis-remembering the kind of TV that was popular up through the 90s? Were there a lot of quality serial-type shows on at that time that I just never saw or have since forgotten? Or was there really a shift in the type of programming that made it to prime time teleivsion, and if so, why did that happen?

(Also, I should point out that I'm specifically not counting things like major cast changes, which would be impossible for a show to ignore, but rather that events that happened in one episode are never brought up again, even when they would be relevant, or that there was no cross-episode plots that linked them together.)


Several comments have pointed out how much riskier serial dramas are than episodic ones from the network's perspective. That makes sense, especially when you factor in syndication deals later on. That might explain the my lack of memory of such dramas on television in previous decades. However, it doesn't explain why so many dramas on television are serialized.

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This does bring up a good observation. Have you researched deeply into this or is this a new curiosity. I only ask because I'm curious if studies have been done or trends have been noticed/recorded in the past. –  TylerShads Jul 5 '12 at 18:06
Not really a new curiosity, just an intuition I get when I watch older TV shows vs. newer ones, and wonder why old shows never seemed to care about things like changing how many kids a main character has. But I could never decide if this was all my own TV viewing habits biasing my memory, or if serialized shows got some kind of "boost" from the Internet, or if there was just a chance in attitude in the industry, or what. –  Michael Edenfield Jul 5 '12 at 18:52
As I can think of counter-examples from across time, I expect this is more a function of your evolving viewing taste than changes in writing. Some shows seem to treat "continuity" in the same manner as out-of-show references; inside nods to their core viewers. Others strive for it as a core goal. However, if this writing change has happened, I expect it to eventually be attributed to "Homicide: Life on the Streets". I've not seen the show (it's on my to-do list) so can't speak directly, but over the years I've heard a LOT about how that show changed dramas. –  Scivitri Jul 5 '12 at 20:05
Very good observation. Together with the overall quality of the TV shows rose their apreciation of continuity. Whereas I appreciate the many high quality shows we have nowadays, I'm missing my self-contained short-minded shows from the 80s and 90s, where it wasn't a problem to miss out an episode. Nothing bad about an hour of short-lived entertainment when you're not in the mood for a full-fledged movie-like drama. –  Napoleon Wilson Jul 5 '12 at 22:56
Wikipedia has an article that includes a list of serial dramas/comedies. - Complex story arcs may have a negative effect on ratings by making entry more difficult for new viewers as well as confusing fans who have missed an episode. Networks see them as riskier than dramas that focus on a self-contained story of the week. –  Oliver_C Jul 6 '12 at 6:13
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3 Answers

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I would hazard a guess that, if you were a kid in the 70's/80's that you may just not have watched many of the serialized shows. (of course, I was a kid in the 80's and remember watching all of these...) Off the top of my head, from the 80's, you've got:

  • Hill Street Blues
  • St. Elsewhere
  • Cheers
  • M.A.S.H.
  • Moonlighting
  • Family Ties
  • L.A. Law

These were all shows that had long story arcs and episodic consistency...

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I remember a lot of those shows and I don't remember, e.g. Family Ties or Cheers being terribly serial, other than obvious things like major cast changes that can't be "ignored". Maybe I just don't remember them all that well :) +1 though because I had forgotten Moonlighting and the whole UST thing. –  Michael Edenfield Jul 5 '12 at 18:39
Most of what these shows had was "connective tissue", something that falsely portrayed continuity. Like, Arnie from L.A. Law trying to seduce all the women; that wasn't continuity, as much as it was just continuous. Family Ties had an artificial continuity based on the aging of the kids, other than that, they just had a well-grounded ethic that always showed up - continuity? - no, just characterization. MASH had its war, but not much else I remember connected the dots week to week. However, it is possible the others did deliver, I don't remember watching them for long, if at all. –  wbogacz Jul 5 '12 at 18:57
@wbogacz - I don't know if I necessarily agree on the distinction between 'connective tissue' and 'continuity.' All of these shows had long, multi-episode story arcs and references to past events. You could pick up any episode of The Cosby Show, for example, in a vacuum and be okay. As Cheers matured, on the other hand, you had story arcs surrounding, for example, the bar being sold. Family Ties had a whole series of episodes about Alex's speed use. But, I am nutty about ensuring I watch and read things in order, so I may have a biased memory. –  Jacob G Jul 5 '12 at 19:31
Alex used speed? - I don't remember that at all. I remember Cheers being sold, but I don't remember it as a long process. "Connective tissue", to me, indicates weak continuity, artificial and unintended. It could even be accidental, like a plant in the background that grows week to week, and is commented on in the last season (btw - don't look for this anywhere - its just a case I made it up). –  wbogacz Jul 5 '12 at 19:42
@JacobG - I think the difference is whether or not the story arcs are central to the show. When I think back to watching Cheers, while there were many story arcs along the way, you could easily pick up any episode and enjoy it without knowing about that arc. Each episode was fairly self-contained. It seems many episodes in today's shows are confusing without knowing those arcs. –  David Harkness Jul 14 '12 at 7:39
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What we remember is clouded by our age. My guess is that you were probably too young to watch it, but, I was able to find an early serialized medical drama called The Nurses for CBS in 1962. It ran for 3 years, was nominated for Emmy awards for Primetime Drama, and was then carried to daytime soap from 1965 to 1967.

I believe that serialization of television defeats the primary purpose of television - the delivery of advertising, with interesting televised segments comprising a story between. But advertisers require a consistent audience, and will abandon shows they find delivers few viewers to sell to. Neilsen ratings support the sponsor by judging a show's popularity to deliver advertising consistently.

Since advertising is sold by the network, they have an interest too in the delivery of an appealing show, including repeats, to fill out the broadcast year. The serialization format places a demand on episodes to be run in order, without which story arcs stretching over many episodes may be difficult for new viewers to delve into, so it is likely to lose its audience unless they are very dedicated to the story.

Also, if you've spent the season watching it to the end, why would you repeat watching the show and all it revealed into the off-season?

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Not sure if one particular example debunks the whole observation. If there are about equal parts, then yes. –  TylerShads Jul 5 '12 at 18:13
@wbogacz this is true, I can see why serialized TV might be harder to syndicate, but that doesn't explain why almost every show I watch these days (including the syndicated ones from ~1999 on) are serial in nature. Just reading the USA and TNT daily syndicated shows we have Smallville, Angel, Charmed, Supernatural, Bones, House, NCIS, Burn Notice... –  Michael Edenfield Jul 5 '12 at 18:45
@Edenfield - If you notice, at least Supernatural and Smallville stick to the original broadcast order; Angel, maybe. Bones and House have "connective tissue", but I think Fox believes they can be virtually random, since it rebroadcasts them without strict regard to release, skipping forward or back, sometimes mingling years. I can't speak to Charmed or NCIS. Burn Notice - I don't know what rules it follows; each season's shows give some progression in the mystery, but I view it mostly as a "Perils of Pauline" show. Every episode is resolved just far enough to deliver audience for next week. –  wbogacz Jul 5 '12 at 19:26
@TylerShads - Peyton Place 1964-1969. –  wbogacz Jul 5 '12 at 20:00
@TylerShads - sorry, that really was a soap opera; I just recalled that my mother watched it. –  wbogacz Jul 5 '12 at 20:08
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I have no research for this one, but my own fuzzy memory would put the start of the shift to 1978 and the first prime-time soap opera, Dallas. It began as a 5-part miniseries and grew into a serial. It's popularity took off with the 1980 season-end cliffhanger "Who shot JR?" America was hooked. It was followed by a slew of other primetime soaps, and then other shows began to serialize to pull audiences back week after week. A successful serial is an advertiser's dream!

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