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.
    – Tablemaker
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 18:06
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    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.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 20:05
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    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
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 6:13
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    I agree with the original poster. I have read some of the replies about counter-examples such as MASH. Perhaps television did have continuity before the current TV era (around the turn of the 21st century) but I didn't see any. I never watched more than a few episodes of MASH or Cheers, so I can't speak to those shows, but I did grow up in the 80s. Everything from children's cartoons to sitcoms to police dramas to sci fi shows followed an episodic pattern. I just thought that was what television was about, I thought it would never change. I was delighted when TV changed completely. Now everyth
    – user3398
    Commented Nov 13, 2012 at 6:25

8 Answers 8


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...

  • 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.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 18:39
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    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
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 19:31
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    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
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 19:42
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    @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. Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 7:39

I think it has to do with how technology has changed since then. During that time, we could only 'time-shift' TV shows with:

  1. VCRs (notoriously hard to program)
  2. Betamax (while it lasted)

Now we have:

  1. DVRs (TiVo, from your TV service provider, etc)
  2. Internet/Digital video services (Netflix, Hulu, network websites)
  3. DVDs and Blu rays.
  4. Video On-demand.

So, I would argue the risk of creating a serialized show is greatly reduced because of these factors. The barrier of entry is lower now than at any other point prior to now. Content producers realize that in addition to syndication, they make a tidy bit of revenue on Season TV DVD/BD sales. For example, DVD Sales were cited as one of the reasons Family Guy, while not being a serialized show, was brought back from cancellation.

As far as when this shift happened, I would say it was the success of 24 and Lost that made the serialized drama a possibility on a more broad scale (among network and cable channels). If someone, be it a friend, a co-worker, or a geek off the street, says "Show XYZ" is amazing and you should watch it, then I can just Google it and access it however it's available. 20+ years ago, this was very unlikely to happen due to the availability (lack) and cost of prior TV content (high). Everybody is trying to be the next '24' or 'Lost.' Fox has even brought '24' back for a limited 12 episode mini-series in a slightly different format. I would say that the serialized drama gives viewers a much different relationship to the characters on a TV show.

The difference between the serialized shows of today and the episodic shows of yesterday is that the 'cliffhanger' is weekly versus seasonally and the occasional two-part episode or "mid-season" finale.

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    It definitely started well before 24 and Lost and the advent of DVRs; I'd be more inclined to point to the huge success of The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 back in the 90s, but there might be earlier examples too. Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 13:53
  • That's a fair point. The DVR, to me, reduces the risk of creating such shows. The three shows mentioned all had overarching storylines, but still had some "monster-of-the-week" type episodes (B5 probably had the least of those types of episodes among those shows), whereas 24 and Lost never had those types of episodes. The DVR has made enjoying fully serialized shows much easier.
    – Waddler
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 16:45
  • There was a time we didn't even have VCRs (btw, Betamax IS a VCR just a different format than a VHS). You dance around the truth but still manage to miss that these shows could become serials only after the audience no longer felt a significant risk to missing an episode.
    – Cos Callis
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 2:03
  • @CosCallis, where am I "dancing around the truth?" The OP cited "70's and 80s" as the timeframe. "Time-shifting" significantly reduced the risk of missing an episode. This is truer today than at any other time since we have DVR and different types of "on-demand" delivery systems. I called out both VCR and Betamax separately because they were marketed as competing formats, much like the Blu-ray and HD-DVD disc formats were in the mid-2000s.
    – Waddler
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 21:38
  • @Waddler By 'dancing around the truth' what I meant was that you were very nearly 'completely correct'. IMHO the point that you omit is WHY it was a risk to produce a serial before 'time shifting'... what made THAT risky then and less risky now, and that singular point, where you are just outside the bullseye. Separately, in a minor error, you are confusing VHS for VCR. VCR is 'Video Cassette Recorder' a generic term for either format VHS or Betamax.
    – Cos Callis
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 4:36

I think it shifted about the time PrimeTime Soaps began to wane.

I recall several episodic shows when I was young. Virtually all the Adventure and Crime Dramas of the '80s were episodic in nature. From a writer's point of view, it may have been an attempt to keep the shows accessible to a new writer or a fill-in script. Actor contracts, also, went by season. So you knew there would be no cast changes until the season finale or premiere.

The first non-soap shows I recall having a serialized nature were X-Files (1993), Lois & Clark (1993), Millennium (1996) and Buffy (1997).

Note, however, two distinct factors that show up in these-

  1. They were all genre-shows, designed for sci-fi fans (known to be comfortable with long stretching plots from reading comics).

  2. At this stage the serialization was kept mainly to subplots. It was still years until the serialization would appear in the main stories.

Lost and Alias helped spur that further, as well as other shows such as 24 and La Femme Nikita.

Until we have the present day Walking Dead.

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    I would argue that Babylon 5 is a counterexample to the statement "At this stage the serialization was kept mainly to subplots. It was still years until the serialization would appear in the main stories.", and possibly also Twin Peaks (even though it did not last long). Totally agree with your first statement. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 7:10
  • Murder One's first season had a season-long arc; its second season had smaller arcs that spread over several episodes. It was broadcast in 1995.
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 12:22
  • @Lee S. You should not forget Twin Peacks (1990) which was also very serialized. Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 8:09
  • Soaps, That word does not mean what you think it means... Soaps ARE Serials...
    – Cos Callis
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 2:04
  • @O.R.Mapper To me Babylon 5 seems more episodic in the earlier seasons before becoming completely serial by season 4. Commented Jul 2 at 6:30

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?

  • Not sure if one particular example debunks the whole observation. If there are about equal parts, then yes.
    – Tablemaker
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 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...
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 19:26
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    @TylerShads - Peyton Place 1964-1969.
    – wbogacz
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 20:00
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    UPDATE: It has recently been promised that The Killing will have a third season. Consequently, AMC is repeating the episodes of seasons 1 and 2. In spite of my knowing the final reveal, I AM interested in repeating the whole series to specifically watch scenes with the known killer. Unfortunately, we know from stories at the time that, the killer was not known, even to the player, until the final scenes were filmed to develop added suspense. This may be an unnecessary pilgrimage.
    – wbogacz
    Commented Jan 20, 2013 at 17:13

When: I believe the real transition started with the success of DALLAS. Remember, 'Who shot JR?' CBS kept an entire nation mesmerized for a summer with that question. When that happened the network powers saw that a soap (a serial) could not just survive, but thrive in 'prime time' enter image description here

But network execs are notoriously slow to come around to change, even after the success of Dallas it took time for the new genre (prime time serials) to take off. Dallas gave us Knot's Landing (a spin-off), ABC Chimed in with Dynasty and networks were beginning to move toward serials...

But Why?

The advent of On Demand viewing: Before the VCR missing an episode of a serial could derail the whole viewer experience. Today I don't have to care what time the networks 'air' (or release) the show, I can watch it whenever I want to and I can take care to watch them in order. But if I had to wait for summer re-runs to catch that episode I missed, well I might as well just not bother.

Supply and Demand: In the 70's - 90's back when 'most people' had access to three networks (and PBS, and the occasional UHF channel) network time was at a premium. There was a whooping total of 63 prime-time hours available and TV execs where not prone to 'try something new' (as much as they wanted you to believe otherwise). Today the barrier to entry has gotten much lower as the distribution channels (broadcast, cable, streaming, rental, on demand) are much more wide. Each of the 'majors' (now to include Fox and others) all have 'minor leagues' they can test things in. Studios and networks are even not so tightly aligned (several ABC shows are Produced by Fox, etc). While the glut of available time slots has lead to a onslaught of trash (Kard...) even that has an audience. It's easier for a network to gamble on 'something different'. A greater population of shows to choose from has lead to a greater variety of show types. The 80's would have never seen a "Dramady" (i.e. Buffy).

Success breeds Success: As previously noted, network execs were not known to be big 'gamblers' (as in 'let's try something new and see if it sticks'). But with these new channels opening up it's easier to try something truly 'new' (Survivor... and now all these reality shows) Once something succeeds in television the networks all want to pile on and capture their piece of the action.

footnote: before Dallas there were a few exceptions, Peyton Place, etc... but their success was arguable in their day...They were critically acclaimed but still struggled for ratings.


I think many of these answers are excellent--including the chosen answer which is essentially stating "it may be more fuzzy memory" than statistical truth. I think the technology addition is good as well--both DVRs and DVD sales.

On other possible reason that we have more serial shows now than before is that we simply have a lot more TV. Cable was the big shift in the 80s but even then, TV series weren't a primary focus on a lot of the networks. Today many of the networks have morphed from their original intent into producers and developers of their own television series. Nickelodeon, Disney, AMC, MTV, Animal Planet, and dozens of others (not to mention non-networks such as Amazon and Netflix).

So we simply have a lot more TV...meaning both more serialized shows as well as more episodic based shows. Depending on your tastes, you may be drawn to the more serialized options due to the fact that they tend to put a lot of effort into story telling. Plus, going back to the technology aspect, you can binge watch them.


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!


I started to compile a list, but some clear patterns have already emerged. (Feel free to add televisions series from the years in between.)

Firmly episodic:

  • Gilligan's Island (1964-1967): They don't build upon their ideas to escape the island
  • Star Trek (1966-1969): The Romulan cloaking device would have been handy to keep, along with their knowledge of time travel, but they seem to forget about these technologies.
  • The Brady Bunch (1969-1974): They have to keep learning how to get along, though they do seem to very slowly learn over their five years.

Firmly serial:

  • 24 (2001-2010): Each episode is extremely dependent upon those before it.
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): By each episode depending heavily on its predecessor, it increases the tension as the plot thickens rapidly.
  • Fringe (2008-2013): Each episode uncovers new clues which build on the body of knowledge and encourages new experiments to advance their investigation.
  • House of Cards (2013-): Each episode is another step in advancing Frank's power and control, building upon all that he has done before.
  • Lilyhammer (2012-): Van Zandt's character learns and grows and evolves rapidly from episode to episode.
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    This doesn't seem to adress the actual question, though.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 11:29
  • @NapoleonWilson: Not yet it doesn't. Give it time.
    – wallyk
    Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 0:42
  • This is hardly a large enough data set to make conclusions from.
    – DA.
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 21:28

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