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Serials in television and radio are series that rely on a continuing plot that unfolds in a serial fashion, episode by episode. Serials typically follow main story arcs that span entire seasons or even the full run of the series, which distinguishes them from traditional episodic television that relies on more stand-alone episodes. Worldwide, the soap opera is a notable derivative of the serial.

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 to every episode to follow the plot.[1] The invention of recording devices (such as VCRs, DVRs and TiVo) have made following these type of shows easier, which has resulted in increased success and popularity.

Serials are typically contrasted with procedurals which rely on a more stand-alone, often referred to as "case-of-the-week", format.[2][3]

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.

Contents

Terminology

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."[4]

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.

History

Serials have existed since the beginning of mass marketed entertainment in the 19th century,[citation needed] beginning with the penny dreadful serial novels, and continuing with the advent of the movie serials of the early 20th century. With the advent first of television, and the decline of the movie-going audience, production of movie 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.

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Soap operas

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 then switched to CBS Television in 1952. The Guiding Light's final episode aired on September 18, 2009, having a total of 15,762 episodes air on CBS. 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.

Other dramas

Serialized storytelling can also be seen in other dramas. Heavily serialized dramas include 24, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, Heroes, Lost, and Prison Break. Series such as Alias, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and The X-Files fall somewhere in-between, featuring a new case each week that is solved by the end of the episode, but also having an over-arching mystery that receives focus in many episodes. The more serialized its storytelling, the less likely a show is to fare well in repeats. The 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.

To a lesser extent, series such as House[5][6] and Fringe[7] may also feature ongoing story arcs, but episodes are more self-encapsulated and so the series fall into a more conventional drama category.

In addition, it has been noted that the use of cliffhangers is still prevalent in adventure shows; however, 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, many series have also made extensive use of the traditional end-of-episode cliffhanger format. This is most common in season finales which often end in a cliffhanger that would only be resolved in the next season's premiere.

Over the course of its run, a show may change its focus. Matt Cherniss, executive vice president of programming at Fox says: "Sometimes early on, being a little more episodic allows more people into the room. And as the show goes on, by its nature, it might find itself becoming a little more serialized."[3] Early in their runs, shows such as Lost,[3] Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse[8] put greater emphasis on the "story-of-the-week", but over time the story arc(s) begins to dominate. In contrast, Alias became more focused on standalone stories in later seasons.

Effect of serialization on commercial success

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.[9] Networks see them as riskier than dramas that focus on a self-contained story of the week.[10] Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times notes: "They're chancy because these shows are hard to join midway through."[11]

The LA Time's Scott Collins states that "serialized storytelling... though popular with hard-core fans and many critics, requires more dedication from viewers and has almost certainly tamped down ratings for many shows."[12] The article also quotes an ad executive who states that close-ended story lines "[make] it easier for new viewers to tune in and figure out what’s going on."[12] According to Dick Wolf, serialized elements also make it more difficult for viewers to return to a show if they have missed some episodes.[9]

Another problem is that many fans prefer to record these show and watch the whole season in one session.[11] These viewers are not included in TV ratings as they are much less likely to watch commercials than live viewers.

Concerned about the toll on ratings of complex story arcs, networks sometimes ask showrunners to reduce serialization. Alias began as a more serialized show but later became more stand-alone under network pressure.[7] During season 3 of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, showrunner Ronald D. Moore was also pressured to make episodes more stand-alone. This move resulted in negative criticism from both fans and critics, and Moore revealed in the Season 3 finale podcast that the network finally accepted that standalone episodes simply do not work for the story he is trying to tell.[13] Moore has also stated that a major reason why the network was reluctant to greenlight Caprica was because story-arc-heavy series notoriously have difficulty in picking up new viewers, as compared to a series composed of mostly standalone episodes.[14] According to Todd A. Kessler, the second season of Damages will be less serialized in order to render the show more accessible to new viewers.[15] Tim Kring, creator of Heroes, has also suggested that his show may move away from serialized storytelling: "I think the show needs to move towards [standalone episodes] in order to survive."[16]

Networks also discourage complex story arcs because they are less successful in reruns, and because standalone episodes can be rerun without concern for order.[17]

Entertainment Weekly[18] and Chicago Tribune[3] have expressed concern that declining ratings may lead to a major reduction in serialized storytelling. To highlight the situation, in the 2006-2007 season, no fewer than five high-concept serials were introduced, including Jericho, Kidnapped, Vanished, The Nine and Drive, all of which experienced fairly quick cancellation due to low ratings. [19]

Some reviewers have also noted that serialized dramas are at a disadvantage at major awards shows such as the Emmy Awards. Such shows generally have to submit an atypical self-contained episode in order to gain recognition.[20]

In terms of DVD sales, however, strongly serialized shows often perform better than shows which are strongly procedural. 24 (Season 6[21]), Lost (Season 4[22]), Heroes (Season 2[23]), True Blood[24] and even ratings minnow Battlestar Galactica (Season 4.0[25]) sell significantly more units than hit procedurals such as CSI (Season 6[26]), NCIS (Season 3[27], Season 5[28]), CSI: Miami (Season 4[29], Season 5[30]) and Criminal Minds (Season 2[31], Season 3[32]).

Serialized shows tend to develop a more dedicated fanbase interested in exploring the show online as well as becoming customers of additional merchandising.[10]

Other uses for the term serial

In British television, the term "serial" is a synonym for "miniseries".[33] 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

Popular serial comedies

References

  1. ^ a b c d e Alessandra Stanley (2007-07-24). "Smile and Smile and Still Be a Villain". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/arts/television/24stan.html?fta=y. Retrieved 2009-02-27. 
  2. ^ James Poniewozik (2008-12-04). "Tuned In". Time (magazine). http://tunedin.blogs.time.com/2008/12/04/i-have-seen-dollhouse/. Retrieved 2008-12-06. 
  3. ^ a b c d Maureen Ryan (2009-02-27). "Has TV lost its nerve when it comes to complex dramas?". Chicago Tribune. http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2009/02/has-tv-lost-its-nerve-when-it-comes-to-complex-dramas.html. Retrieved 2009-02-27. 
  4. ^ Reitz, Joan M. (2004). Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Retrieved 15 March 2006
  5. ^ Rob Owen (2009-02-01). "Fox's 'House' celebrates its 100th episode". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09032/943438-67.stm?cmpid=radiotv.xml. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  6. ^ Michael Ausiello (2009-02-11). "Ask Ausiello: Spoilers on 'Grey's,' 'House,' 'Big Love,' 'Fringe,' 'NCIS,' '24,' 'Gossip Girl,' 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Heroes,' 'Smallville,' and more!". Entertainment Weekly. http://ausiellofiles.ew.com/2009/02/ask-ausiello--1.html. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  7. ^ a b "JJ Abrams live webchat here". The Guardian. 2008-10-10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/organgrinder/2008/oct/10/jjabrams-ustelevision. Retrieved 2009-02-02. 
  8. ^ Sarah Hughes (2009-05-15). "Buffy's creator makes his valley of the dolls". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/buffys-creator-makes-his-valley-of-the-dolls-1684993.html. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  9. ^ a b Gerard Gilbert (2009-02-20). "American law... British order". The Guardian. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/american-law--british-order-1626849.html. Retrieved 2009-02-20. 
  10. ^ a b James Hibberd (2009-03-13). "Q&A: Ron Moore on 'Battlestar' series finale". THRfeed. http://www.thrfeed.com/2009/03/qa-ron-moore-on-battlestar-series-finale.html#. Retrieved 2009-03-13. 
  11. ^ a b Tom O'Neil (2008-09-21). "TRANSCRIPT: The Envelope chat with Glenn Close". Los Angeles Times. http://goldderby.latimes.com/awards_goldderby/2008/09/glenn-close-dam.html. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  12. ^ a b Scott Collins (2008-11-17). "How does CBS spell success? 'NCIS'". Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/tv/la-et-channel17-2008nov17,0,734832.story?. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  13. ^ http://www.scifi.com/battlestar/downloads/podcast.php?seas=3
  14. ^ Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Companion
  15. ^ Michael Schneider (2008-06-16). "William Hurt joins FX's 'Damages'". Variety (magazine). http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117987533.html?categoryid=14&cs=1&nid=2562. Retrieved 2009-02-27. 
  16. ^ Eric Goldman (2008-11-17). "Could Heroes Move Away From Serialization?". IGN. http://tv.ign.com/articles/931/931067p1.html. Retrieved 2009-03-02. 
  17. ^ "Joss Whedon talks 'Dollhouse' renewal". Hollywood Reporter THR feed. 2009-05-18. http://www.thrfeed.com/2009/05/joss-whedon-reacts-to-dollhouse-renewal.html. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  18. ^ Jeff Jensen (2008-12-19). "This Was the Year That TV's Second Golden Age Ended". Entertainment Weekly. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20247685,00.html. Retrieved 2009-02-27. 
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  21. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Dec 16, 2007
  22. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Jan 11, 2009
  23. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Oct 12, 2008
  24. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending July 5, 2009
  25. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Jan 18, 2009
  26. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Nov 19, 2006
  27. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Apr 29, 2007
  28. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Sep 7, 2008
  29. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Nov 5, 2006
  30. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Nov 4, 2007
  31. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Oct 7, 2007
  32. ^ US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending Sep 21, 2008
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  36. ^ Stuart Levine (2009-10-12). "http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118009832.html?categoryId=14&cs=1". Variety (magazine). http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118009832.html?categoryId=14&cs=1. Retrieved 2009-10-12. 
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  39. ^ Jami Philbrick (2009-04-14). "The Future of "Terminator" with Brian Austin Green". Comic Book Resources. http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=20811. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  40. ^ Leslie Gray Streeter (2009-11-03). "The ABC’s of the “V” reboot: Aliens, Baccarin and Chestnut". The Palm Beach Post. http://www.pbpulse.com/tv/2009/11/03/the-abcs-of-the-v-reboot-aliens-baccarin-and-chestnut/. Retrieved 2009-11-04. 

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