In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prime Time Drama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Form
  • Seriality
  • United States
  • Practitioner Interviews
  • Aspects of Production and Distribution
  • Audiences

Cinema and Media Studies Prime Time Drama
Amanda Lotz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0072


The category of prime-time drama varies based on content forms popular around the globe. The term “prime-time” derives from the time these dramas are aired—typically the mid-evening hours, in which the viewing audience is the largest, and consequently allows commercial television systems to charge the highest advertising rates. It most commonly distinguishes scripted narrative television forms whose stories may be organized episodically and serially, and in early television history the anthology drama or single-play format was common. It is distinguished from the extensive seriality of the soap opera in this entry, although a few references to telenovelas and Korean dramas are included because this form is equivalent to prime-time drama in other national contexts. Prime-Time drama may be most clearly distinguished by what it is not: one-off, made-for-television films; situation comedy; or reality or factual television. Though the loose categories of television comedy and drama persist, the adoption of film-style techniques by many contemporary comedies has led to a significant blurring of these demarcations. Moreover, scholarship outside the United States often considers “drama” to encompass all fictional programming that is distinguished separately as comedy and drama in the United States. Prime-Time drama encompasses so many forms that it has rarely been studied as a coherent entity. Much work either takes the task of cataloging a national history of the form or attends to the analysis of particular dramas—though commonly not considering them as dramas. Attention to dramas as dramas is relatively rare in the literature. Early television scholarship, which was heavily influenced by film studies approaches, attended closely to matters of form, but this focus diminished significantly in the late 1980s and has only recently become a matter of considerable interest. Even here, the focus has been more on narrative techniques that are not exclusive to drama, such as seriality, complexity, and characterization.

General Overviews

Research on prime-time dramas has been far more likely to take a particular show, context, or topic as the site of analysis, so that general examinations of prime-time drama remain uncommon. Focused monographs on television drama have not centered on US programming, but considered it relative to the productions of other national contexts. Few have identified the topic or category of “television drama” as an object of analysis. Caughie 2000 and Dunleavy 2009 explore the drama in relation to British culture, while Nelson 2007 also considers dramas produced in the United States.

  • Caughie, John. Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198742197.001.0001

    Caughie’s examination, limited to what he distinguishes as “serious drama,” explores the central debates about television drama, including those over liveness, the accuracy of depiction, realism, naturalism, modernism, and the place of dramas in the politics of public service and popular culture.

  • Dunleavy, Trisha. Television Drama: Form, Agency, Innovation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Dunleavy’s book is broader than just prime time and includes chapters on comedy and soap opera, but it helpfully ties changes in forms of drama to the different industrial mandates of British public service and the US commercial system, as well as to changing industrial dynamics from those of the 1950s through the present.

  • Nelson, Robin. State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719073106.001.0001

    Nelson reviews the accomplishments of “quality” television drama produced in the United States and United Kingdom between the mid-1990s and 2006 in relation to changing technological and industrial dynamics. He considers dramas such as The Sopranos, Shooting the Past, Shameless, Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, Carnivale, 24, Spooks, Buried, Oz, Blackpool, Casanova, and State of Play.

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