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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.
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 Adrian 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.
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.
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." Early in their runs, shows such as Lost,<ref name="ct090227"/> Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse 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.