was an early American television series format or genre in which
each episode was a discrete story/play rather than a weekly return
to the same setting, characters, and stars. In the history of American
television the anthology dramas that were broadcast live from New
York are often considered the epitome of the genre and of television's
"golden age" of the 1950s. While television was otherwise maligned
as low-brow and crassly commercial, live anthology dramas represented,
at least to some observers, the best of 1950s television. There
were, however, several variations on the anthology drama series,
and not all were critically acclaimed. A staple of late 1940s and
1950s programming, the last anthology dramas left the airwaves by
a series of monthly dramas were presented on NBC's New York station
as Television Theatre. However, its schedule was erratic,
and it was NBC's Kraft Television Theatre that became not only the
first weekly anthology drama but the first network television series
in 1947. It was followed by several other series in 1948, including
The Ford Television Theater, Studio One, Philco
Television Playhouse, and Actors' Studio. These were
hour-long dramas broadcast live from New York. Over the next several
years, numerous such series appeared on the airwaves, among them,
for example, Robert Montgomery Presents, Celanese Theater,
and The U.S. Steel Hour. Critics praised the live, hour-long
dramas for their presentations of adapted literary classics, serious
dramas, and social relevance. The evocation of Broadway created
series appeared by 1950, such as Colgate Theater, Lights
Out, Danger, and Lux Video Theatre. Some were
thematic, creating continuity and programming niches. For instance,
Danger and Lights Out specialized in suspense. With
a few exceptions, these half-hour series were not critically acclaimed.
Critics complained of dramas squeezed into half-hours.
format quickly became the province of filmed anthology dramas produced
in Hollywood. Critics liked these even less. In contrast to the
high-brow, Broadway play connotations of the live New York series,
critics associated filmed dramas with Hollywood, with low-brow entertainment.
But there were all kinds of filmed anthologies just as there were
all kinds of live anthologies. The first filmed anthology series
was Your Show Time in 1949. Lasting only a few months, it
was followed that same year by the first successful filmed anthology
drama, Fireside Theatre. Other network filmed anthology dramas
were Four Star Playhouse, The Loretta Young Show,
and Hollywood Opening Night. Like some of the live productions,
filmed anthologies sometimes also programmed for special interests.
The Loretta Young Show, for example, was targeted to women.
Some filmed anthology dramas were produced specifically for syndication.
Examples include Douglas Fairbanks Presents, Death Valley
Days, and Crown Theatre Starring Gloria Swanson. Death
Valley Days was one of the few anthology dramas with a Western
In the earliest
years, literary works in the public domain provided the stories
for the anthology dramas. There were no experienced television writers
and the early industry could not afford experienced writers from
other fields. Television writers and original television dramas
soon appeared, however, and writers as well as critics and audiences
recognized the potential power of small-scale, intimate drama created
for the new medium. Writers like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky
helped refine the form and found critical success writing anthology
dramas. Serling would go on to host his own filmed anthology series,
The Twilight Zone. By the mid-1950s, original television
dramas were providing material for feature films. Marty,
12 Angry Men, No Time for Sergeants, Requiem for
a Heavyweight, and other original television plays were made
into motion pictures.
Actors and directors
also found opportunities on anthology dramas. At a time when the
Hollywood studio system was disappearing, television offered jobs
and public exposure. Little-known actors and actresses like Charleton
Heston and Grace Kelly, as well as older Hollywood stars like Lillian
Gish and Bette Davis, acted in anthology dramas. Some stars of Old
Hollywood, such as Loretta Young, Douglas Fairbanks, and Barbara
Stanwyck, had their own anthology series. Directors who would go
on to motion picture work include Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research
the later 1950s, competition from the increasingly successful continuing
character series filmed in Hollywood led to other innovations in
the anthology drama format. Playhouse 90 presented 90-minute
plays. Matinee Theater presented live, color dramas five
days a week. Lux Video Theater and some others switched from
live to filmed dramas. Production moved to Hollywood. During its
final season in 1957-58, Kraft Television Theatre was the
last anthology drama broadcast live from New York.
the end of the decade, the anthology drama was on its way out. A
number of factors led to its demise. Coming up with new, quality
dramas and characters every week became increasingly difficult.
Some anthology dramas had presented controversial episodes, with
well-publicized battles with sponsors who wanted to stick with what
they considered middle-of-the-road, non-controversial entertainment.
Their attitudes, combined with their ultimate power, discouraged
some writers and directors from working in the genre. The days of
the glamorous Hollywood star as host were also numbered, and anthology
dramas like The Loretta Young Show and The Barbara Stanwyck
Show were canceled. Filmed programming, with its possibilities
for an economic afterlife in syndication, had greater profit potential
than live production. With television production shifting to Hollywood,
more action-oriented genres could now be cranked out. And it seemed
that audiences (comprising over 90% of American homes by the end
of the 1950s) preferred them. Few examples of the live productions
from anthology dramas remain today. Most were not preserved on film
and the few that are available were preserved by filming them off
of TV screens (kinescopes). Even many of the filmed programs have
disappeared. Perhaps the anthology drama legacy remains today in
the made-for-TV movie.
Richard. Electronic Drama: Television Plays of the Sixties, Selected
by Richard Averson and David Manning White. With an introduction
by Hubbell Robinson. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1971.
Larry James. Television Drama Series Programming : A Comprehensive
Chronicle, 1947-1959. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press,
Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental
Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.
Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1990.
Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors.
New York: Dell, 1977.
also Advertising, Company
Voice; Alcoa Hour;
Armstrong Circle Theatre;
Electric Theater; Golden
Age of Television; Hallmark
Hall of Fame; Kraft
Television Theater; Mann,
Wednesday Play; Westinghouse-Desilu