Anthology drama 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 the mid-1960s.

In 1946-47, 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 prestige.

Live half-hour 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.

The half-hour 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 theme.

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

By 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.

By 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.

-Madelyn Ritrosky-Winslow


Averson, 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.

Gianakos, Larry James. Television Drama Series Programming : A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1947-1959. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Sturcken, Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1990.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors. New York: Dell, 1977.

See also Advertising, Company Voice; Alcoa Hour; Armstrong Circle Theatre; Brodkin, Herbert; Fireside Theater; General Electric Theater; Golden Age of Television; Hallmark Hall of Fame; Kraft Television Theater; Mann, Abby; Robinson, Hubbell; Rose, Reginald; Schaffner, Franklin, Playhouse 90, Studio One; The Wednesday Play; Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse