Daytime dramas were a staple of the first days of television. They got the nickname “soap operas” because the early adopters of television advertising were soap companies. Over time, the term soap opera became associated with improbable, but exciting, story lines involving long- lost relatives, secret affairs and amnesia. The genre came to primetime in 1964 with “Peyton Place,” starring Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. The genre revived in primetime in the late ’70s to great success.
Three primetime soap operas rank among the longest running shows in the history of TV drama. “Dallas” ran for 13 years and managed to hook male viewers with two dominant characters working in the Texas oil business, the scheming J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and his do-gooder brother, Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy).
“Dynasty” copied the oil scion theme but moved the setting to Denver, keeping viewers entertained with the lives of the super-rich and powerful for nine years. The women of “Dynasty” set the fashion standards for 1980s and their catfights were legendary. “They were probably a little over the top, but that’s what made it ‘Dynasty,’” said Joan Collins.
“Knots Landing,” the longest-running primetime soap of all, ran for 14 years. Set in a suburb of Los Angeles, this spin-off from “Dallas” was centered by Michele Lee’s character, Karen, who reflected the dreams of middle-class America. Karen was a businesswoman, but unlike the conniving characters on “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” she stood on moral ground and valued kindness at home and on the job.
The evening soap opera “Dallas” premiered on CBS in 1978. The original storyline was Romeo and Juliet retold — two young people from opposing Texas oil families fall in love. “Dallas” didn’t become a hit until a villain emerged. Larry Hagman’s portrayal of J.R. Ewing as an immoral, vindictive businessman gave viewers a vicarious thrill. The character was so powerful, that on the evening of November 21 , 1980, the nation ceased normal activities to find out “Who Shot J.R.?”
The shooting took place in the final scene of the third season, creating the very first cliffhanger of primetime TV. Trying to guess the “whodunit” became a worldwide obsession. The episode that revealed the answer sent ratings higher then anything TV had ever seen, with numbers that even beat the Super Bowl.
In 1981, ABC took note of the soap opera “Dallas” and drafted its own drama about a wealthy family in the oil business, “Dynasty,” and laid the luxury and glamour on thick. However, ratings dropped during the first season, so just like on “Dallas,” the producers decided to shake things up and add a villain. British star Joan Collins entered the show in season two as Alexis Carrington, Blake Carrington’s ex-wife and a female version of J.R. Ewing. “If you look at the actors in ‘Dynasty’ they were probably the best looking actors I have ever seen in a show — better then ‘Dallas,’” said Joan Collins.
A third nighttime soap opera followed the same formula of “Dallas,” except the villain had blonde hair and trademark blue eyes. Just like “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing” didn’t spark ratings until Donna Mills was added to the cast to play the scheming Abby. Playing off a central character of high moral standing, Mills came on the show to stir things up and create more problems, drama and intensity.