Primetime Soaps

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.

“Knots Landing”

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.

  • Tom Tagliente

    Again, FALCON CREST gets overlooked. :-(

  • LouellaS

    FALCON CREST was one of my favorite shows growing up and had a remarkable cast. It should’ve been included!

  • clarknt67

    It is interesting that all three soaps had to struggle to find an appropriate villain foil. Melrose Place too didn’t take off until Heather Locklear was added as the scheming Amanda later in the run. Why are Hollywood writers and producers so slow to realize you need to begin with a strong villain?

    I’ll grant, it’s hard to create “so bad you love to hate them” characters, the TV landscape is littered with failed efforts. And actors like Hagman, Collins and Mills that can pull off being both horribly villainous and very likable are harder to find than one might think.

  • Frank Holmes

    I am a major MORGAN FAIRCHILD fan, she is soooooo UNsung, my beloved “Paper Dolls”, “Falcon Crest”, “Flamingo Road”, and she was the FIRST Jenna Wade on “Dallas”!!!

  • stacyharris

    Thanks for acknowledging and including the scenes from the “Crush on Bentley” episode of Bachelor Father.

    Stacy Harris

    Publisher/Executive Editor/Media Critic

    Stacy’s Music Row Report


  • Robert Sanchez

    Enjoyed seeing lots of the stars in talking head segments, but the piece as a whole reflected only a small portion of the topic at hand. Very little historical roots shown, aside from clips from Guiding Light and Peyton Place; no mention of other early primetime soap efforts like Our Private World, Executive Suite, Soap, etc. And no mention of Falcon Crest, another very successful ’80s primetime soap, nor mention of any other short-lived attempts like Flamingo Road, Secrets of Midland Heights, Berrenger’s, etc., which would have helped put the huge influence of the primetime soap in perspective. As it was, the piece gives the impression Dallas, Dynasty, and Knots Landing existed in a vacuum.

  • Sara Stevens

    Knotslanding!! Loved Abby

  • Jericho McCune

    What happened? You guys really dropped the ball on this episode. Not a single mention of Falcon Crest even though it was as popular as the others of the time, “Peyton Place” received almost no coverage even though it truly pioneered the genre and not even an attempt to discuss the shows that came between “Peyton Place” and the three that were showcased.

    “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” didn’t “pioneer” the genre so much as they capitalized on it and made it incredibly popular. They deserved some time at the end of the episode – maybe even the last half – but not the bulk of it. That would be like focusing your sitcom episode on “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

  • Glenn Sheffield

    The total omission of FALCON CREST is inexcusable.

  • glen

    I missed the first two years of Knots Landing wish I could see on soap channel

  • Paul Adams

    As a British man, I was more into Dallas than Dynasty (which tended to be aimed more at women, Soaps’ traditional audience) but I always tried to watch the episodes that involved Joan Collins mud wresting with that blond woman – I think we were supposed to be on the side of the blond but I was always rooting for our Joanie!