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Genres, Themes and Formats

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The handful of viewers who watched the BBC's earliest public television broadcasts in 1936 would have seen little of the diversity we now expect from the medium. The short transmissions, following patterns established by radio and the music hall, offered a variety of light music, dance, comedy turns and conversation - almost all of it transmitted live, as it continued to be well into the 1950s. The genres and formats we know today emerged later.

The arrival of ITV in 1955 ended the BBC monopoly, and many new formats are the result of the rivalry between the two broadcasters. Light Entertainment became a big draw, with Rediffusion's Sunday Night at the London Palladium winning huge audiences away from the complacent BBC. The newly-formed ITN reinvigorated news broadcasting, while This Week was Britain's first modern-style current affairs programme, introducing a previously unknown critical edge to political reporting.

In 1956, the BBC transplanted Tony Hancock's successful radio show Hancock's Half Hour to television and in the process created Britain's first recognisably home-grown situation comedy. Over the next few years, the sitcom became the form by which the BBC reasserted its strength, with shows like Steptoe and Son (1963-65; 1970-74) and Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75) winning huge audiences. The 1960s also saw a new 'satire boom', heralded by the success of TW3 (BBC, 1962-63). Comedians like Spike Milligan and the Monty Python team took the sketch show into new territory.

Although the earliest TV soap operas - like The Grove Family (1954-57) - appeared on BBC, it was Granada's Coronation Street (1960-) which defined British soap. The show led its field, shrugging off challenges by the likes of ITV rival Crossroads, until the mid-1980s, when Channel 4's Brookside (1982-2003) and the BBC's EastEnders (1985-) reintroduced the 'gritty realism' that had been a feature of Coronation Street's early days, but which the show had since abandoned for acute social comedy.

In drama series, TV's fondness for police and medical settings dates back to at least the 1950s, although there is a world of difference between Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) and The Bill (ITV, 1984-), or between Dr Finlay's Casebook (BBC, 1962-71) and Casualty (BBC, 1986-). Meanwhile, the appetite for adaptations of classic literary works has ebbed and flowed, although there is less demand for swashbuckling adventures than there once was.The single drama reached a peak in the 1960s and 70s, before declining in the 1980s, although it has never quite gone away.

In documentary, the period since the 1960s has seen the rise of the 'authored' documentary, as exemplified by Civilisation (BBC, 1969) and The Ascent of Man (1973), as well as the 'fly on the wall' genre. Meanwhile, filmmakers like Nick Broomfield began to examine the myths of documentary objectivity, exposing the process of filmmaking to public scrutiny.

The form and style of presentation in news, sport, documentary, music and children's programmes have changed a great deal over the decades, just as they have in drama and comedy. Some forms, like breakfast television or 'confessional' TV, are relatively new, while others date back to the medium's earliest days.

If one thing is certain in today's multichannel age, it's that television formats will continue to adapt, mutate and multiply, in an accelerated version of the evolutionary process that one TV genre - the natural history documentary - is so good at explaining to us.

'60s Spies and Private Eyes
'Fly on the Wall' TV
Alternative Comedy
Authored Documentary
Black TV Writers
Children's Television
Cold War Spies
Conspiracy Drama
Drama Documentary
Funny Women on TV
Game and Quiz Shows
Ghost Stories
Legal Drama
Live TV Drama
Medical Drama
Party Election Broadcasts
Pop Music TV
Soap Opera
Social Experiment TV
Swashbuckling TV
TV Literary Adaptation
TV Police Drama
TV Satire
TV Sci-Fi
TV Sleuths
TV Variety
The Television Play
WWII Dramas
Thumbnail image of '60s Spies and Private Eyes'60s Spies and Private Eyes

The height of 60s style

Thumbnail image of 'Fly on the Wall' TV'Fly on the Wall' TV

Revealing observational documentary

Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

Thumbnail image of Authored DocumentaryAuthored Documentary

The power of personality

Thumbnail image of Black TV WritersBlack TV Writers

Small-screen pioneers

Thumbnail image of Children's TelevisionChildren's Television

Broadcasting for children of all ages

Thumbnail image of Cold War SpiesCold War Spies

Spy dramas from the serious 70s and beyond

Thumbnail image of Conspiracy DramaConspiracy Drama

Paranoid visions for dark times

Thumbnail image of Drama DocumentaryDrama Documentary

Controversial blend of fact and fiction

Thumbnail image of Funny Women on TVFunny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

Thumbnail image of Game and Quiz ShowsGame and Quiz Shows

Your starter for ten...

Thumbnail image of Ghost StoriesGhost Stories

Chilling tales for long, dark nights

Thumbnail image of Legal DramaLegal Drama

Television dons its wig and gown

Thumbnail image of Live TV DramaLive TV Drama

From the 1930s to the 2000s

Thumbnail image of Medical DramaMedical Drama

A brief history of docs on the box

Thumbnail image of Party Election BroadcastsParty Election Broadcasts

TV political campaigns

Thumbnail image of Pop Music TVPop Music TV

How television jumped on the pop bandwagon

Thumbnail image of SitcomSitcom

Ever-popular television genre

Thumbnail image of Soap OperaSoap Opera

Unending stories of everyday life

Thumbnail image of Social Experiment TVSocial Experiment TV

Branch of reality TV with scientific/historical intent

Thumbnail image of Swashbuckling TVSwashbuckling TV

Heroism with sword, bow or pistol

Thumbnail image of TV Literary AdaptationTV Literary Adaptation

From page to screen

Thumbnail image of TV Police DramaTV Police Drama

TV cops from Fabian to Morse

Thumbnail image of TV SatireTV Satire

Political humour from TW3 to HIGNFY

Thumbnail image of TV Sci-FiTV Sci-Fi

Present fears and future shocks

Thumbnail image of TV SleuthsTV Sleuths

Harnessing the power of the mind to fight crime

Thumbnail image of TV VarietyTV Variety

The small screen pays its dues to the music hall

Thumbnail image of The Television PlayThe Television Play

The rise and fall of the single drama

Thumbnail image of WWII DramasWWII Dramas

Small-screen stories of 1939-45 and its impact