Popularizes the Prime-Time Soap Opera

The exploits and personal relationships of the fictional, fabulously wealthy Ewing family on the prime-time soap opera Dallas enthralled millions of television viewers.

Summary of Event

During the 1977-1978 television season, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) found itself late in the season needing a replacement for a show with low ratings. On a trial run, the network aired episodes of Dallas, a prime-time soap opera involving struggles for power and revenge between two Texas families. The first season brought good but unspectacular results, the 1978-1979 season brought better results, and the 1980-1981 season saw the show rated number one in its regular Friday-night time slot. This was a triumph for a dramatic series—Dallas was only the second drama series to reach the number one rating in the history of television. The show was soon very popular also in many foreign nations. Television;dramas
Hagman, Larry
Bel Geddes, Barbara
Davis, Jim
Duffy, Patrick
Principal, Victoria
Gray, Linda

Dallas focused on the wealthy Ewing family, which was at odds with the Barnes family. The youngest Ewing son, Bobby, had fallen in love with and married the youngest Barnes daughter, Pam. The characters included numerous relatives in both families over two generations. Other story lines, especially about the Ewings themselves, were woven into the series. The program became famous for introducing a cliff-hanger ending each season.

The genre to which Dallas belonged is quite old. During the last half of the nineteenth century, American newspapers began to run serial stories, continued day to day or week to week, that dealt with the lives of characters in a melodramatic fashion. In the 1920’s, as the entertainment medium of radio was becoming increasingly popular, radio stations nationwide began to air stories of this type in the late mornings and early afternoons. Many of these programs were sponsored by companies that manufactured laundry detergents, leading to their designation as “soap operas.” Soap operas
Radio;soap operas

By 1955, soap operas were making the move to television as that medium began to supplant radio in popularity. Peyton Place, which went on the air in 1964, is the best-remembered nighttime soap opera of the period. As the decade of the 1970’s began, seventeen daytime soap operas were being broadcast daily by the three television networks, for a total of five hundred ten minutes a day. It seemed that the move from print to radio to daytime television had brought soap operas to their ultimate destination, but Dallas was to prove that assumption wrong by bringing soap operas back to prime time.

In the late 1970’s, American society was changing in ways that meant the daytime audience for soap operas was shrinking. An increasing number of women were joining the workforce outside the home. Also, the potential audience was becoming younger, more affluent, and better educated. The Lorimar Production Company Lorimar Production Company decided that an audience existed for a soap opera shown on prime time, with characters drawn from the upper classes. This company had experienced success previously with its shows The Waltons and Eight Is Enough, warmhearted programs about the stereotypical traditional American family. It found even greater success in portraying the nontraditional, amoral Ewing clan.

Dallas featured the large Ewing family, with much of the action centered on the family’s ranch, Southfork, located not far from Dallas, Texas. The eldest son and later head of the family was John Ross Ewing, Jr., always known as J. R. Eleanor, his mother, known to all as Miss Ellie, was the matriarch of the family. J. R. was married to Sue Ellen, and Kristin Shepard was the sister of Sue Ellen and mistress of J. R. Numerous other relatives, business associates, and neighbors became involved in the plot, and the cast of recurring characters numbered in the dozens. The constant theme of the program was scheming—to make money, to gain power, to achieve sexual domination, and to achieve all of these without regard for conventional moral concerns or the law.

The success of Dallas was phenomenal. It quickly became obvious that any show running opposite Dallas was in a suicide time slot. The show’s success owed much to the fact that J. R. Ewing, a villain who grew meaner by the minute, became the man that audiences loved to hate. This was a curious role for Larry Hagman, who played J. R. In real life, Hagman was a middle-aged grandfather who had been happily married to the same woman since 1954. Hagman grew up around show business; his mother was the “grand dame” of Broadway musicals, Mary Martin. Hagman became an actor in the 1950’s and achieved his first starring television role as astronaut Tony Nelson in the situation comedy I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).

The appeal of J. R. as villain was obvious when, on November 21, 1980, the Dallas episode “Who Shot J. R.?” was broadcast. At the end of the 1979-1980 season, in a classic cliff-hanger, J. R. was shot while working in his office. The mystery of who shot J. R. created enormous expectations for the 1980-1981 season and brought millions of dollars into betting parlors. The mystery was solved only four weeks into the season, on an episode of Dallas that drew the largest audience for a telecast in the history of television up to that time.

In typical Dallas fashion, J. R. had been shot by Kristin, his mistress and his wife’s younger sister. Kristin had used Sue Ellen’s pistol to shoot J. R. in an attempt to put suspicion on Sue Ellen. Kristin shot J. R. because she had become pregnant by him but he was attempting to frame her for prostitution. J. R. was not killed, only injured, and he became nastier than ever. Kristin later drowned herself in J. R.’s swimming pool. Such standards of behavior caused Dallas to be the television show of that period that drew the most vehement opposition from the fundamentalist “Religious Right.”

The popularity of Dallas was such that in the 1979-1980 season CBS introduced a spin-off series, Knots Landing, Knots Landing (television program) featuring the outcasts of the Ewing clan, Val and Gary Ewing. The location used as the Southfork ranch became the ninth-most-popular tourist attraction in the entire state of Texas and frequently was rented out for wedding receptions and parties when filming was not in progress there.

Eventually, as cast members tired of their roles and left the show, the turnover of characters caused audiences to lose interest in Dallas. The show’s last original episode aired on May 3, 1991.


On a long-term basis, Dallas demonstrated that the television viewing audience in the United States was willing and able to support a drama program. Prior to Dallas, most television programs that had achieved successful long runs had been situation comedies or variety shows. I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show are examples of these genres. Only one dramatic show, Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976), had attained widespread popularity. Dallas broke new ground by identifying an audience for televised drama. Critics might argue that Dallas was more melodrama than drama, but the show still represented a major change of direction for television entertainment.

Dallas also provided a mirror in which audience members could view themselves, both in the United States and abroad. This was the case because the program presented a network of characters who had to be understood in relationship to each other—they could not stand alone. This network was a microcosm of society, as viewers understood and reacted to society. For example, the behavior of the characters in Dallas generally fell below the moral standards for behavior of those who viewed the program. In most cases, viewers simultaneously reinforced and questioned their own norms while also accepting the actions of the actors as stereotypical of the fabulously wealthy. Many viewers found vicarious satisfaction in the misdeeds of the characters, knowing that they would never behave that way but wondering how it would feel to be that evil and immoral. In this way, Dallas became part of an oral folk culture—viewers’ feelings, comments, and information about the characters were not written down; rather, they were shared orally, person to person. Millions of people watched the program and then discussed it with others. The characters became readily identified elements of American culture.

Part of the impact of Dallas was seen in the diversity of the program’s audience. In the United States, the appeal of the show was not limited by region of the country or by viewers’ education level or economic status. Furthermore, the program was enormously popular all over the world. Among those countries where it aired, only in Japan did Dallas fail to gain a sizable following. An academic study conducted in the United States in 1984 found that during and after the broadcast of an episode, audiences of different ethnic backgrounds discussed the program and came to a collective understanding of what they had seen based on their own ethnic cultures.

This same phenomenon was present among people who brought a strong ideological point of view to the program. One feminist wrote, in response to an academic questionnaire, that she liked Dallas because it released deep primitive feelings in her, even though she knew that these feelings were at odds with her conscious beliefs. Those who supported capitalism saw in Dallas a depiction of the rewards of this economic system; critics of capitalism pointed out that the program rarely depicted productive labor. Money seemed to follow family, good looks, or social position. Physical beauty and wealth were presented as one. If the rewards of capitalism were on display, so were its excesses.

Many of the regular viewers of the program believed that the characters were genuine or real, that they knew people who were like the characters. In casual talk and in gossip, regular viewers often referred to the program to explain situations they had encountered. For these viewers, life imitated art.

Any television broadcast always contains more meanings, more possible interpretations, than the broadcaster can control. Dallas made an unusually large impact in this respect because of the number of its characters and because of the length of its broadcast run. As do all successful television shows, it produced numerous imitators. Audiences proved willing to follow ongoing plot lines, and soap operas became an established part of prime-time television. Television;dramas

Further Reading

  • Ang, Ien. Watching “Dallas”: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. 1985. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1996. Classic sociological study examines viewers’ responses to Dallas. Based on letters the author received in response to an advertisement in a popular magazine asking for opinions on the program.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Summarizes the story lines and lists cast members of all recurring programs aired during the time period covered. Useful for comparing shows and putting them into context. Includes grids showing prime-time programming and lists of Emmy Awards year by year.
  • Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987. Presents interesting analysis of the fantasy culture that television creates and the ways in which that culture is accepted as true and valid by television viewers. Argues that the key to this process is that television uses some elements from real life to enhance the imaginary lifestyles it depicts.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. Provides good description and analysis of how television functions. Draws on more than two hundred interviews the author conducted with people who work in television and who described for him their search for hit shows.
  • Roman, James. Love, Light, and a Dream: Television’s Past, Present, and Future. New York: Praeger, 1996. Discussion of the cultural significance of television includes examination of popular genres. Features bibliography and index.
  • Rose, Brian G., ed. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Collection of scholarly essays examines the various genres, or types, of television programs. Discusses the differences among genres as well as the ways in which lines between some genres have been blurred.

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