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A medical drama is a television program in which events center upon a hospital, an ambulance staff, or any medical environment. In the United States, most medical episodes are one hour long and set in a hospital. Most current medical dramatic programming go beyond the events pertaining to the characters' jobs and portray some aspects of their personal lives. A typical medical drama might have a storyline in which two doctors fall in love. Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, in his 1964 work on the nature of media, predicted success for this particular genre on TV because the medium "creates an obsession with bodily welfare".
City Hospital, which first aired in 1951, is generally considered to be the first televised medical drama. (The first serialized medical drama was probably the Dr. Kildare film series (1937-1947), starring a number of actors in the eponymous role, and Lionel Barrymore throughout the series.) Medic, which featured Richard Boone, ran two seasons, from 1954 to 1956. The genre became a staple of prime time television with the enormous popularity of Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, both debuting in 1961. The BBC series Dr. Finlay's Casebook (1962–1971) is an early example of another common variant of the genre in which a medical practice is used as a focus for stories detailing the life of a (usually small) community. The long running Australian series A Country Practice (1981–1993) is a later example of this subgenre. From 1969 to 1976, the series Marcus Welby, M.D. and Medical Center were extremely popular for their both orthodox and unorthodox way of presenting medical cases. In 1972, the first episode of M*A*S*H aired; the show's tone was generally comedic, but dark—poignant moments emanating from the death caused by war were not uncommon. This trend of comedy with undercurrents of darkness in medical TV shows can also be seen in Doogie Howser, M.D., House M.D., Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs and Code Black.
- Marshall McLuhan (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, chap. 31:
One of the most vivid examples of the tactile quality of the TV image occurs in medical experience. In closed-circuit instruction in surgery, medical students from the first reported a strange effect-that they seemed not to be watching an operation, but performing it. They felt that they were holding the scalpel. Thus the TV image, in fostering a passion for depth involvement in every aspect of experience, creates an obsession with bodily welfare. The sudden emergence of the TV medico and the hospital ward as a program to rival the western is perfectly natural. It would be possible to list a dozen untried kinds of programs that would prove immediately popular for the same reasons. Tom Dooley and his epic of Medicare for the backward society was a natural outgrowth of the first TV decade.