A teleplay is a screenplay or script used in the production of a scripted television program or series. In general usage, the term is most commonly seen in reference to a standalone production, such as a television film, a television play or an episode of an anthology series; in internal industry usage, however, all television scripts (including episodes of ongoing drama or comedy series) are teleplays, although a "teleplay" credit may be subsumed into a "written by" credit depending on the circumstances of its creation.
The term first surfaced during the 1950s with wide usage to distinguish teleplays from stage plays written for theater and screenplays written for films. All three have different formats, conventions and constraints.
According to current Writers Guild of America guidelines, a television script consists of two distinct parts: "story" and "teleplay". The story comprises "basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action", while the teleplay consists of "individual scenes and full dialogue or monologue (including narration in connection therewith), and camera set-ups, if required". Simply put, this distinguishes the contribution of ideas toward the story from the actual writing of the dialogue and stage directions present on the page in the finished product.
Accordingly, story and teleplay will appear as distinct credits on a television script if different people played those roles in the script's creation; if the same person or people performed both roles equally, then the story and teleplay credits will not be used and instead a merged "written by" credit will be given. However, a written by credit may be given to only three people maximum; if more than three people were involved, then the credits must distinguish those who were "story" contributors from those who were "teleplay" contributors.
On the hour-long TV anthology drama shows of the Golden Age of Television, such as The United States Steel Hour, The Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Philco Television Playhouse, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Studio One, productions often were telecast live from studios with limited scenery and other constraints similar to theatrical presentations. These constraints made a teleplay quite different from a screenplay.
However, television dramatists, such as Paddy Chayefsky, JP Miller and Tad Mosel, turned such limitations to their advantage by writing television plays with intimate situations and family conflicts characterized by naturalistic, slice of life dialogue. When seen live, such productions had a real-time quality not found in films (shot out of sequence), yet they employed tight close-ups, low-key acting and other elements not found in stage productions. For many viewers, this was equivalent to seeing live theater in their living rooms, an effect enhanced when television plays expanded from 60-minute time slots to a 90-minute series with the introduction of Playhouse 90 in the late 1950s.