Prime Time Audiences Gain More Choices, 1980s–2000s

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Prime Time Audiences Gain More Choices, 1980s–2000s

The television broadcast networks controlled the evening hours known as "prime time" from the 1940s through the 1970s. They produced some memorable programs during those decades, many of which reflected the changes that were happening in American society at the time. In the 1980s, however, the networks began losing control of prime-time television and its audiences.

Cable television service spread rapidly during that decade, to reach 60 percent of American households by 1990. In addition, the 1980s saw the rise of national cable TV networks—such as CNN, ESPN, and MTV—that catered to the specific tastes of smaller segments of the viewing audience. Instead of the four or five broadcast channel options that were previously available, American viewers suddenly had up to fifty cable channels from which to choose.

The wide variety of new channels available on cable divided the mass audience that was once available to broadcasters into smaller, separate audiences. Videocassette recorder (VCR) technology also became more affordable in the 1980s, allowing people to watch theatrical movies at home or tape TV programs for later viewing. As a result of these developments, the networks' combined share of prime-time audiences declined from 90 percent to 70 percent over the course of the decade.

American viewers also gained a fourth broadcast network in 1987, when Fox moved into prime time. From the beginning, the new Fox network took a different approach from the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) that had dominated television for decades. These networks had tried to create programs that attracted the largest possible audiences. Such programs received high ratings (a measure of the percentage of viewers tuning into a particular program), which meant that the networks could charge advertisers more money to place commercials on the programs. Instead of trying to attract mass audiences, Fox narrowed its focus to target young, prosperous, trend-setting Americans. "We are going after the young-adult audience," Fox president Jamie Kellner declared in Gen X TV. "A large percentage of the network audience is over 50 and, in order to win the household ratings game and be no. 1, [the networks] must appeal to older viewers. Fox is not in that household ratings game. We believe that the future of television is going to be directed toward [specific audience groups]." By the mid-1990s, Fox had achieved its goal of attracting young viewers with such hit shows as The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Melrose Place. Its success led to the formation of two more broadcast networks in 1995, the Warner Brothers Network (WB) and the United Paramount Network (UPN).

The Emmy Awards

The Emmy Awards are among the most prized honors in the television industry. Presented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) since 1949, the Emmys recognize excellence in various aspects of TV production and performance for a given year. There are separate Emmy Awards for prime-time programs, daytime shows, and news programs.

The ATAS consists of about 12,000 members, all of whom work in the television industry. The members of the academy are divided into twenty-six peer groups by area of specialty, such as performers, makeup artists, and camera operators. All members are allowed to suggest individuals or programs from within their category for consideration for Emmy Awards. All qualified entrants are placed on a ballot, and the members vote to narrow down the list of nominees to five per category. This final list of nominees is announced to the public.

A panel of judges reviews all of the nominated programs and votes to decide the winners. The judges' votes are tallied by the independent accounting firm Ernst and Young, which keeps the results secret until the day of the Emmy Award ceremony. No one knows the identity of the winners until the award presenters open sealed envelopes on stage.

Emmy Award winners receive a statue of a winged woman holding a model of an atom. According to the academy, the winged woman represents the arts, and the atom represents the sciences. The statue was designed by television engineer Louis McManus, who used his wife as a model. It was originally known as an Immy, after an early television camera part called the Image Orthicon tube, but the name was later changed to the more feminine Emmy. The statues are sixteen inches tall, weigh nearly five pounds, and are covered in 18-karat gold.

Receiving an Emmy Award can boost the career of an actor or director. Winning can also bring public attention to a show, leading to an increase in ratings and sometimes even saving a low-rated—but innovative or high-quality—show from cancellation. The TV networks also gain importance by claiming the highest total number of Emmys for a given year. In the 2005 Emmy Awards, CBS's veteran sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was honored as the outstanding comedy series, and ABC's first-year thriller Lost received the award for best drama series. The cable network HBO claimed twenty-seven total awards to lead all networks for the third straight year.

Although it took a while for the new broadcast and cable networks to break into the national TV ratings, the availability of multiple channel options had an immediate impact on the Big Three. For instance, they increasingly imitated Fox and the cable networks in targeting smaller segments of the overall viewing audience. This change in focus led to more experimentation and greater diversity of programs. Even though the networks produced some hit shows, they saw their combined share of prime-time audiences decline to around 60 percent in the 1990s. By the 2000s, original cable programming was earning critical acclaim and even winning key ratings periods.

The 1980s: Wealth and power rule TV

The 1980s have often been characterized by critics as an era when Americans were obsessed with money, power, and importance. Former actor Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) served as U.S. president for most of the decade. Reagan was known as "the great communicator," and his political fortunes were closely tied to his ability to use television to his advantage. Reagan initiated economic policies that reduced taxes, promoted business, and increased military spending. Supporters said that these policies helped create a prosperous economy and restore national pride. But opponents claimed that Reagan's policies ignored problems caused by poverty and at the same time glorified greed.

One popular television show that reflected the culture of the 1980s, Dallas, aired on CBS from 1978 to 1991. Dallas focused on the power struggle between two extremely wealthy Texas oil families, the Ewings and the Barneses. At the outset of the series, the two longtime enemies have recently been linked by the marriage of son Bobby Ewing (played by Patrick Duffy) and daughter Pamela Barnes (played by Victoria Principal). "Dallas was not among the most popular programs of the 1980s by accident," Joe Garner wrote in Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments: "Its weekly displays of opulence [wealth] and excess fit the mood of the decade like a diamond-studded boot."

Dallas was essentially a soap opera, and it had a number of characteristics that had been developed in popular daytime dramas. The show featured far more characters than most prime-time programs, for instance, and used complex storylines that continued over multiple episodes. Like many soap operas, the action in Dallas often revolved around a villain—Bobby's scheming, ruthless, power-hungry older brother, J. R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman [1931–]).

Dallas was a huge hit in the United States in the early 1980s, spending five years ranked either number one or number two in the annual TV ratings. It was also tremendously popular in other countries, making it one of the first American TV shows to reach a worldwide audience. In fact, the global audience for Dallas was estimated at 350 million viewers in fifty-seven different countries. Its popularity prompted some foreign governments to complain that the show was promoting superficial, materialistic American values.

In an era when sitcoms dominated television, Dallas proved that dramas could still connect with viewers. The show's success led to a number of spin-offs and copycat series, including Knots Landing, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest. (Spin-offs are new programs built around a character that has appeared on another TV series.) Later in the decade, other networks created prime-time soap operas aimed at teenaged viewers, such as Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. Though Dallas was influential in many ways, the show is probably best remembered for introducing the season-ending cliffhanger to prime time TV. (A cliffhanger is an episode that ends in suspense, which encourages viewers to tune in again to see how the problem is resolved.) The 1979–1980 season of Dallas ended with villain J. R. Ewing being shot by an unknown assailant. After a summer of suspense, 80 million viewers tuned in to the 1980 season premiere to find out "Who Shot J. R.?," making it the most-watched telecast up to that time.

New takes on the police drama

Several of the most popular television programs of the 1980s were police shows. While this type of drama had been around for many years, the 1980s versions featured new twists. One of the most critically acclaimed cop shows of the era, Hill Street Blues, aired on NBC from 1981 to 1987. It was created by Steven Bochco (1943–), a veteran TV writer who decided to experiment with the traditional police drama format. He ended up totally changing the genre by adding elements from the workplace comedy and the soap opera. Hill Street Blues was a gritty, intense, realistic police drama that featured well-developed characters and complex plots. It was also shot with a shaky, handheld camera, which gave it a distinctive, edgy look.

Each episode of Hill Street Blues presented a single day in the lives of the people who worked at an urban police station. It started with the officers assembling for a morning roll call, tracked developments in their cases and personal relationships throughout the day, and ended with a late-night discussion of the day's events. Although the show included more than a dozen regular characters, it revolved around Captain Frank Furillo (played by Daniel J. Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel). Professionally, the two characters often found themselves on the opposite side of issues. Personally, however, they were involved in a secret affair that lasted three seasons and eventually resulted in marriage.

Hill Street Blues took a while to find an audience. In fact, it was among the lowest-rated shows on TV during its first season. But it earned widespread critical acclaim and six Emmy Awards, including one as the outstanding drama series of the year. NBC decided to renew it for another season based on the strength of the reviews, and it soon began attracting a solid audience of upscale, educated viewers who wanted TV to provide a source of engagement rather than escape. The innovative aspects of Hill Street Blues influenced a number of later dramas, including Homicide, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, and ER. In a review of the series for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Thomas Schatz claimed that Hill Street Blues thus launched a "new golden age" of TV drama.

Another police show of the 1980s, Cagney and Lacey, has the distinction of being one of the most-discussed shows in TV history. The main characters, female police detectives Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey, first appeared in a made-for-TV movie in 1981. The movie received strong ratings, so CBS expanded it into a series the following year. Actress Tyne Daly (1946–) repeated her role as Lacey in the series, while Sharon Gless (1943–) took on the role of Cagney. The show was surrounded by controversy even before it came on the air, as the original actress chosen for the Cagney role was removed because she had played a lesbian in an earlier television program. CBS executives decided that she was too "masculine" and wanted to avoid suggesting a homosexual relationship between the female characters.

The controversies continued once the show came on the air. Many storylines focused on Cagney and Lacey's struggles as women working in a male-dominated profession. The series also frequently dealt with issues of special concern to women, such as rape and abortion. But the unusual gender roles seemed to cause problems for network executives, who continually offered suggestions about the characters' clothing, hairstyles, body weight, and other appearance-oriented concerns that would not have applied to male police officers. CBS actually canceled Cagney and Lacey in the spring of 1983, but fiercely loyal viewers launched a major letter-writing and public-relations campaign that ultimately convinced the network to renew it. The show lasted four more seasons and earned numerous awards.

A more popular but very different police show of the 1980s was Miami Vice, which aired from 1984 to 1989. Nicknamed "MTV Cops" because of its rock music soundtrack and film style resembling a music video, the show seemed representative of the flashy excess of the times. In fact, some critics claimed that it made police programs of the past seem dull and old-fashioned by comparison. Like most cop shows, Miami Vice revolved around a pair of police detectives, Sonny Crockett (played by Don Johnson [1949–]) and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas [1949–]). Working the vice division in glamorous, tropical Miami, Florida, they operated in the high-stakes world of drug dealers, gambling rings, and gun runners.

Miami Vice is probably best remembered for its visual style, which made it look different than anything else on TV up to that time. But the show also was a first because it stressed the moral problems that Crockett and Tubbs faced on a daily basis. As they worked undercover to infiltrate drug rings and other illegal—but highly profitable—activities, they were often tempted to cross the line and become criminals themselves. This type of moral uncertainty later became common in police shows. Miami Vice was also influential in its use of rock music and fast-paced, visually stylized film techniques. These soon became standard features in youth-oriented TV programs and movies.

Dramas target smaller audience segments

No history of American television would be complete without mentioning Star Trek, the TV series that attracted a more devoted following than any other. The original outer-space adventure series aired from 1966 to 1969 and did not receive much attention. Although it was popular among teenaged boys, it never rose above number 52 in the annual ratings. In an era when the networks defined a successful series as one that appealed to mass audiences, therefore, Star Trek could only be considered a failed experiment. This assessment of Star Trek began to change in the 1970s, when the original show became a tremendous success in syndication. (Syndication occurs when programs are sold to local TV stations for broadcast in their areas. Off-network syndication refers to programs, such as Star Trek, that originally ran on a network, but are sold to local stations as reruns. First-run syndication refers to shows that are broadcast for the first time as a syndicated show.) In fact, fans of the series developed a whole "Trekkie culture"—attending Star Trek conferences, buying merchandise, and reading books associated with the show.

The original Star Trek followed the crew of the twenty-third-century starship Enterprise, which was on a mission to explore the galaxy and build relationships with alien races. The ship's commander was Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner [1931–]), a strong leader equally known for getting in fistfights and romancing attractive women. Although outrageous at times, the show often used science-fiction plot lines to comment upon current events and social issues.

The surge in popularity of the original Star Trek led its creators to release several theatrical movies based on the series in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When large, enthusiastic audiences turned out to see these beloved characters on the big screen, the creators decided that the Star Trek franchise should return to television. An updated version, Star Trek: The Next Generation, made its debut in first-run syndication in 1987. It quickly became the highest-rated syndicated drama in the history of television.

Next Generation was set seventy-eight years into the future from the original series, and it featured an all-new cast. The captain this time was Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart [1930–]), who was a more cultured and intellectual leader than Kirk. The new series managed to establish new characters and a distinct story line and yet maintain the spirit of the original Star Trek. It was cancelled in 1994 so that the characters could be featured in theatrical movies. Two more series were launched in the 1990s to continue the franchise on TV: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which took place on board a space station orbiting a recently liberated planet; and Star Trek: Voyager, which followed the crew of a star-ship that was stranded in a distant part of the galaxy, 75 years' travel away from Earth. While these shows appealed mainly to fans of science fiction and followers of the original series, they showed an increased willingness among television networks to air programs that attracted small, but devoted, audiences.

Another show to target a specific group was thirtysomething, which aired on ABC from 1987 to 1991 and won an Emmy Award as outstanding drama series in 1988. It was one of the first programs to focus on young urban professionals (yuppies), a part of American society that had extra money to spend—and thus was of great interest to TV networks and advertisers. thirtysomething followed a group of friends in their thirties who lived in suburban Philadelphia. The group included two couples—advertising copywriter Michael Steadman and his wife Hope, and graphic artist Elliot Weston and his wife Nancy—and three single people. All of the characters were not quite ready to give up the freedom of youth and take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

thirtysomething attracted a devoted following among viewers who strongly identified with the characters and their struggles. It also received a great deal of media attention, much of it focusing on its portrayal of sensitive, family men who were not afraid to discuss their feelings. The series also turned off some viewers and critics, who found the characters self-indulgent and whiny. In any case, thirtysomething focused on a specific group in U.S. society and dealt with the transition from youth to adulthood. It influenced a number of later programs about groups of friends, including Friends and Seinfeld.

A new wave of sitcoms

Situation comedies, or sitcoms, had dominated prime-time TV in the 1970s. In those days, the most popular sitcoms—such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H—tended to present realistic or even dark views of life. Thanks to the success of Dallas and several innovative cop shows, however, dramas enjoyed renewed popularity that lasted through the first half of the 1980s. The popularity of dramas, combined with societal changes such as higher divorce rates, convinced some TV critics that the family sitcom could no longer capture large audiences. The program that proved the critics wrong was The Cosby Show, which aired from 1984 to 1992 on NBC and reached the top spot in the annual TV ratings for four seasons. The success of The Cosby Show gave new life to the sitcom format. In fact, within three years of its premiere, sitcoms accounted for seven of the top ten shows on television.

The Cosby Show was created by Bill Cosby (1937–), a successful African American comedian and actor. Tired of sitcoms featuring sassy, disrespectful children, he came up with an idea for a show about a professional, middle-class black family. Cosby played Dr. Cliff Huxtable, a successful physician and wise and loving father. The show's focus on a black family made it a bit unusual for its times, but the Huxtables appealed to viewers thirsty for a show about a stable, traditional family led by a strong father figure. In fact, The Cosby Show was sometimes criticized for being too bland and not addressing racial issues.

The tremendous popularity of The Cosby Show crossed racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. Many people hoped that its portrayal of a successful black family might help improve race relations in the United States. By the time the series went off the air in 1992, however, a number of racially charged events, including riots in Los Angeles and the highly publicized murder trial of African American football star O. J. Simpson (1947–), further divided American society. By the mid-1990s, new broadcast and cable networks—including the WB and Black Entertainment Television (BET)—were creating shows aimed specifically at black audiences. The Cosby Show turned out to be the last major network program with equal appeal to black and white viewers. After that, and into the 2000s, polls showed that black and white Americans tended to watch completely different sets of shows.

Another popular family sitcom of the era was Roseanne, which aired on ABC from 1988 to 1997. Like The Cosby Show, Roseanne starred a successful standup comedian and revolved around a family. In fact, the two shows were developed by the same team of producers. In every other way, though, the programs were complete opposites. Roseanne concerned a struggling, working-class family led by a strong mother figure. Comedian Roseanne Barr (1952–) played Roseanne Connor, a big, loud, sarcastic, working mother whose interactions with her family often took the form of wisecracks and insults. While some viewers found the character brash and unappealing, many others found the Connor family more realistic and funny than the idealized Huxtables.

Roseanne was an immediate hit, reaching number two in the ratings in its first season and grabbing the top spot the following year. It thus became the first number one show since I Love Lucy to feature a female main character. The show often tested the boundaries of network standards by frankly discussing controversial issues, such as birth control and homosexuality. Some critics felt that the controversies helped attract viewers to the show.

An equally popular, though less controversial, sitcom of the era was Cheers, which aired on NBC for a decade beginning in 1983. This workplace comedy centered on the staff and customers of a Boston pub called Cheers. The owner of the bar, Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson [1947–]), is a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and recovering alcoholic. The early years of the show chronicled the romantic tension between Sam and Diane Chambers, a prim and cultured waitress at Cheers.

Cheers took a while to find an audience and narrowly escaped cancellation after its first season. But once it caught on, the series spent seven years in the top ten and one season as TV's top-rated show. It received a record 111 Emmy nominations during its long run, and it won twenty-six of the coveted awards. Many TV critics cite Cheers as one of the first programs to include soap opera elements in the sitcom format. In addition to providing witty dialogue and comic situations each week, the show also followed twists and turns in the personal lives of the characters over time. Cheers also represented a change from the typical family sitcom. In a time when fewer Americans belonged to a traditional family, Cheers showed that friends and co-workers could serve as a support circle for each other. The 1993 series finale attracted the second-highest ratings ever for a sitcom episode (after the series finale of M*A*S*H). The following year saw the launch of a very successful spin-off series, Frasier (starring Kelsey Grammer), which ran until 2004.

The 1990s: Networks narrow their focus

The 1990s saw a number of major changes occur to the world order. First, the Cold War (1945–91) ended with the fall of Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union, which had long been America's main political and military rival, broke up into several smaller, independent countries. This momentous event left the United States as the world's lone remaining superpower. In 1991, the United States led a group of other countries to victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. Once the war ended, the United States entered a decade-long period of peace, prosperity, and economic growth.

In the television industry, the competition that had emerged during the 1980s became more intense. The new Fox broadcast network introduced several hit programs aimed at younger audiences, while cable networks continued to grow and draw more viewers away from broadcast offerings. Soon the Big Three networks followed Fox's lead and began focusing on smaller segments of the overall viewing audience. The breaking-up of the mass audience meant that a program could be considered a hit by reaching fewer viewers than ever before. For instance, the ratings that made Seinfeld the top show of 1995 would not even have placed it in the top 25 two decades earlier. This situation encouraged the networks to experiment and take more risks in order to create quality programs that would appeal to the upscale viewers favored by advertisers.

TV dramas target teens

The first major television trend of the 1990s was new programs aimed at teenagers. The Fox network was the first to specifically target young audiences, and the success of shows such as Beverly Hills, 90210 convinced the other networks to begin aiming toward the youth market as well. 90210 was created by Aaron Spelling (1923–2006), who had produced a number of hit shows in the 1970s. The story followed a group of students at West Beverly Hills High School. It focused on twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh (played by Jason Priestly [1969–] and Shannen Doherty [1971–]), whose family had recently moved to southern California from Minnesota.

Although 90210 used some of the tricks of the prime-time soap opera, it treated the concerns of its youthful audience more seriously than most teen dramas. One of the main characters, Dylan, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Another member of the central group of friends, Donna, had to deal with a learning disability. Several other characters had to cope with the divorce and remarriage of their parents or faced the decision of whether or not to become sexually active. Although some critics complained that the show focused exclusively on upper-class white kids, many teenaged viewers recognized themselves and their problems in the characters. 90210 became a pop culture phenomenon, launching books and fan clubs and setting clothing and hairstyle trends across the country. It also started a trend in which the television industry increasingly targeted younger viewers.

Following the success of 90210, Fox introduced Melrose Place in 1992. Also set in southern California, this show featured a group of attractive people in their twenties. Most of the characters were concerned with starting careers or getting married. Compared to 90210, Melrose Place tended to be less serious and more sensational, like a typical prime-time soap opera. The show's wild storylines and dark humor gained a huge following among college students, who enjoyed watching the show in large groups. Melrose Place also became one of the first programs to build a presence on the Internet, as fans gathered online to discuss plot developments and predict the fate of various characters.

Another youth-oriented drama that became very popular in the early 1990s was Party of Five. It focused on five siblings who live together after their parents are killed in an automobile accident. The formerly irresponsible oldest brother, Charlie Salinger (played by Matthew Fox [1966–]), ends up becoming the legal guardian of his younger brothers and sisters. He struggles to raise his siblings and help them with their problems while also trying to run his parents' restaurant. Executive producer Amy Lippman claimed that the show appealed to the increasing number of American kids who did not live in traditional families. "We found we were actually touching a nerve in people," she said in Gen X TV. "The definition of family these days is not two kids, mom and dad, and a dog in the suburbs … Kids are figuring out the value they have to each other without any parental presence enforcing them. They have to find their way to it themselves, and I think that really seemed to hit home for a lot of people."

Realistic dramas

The 1990s also saw the introduction of several high-quality, realistic drama series aimed at educated adult viewers. Facing increased competition from narrowly targeted cable programming, the broadcast networks made a conscious decision to create shows that would appeal to the upper-income groups that held the most value for advertisers. One program that was specifically designed to compete with cable was NYPD Blue, which premiered on ABC in 1993. The show marked the return of Steven Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, to the police drama format. This time, Bochco decided that in order to draw viewers away from cable, his show needed to include more adult content, such as nudity and strong language.

Even before the series debut, the content issues surrounding NYPD Blue generated a great deal of argument. In fact, the show became the target of a protest by the conservative American Family Association, which resulted in 25 percent of ABC's local affiliate stations refusing to air the program. But the publicity surrounding the protest only increased the audience size for the stations that did carry the show, and both audiences and critics liked what they saw. NYPD Blue was a gritty, urban cop show that featured compelling story lines and complex characters. It revolved around Andy Sipowitz (played by Dennis Franz [1944–]), a cynical, hot-tempered, but deeply dedicated veteran detective, and his relationship with his partners. The show provided new cases for the detectives to solve each week, but it also featured ongoing plot lines about their personal lives. NYPD Blue was perhaps most notable for its sensitive portrayal of male police officers. In addition to being tough, the detectives on the show also felt compassion for crime victims and often discussed their emotions.

Another popular series of the 1990s was Law and Order, an innovative combination of police and courtroom dramas. Each episode provided an inside look at the U.S. criminal justice system by following a crime from two perspectives. During the first half of the show, the action centered on the police detectives who investigated the crime and collected evidence. During the second half of the show, the action shifted to the district attorneys who used the evidence to prosecute the offenders. Law and Order was a tremendous success among both viewers and critics, and its popularity continued despite numerous cast changes over the years. It eventually became one of the longest-running drama series in TV history and created a number of successful spin-offs focusing on specific types of crimes.

ER, which premiered in 1994 and became the top-rated show on television three times in the second half of the 1990s, was another popular, realistic drama of the 1990s. ER took place in the emergency room of a Chicago hospital. Medical dramas had always been a favorite genre within the television industry. They were easy to film, since they took place within a controlled setting, and they also provided dramatic life-or-death situations. When ER came on the scene, however, some analysts of popular culture were predicting that shorter attention spans among viewers would spell the end of the hour-long drama in prime time.

To address this problem, the producers of ER divided each episode into shorter segments and increased the pace of the action so that it often approached chaos. As executive producer John Wells explained in Gen X TV, "The pace of the show [came about] because we wanted to be true to the real emergency room experience…. This is really what emergency rooms are like. You don't follow a patient through entire days like we saw in traditional medical shows." Many later programs adopted the fast pace and multiple story lines that helped make ER successful.

ER also differed from previous medical dramas by focusing on a group of young doctors. The series showed them dealing with their own problems as well as treating patients. In order to make ER seem more realistic, the characters used accurate medical terminology, and the story lines sometimes ended unhappily. Some critics pointed out that the show had special meaning for middle-aged Americans who were beginning to be concerned about illness and aging.

Sitcoms for singles

The situation comedies that aired on the broadcast networks in the 1990s also showed an increased focus on young, upscale viewers. For instance, a number of popular sitcoms centered on single people and their concerns. One of these shows, the workplace comedy Murphy Brown, focused on a high-powered career woman (played by Candice Bergen [1946–]). "Murphy Brown is one of the most original, distinctive female characters on television," Julie Prince wrote in a Museum of Broadcast Communications article about the show. "Her ambition and stubbornness frequently get her into trouble, and she often acts a little foolishly herself. But what sets Murphy apart from so many other female sitcom characters is that when she gets into a ridiculous mess, it is not because she is a woman. It's because she is Murphy."

Murphy Brown aired on CBS from 1988 to 1997—a time when women were taking on positions of increasing responsibility in corporate America. The series showed what took place behind the scenes of a fictional TV news program called "FYI." It explored the relationships between Murphy Brown and the reporters, producers, and other staff members.

In 1992, the show became part of a real news event. Then-Vice President Dan Quayle (1947–; served 1989–93) criticized the character of Murphy Brown for providing a poor example of family values (because Murphy had given birth to a child outside marriage). The show's producer, Diane English, defended the character's choice in the news media. The following season, the controversy became the focus of an episode of Murphy Brown.

Another landmark sitcom of the 1990s was Seinfeld, which debuted on NBC in 1990. Like many other popular sitcoms, it was based on the work of a well-known standup comedian, Jerry Seinfeld (1954–). The series followed the comic misadventures of Jerry and his self-absorbed, crazy friends in New York City. The most distinctive element of Seinfeld was its emphasis on the trivial, mundane aspects of life. Most episodes featured Jerry and his friends stuck in absurd, but still recognizable, situations. For instance, they spent one entire episode wandering around a parking garage looking for their car and another episode scheming about how to make a fortune by exploiting bottle-return laws. Even though the show was admittedly about nothing, and in many ways the characters were stuck in adolescence, Seinfeld attracted a devoted following among viewers. Critics liked the show as well, praising it as an innovative update of the sitcom genre. It reached the top of the annual TV ratings in 1995 and 1998, and it is often mentioned among the best shows of all time.

Friends, which debuted in 1994 on NBC, was another popular and timely sitcom of the 1990s. Friends revolved around six close friends who live in New York City and hang out at a coffee shop near Central Park. The characters included Monica (Courteney Cox), an obsessively neat chef; Ross (David Schwimmer), her nerdy paleontologist brother; Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), her best friend from high school; Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), an offbeat massage therapist and folk singer; Joey (Matt LeBlanc), a struggling actor and ladies' man; and Chandler (Matthew Perry), a witty but insecure office worker. Series co-creator Marta Kauffman noted that all of the characters are confused in some way. "They want love and commitment, they're afraid of love and commitment. Some of them have made career choices, some of them haven't. The most important thing is that their emotional situations are, we hope, universal," she said in Gen X TV.

Friends differed from most other sitcoms with its emphasis on dialogue and wordplay. In many scenes, the characters simply sit around and talk. Their discussions are often full of pop-culture references that have special meaning to media-savvy young audiences. In order to retain the interest of viewers with shorter attention spans, the show also featured three story lines per episode, rather than the two story lines in a typical sitcom. Finally, Friends was notable for following the personal development of the characters over time, as well as the continuing saga of their relationships with each other. By the end of the series in 2004, Monica and Chandler were married, and Ross and Rachel had a child together.

New family comedies

Not all sitcoms of the 1990s focused on single people and their concerns. In fact, three of the most popular comedies of the era focused on suburban families, and two of these shows represented a throwback to earlier times. Home Improvement, which debuted on ABC in 1991 and reached number one in the annual ratings in 1994, was set in suburban Detroit, Michigan. It starred comedian Tim Allen (1953–) as Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, host of a handyman show on cable TV. The main focus of the show was the relationship between Tim and his wife Jill, and their very different approaches to the everyday issues facing their family. Reviewers noted that Home Improvement demonstrated middle-class, Midwestern values while also exploring the challenges of being a man in the 1990s.

A very similar show, Everybody Loves Raymond, debuted on CBS in 1996. Based on the real-life experiences of comedian Ray Romano (1957–), it focused on the relationship between Ray Barone, a magazine sportswriter, and his wife Debra. Much of the conflict and humor arose out of Debra's attempts to cope with Ray's interfering parents, who lived across the street. Like Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond resembled family sitcoms of past eras, while also providing an updated portrait of a modern marriage. It ranked among the top five series for several years and won Emmy Awards as the outstanding comedy series of the year in 2003 and 2005.

Unlike these two programs, which provided viewers with a familiar look at suburban life, another popular family sitcom of the 1990s broke new ground in almost every conceivable way. The Simpsons cartoon family got their start on TV in a series of short clips on a Fox variety series, The Tracey Ullman Show, in 1987. Two years later they appeared in a Christmas special, and in 1990 Fox turned The Simpsons into a regular prime-time series. Created by comic strip artist and writer Matt Groening (1954–), the animated show presents a dysfunctional suburban family. The bumbling father, Homer Simpson, works as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant and spends his spare time drinking beer. His sensible and loving wife, Marge, raises their three children: Bart, a troublemaking underachiever; Lisa, a highly intelligent, socially conscious saxophone player; and baby Maggie.

The Simpsons became an immediate hit, especially among younger viewers. It also garnered praise from TV critics for its sharp-edged social criticism and clever pop-culture references. The Simpsons pushed the boundaries of broadcast television with its cynical, sarcastic brand of humor and its constant jabs at American institutions—including politics, religion, family, and the media. "The Simpsons … was the single most influential program in establishing Fox as a legitimate broadcast television network," Matthew P. McAllister declared in a Museum of Broadcast Communications article about the show.

Television historians attribute the success of The Simpsons partly to conditions in the television industry in the early 1990s. The broadcast networks faced increased competition from cable at this time. Newcomer Fox, in particular, was under pressure to build an audience base and attract advertising dollars. This combination of factors encouraged Fox to take a chance on an unconventional and potentially controversial show like The Simpsons. The network's gamble paid off: The Simpsons became the first Fox program to move into the top ten in the annual ratings, and it even beat the tremendously popular Cosby Show among key viewing groups. The Simpsons made Fox seem innovative and edgy compared to other networks, and it thus opened the door to more experimental programming choices across the industry.

The 2000s: "Reality" conquers prime time

The turn of the twenty-first century saw a change in Americans' overall mood from optimism to fear and uncertainty. A long period of economic growth ended with the sudden collapse of Internet-related companies (known as companies, after the .com extension used for commercial Web sites) in the stock market, which wiped out millions of investors. The terrorist attacks against the United States that took place on September 11, 2001, created widespread fears about national security. In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq. Although the U.S. military succeeded in removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (1937–) from power, the United States became involved in a long, expensive, and uncertain military action in the Middle East.

Like the rest of the country, the American television industry faced tough economic times in the early 2000s. The networks continued to lose viewers to cable TV, while the Internet and other emerging technologies increasingly competed with television for Americans' time and attention. TV programs became more expensive to produce, while the basic genres started to seem uninteresting and predictable. The answer to these problems came in the form of reality television shows, which became very popular in the early 2000s.

In some ways, modern reality shows descended from the hidden-camera shows and game shows of earlier eras. They also grew out of the more recent success of America's Funniest Home Videos (1990–), in which viewers' home videos competed for a cash prize, and MTV's The Real World (1992–), in which the network filmed the interactions of a group of very different young people thrown together in one house. The networks liked reality shows because they cast regular people instead of stars, making them cheap to produce. They also required little development and were easier to launch than scripted series. Finally, reality shows held appeal for viewers who enjoyed watching real people, not actors, humiliate themselves on TV.

The show that introduced the reality-TV craze was Survivor, which debuted on CBS in 2000. In the series premiere, sixteen strangers from different backgrounds were taken by boat to the secluded island of Pulau Tiga, near Borneo in the South China Sea. They were given two minutes to pack as many supplies as they could carry on two small rafts, then they were forced to paddle to shore and set up makeshift camps. The TV cameras followed them for the next thirty-nine days, as they struggled to find food and shelter, competed in physical and mental challenges, and formed and dissolved alliances. Every three days they held a tribal council ceremony in which they voted to eliminate one contestant from the island. An amazing 51 million people watched the final episode of the season, in which scheming advertising executive Richard Hatch became the last "Survivor" and won one million dollars. The season finale thus became the second-highest rated show of the year after the Super Bowl. The popularity of Survivor continued the following season, when the second edition of the series became the highest-rated show of 2001.

The success of Survivor encouraged the other networks to begin their own reality series. Several of these shows enjoyed great popularity as well. In fact, by 2002 five of the top ten programs on television were reality shows. One of the most successful of these series was American Idol, which became the first show on the Fox network to win the annual ratings in 2004. American Idol was basically an extended audition, as a group of talented young singers competed for a recording contract. One contestant was eliminated each week, through a combination of judges' decisions and viewer call-in voting. Another popular series, The Apprentice, featured millionaire businessman Donald Trump (1946–) auditioning groups of business-savvy young people for a high-profile position in his corporation. Each episode ended with Trump informing one contestant, "You're fired!" In another twist on the same theme, The Bachelor featured a group of young women competing to win the heart of an attractive, eligible man, with one or more contestants being eliminated each week.

A common criticism of reality shows was that the intense competition—coupled with the desire to establish a TV personality that stood out from the crowd—caused the contestants to lie, cheat, and generally be mean to each other. While this sort of behavior made for entertaining television, many critics complained that it set a bad example, particularly for younger viewers. An exception to this rule was ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition—a very different type of reality show that received high praise for promoting positive values. Each week, carpenter Ty Pennington and a collection of professional designers and building contractors performed a complete renovation of the home of a deserving family. Every episode ended with the family seeing their renovated home for the first time. The Parents Television Council named Extreme Makeover: Home Edition the best show for family viewing in 2004, calling it "an excellent example of a constructive and uplifting reality TV show. Unlike other reality series that emphasize and exploit contestants' worse qualities (greed, dishonesty, vanity, etc.), this inspiring program showcases charity and selflessness."

By the mid-2000s, the reality-TV craze seemed to be fading. A few of the big shows—such as Survivor and American Idol—remained popular, but many copycat series failed to attract viewers. In addition, the networks found that viewers tended to stop watching after one season. As of 2004, reality shows as a whole were performing worse than scripted shows and had lost 15 percent of their audience from the previous season.

Cable networks create prime-time hits

As reality shows dominated prime time on the broadcast networks, cable networks increasingly developed original programming with adult themes. One such show was Sex and the City, a comedy-drama that debuted on HBO in 1998. Based upon a memoir by Candace Bushnell, the show revolved around Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker [1965–])—an attractive, single woman who lives an upscale lifestyle in New York City and writes a newspaper column about relationships and sex. Carrie often compares notes on the dating scene with her three female friends. While some viewers were shocked by the characters'

The Best TV Shows of All Time

"What is the best television program of all time?" is a question guaranteed to start a lively discussion in any social gathering. Different series appeal to different viewers for different reasons, so every individual polled is likely to have a unique response. A number of TV critics, periodicals, and online sites have attempted to answer the question over the years, with predictably differing results. It can be interesting to compare the opinions of different sources. Here are two widely circulated lists of the top twenty shows of all time.

According to TV Guide in 2002, the top twenty are:

  1. Seinfeld
  2. I Love Lucy
  3. The Honeymooners
  4. All in the Family
  5. The Sopranos
  6. 60 Minutes
  7. Late Show with David Letterman
  8. The Simpsons
  9. The Andy Griffith Show
  10. Saturday Night Live
  11. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  12. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
  13. The Dick Van Dyke Show
  14. Hill Street Blues
  15. The Ed Sullivan Show
  16. The Carol Burnett Show
  17. Today
  18. Cheers
  19. thirtysomething
  20. St. Elsewhere

According to the Classic TV Database Web site in 2005, the top twenty are:

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. M*A*S*H
  3. Star Trek
  4. The Andy Griffith Show
  5. Cheers
  6. The Dick Van Dyke Show
  7. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  8. Bewitched
  9. The Twilight Zone
  10. All in the Family
  11. The Carol Burnett Show
  12. Happy Days
  13. Mission: Impossible
  14. The Cosby Show
  15. The Simpsons
  16. The Brady Bunch
  17. The Avengers
  18. ER
  19. Seinfeld
  20. The X-Files

frank discussions about their busy sex lives, many others tried to copy Carrie's fashion sense and trendy wardrobe.

Another hit series on HBO that pushed established limits on television content was The Sopranos. The show focused on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini [1961–]), the boss of a modern-day organized crime family. Although Tony arranges murders and otherwise behaves like a typical gangster, he also attends regular sessions with a psychiatrist to manage his feelings of remorse and anxiety. The Sopranos included foul language and violence, but it also featured well-developed characters and interesting plot twists. As a result, from its debut in 1999 the series received critical acclaim, numerous Emmy nominations, and the highest ratings ever for an HBO original series.

Throughout the early 2000s, a number of cable networks introduced original prime-time programs during the summer months, when the broadcast networks typically aired reruns, or repeat showings of previous programs. Many of these series received praise from TV critics and attracted numerous viewers. In fact, this strategy helped the cable networks become the favorites of prime-time audiences during the summer season. The summer of 2005 marked the fifth straight year that cable networks had triumphed in the ratings, nearly doubling the audience share earned by the broadcast networks, 60.9 to 32.4. TNT ranked first among ad-supported cable networks in average prime-time viewers that year (with 2.58 million), followed by USA (2.13 million), Nick at Night (1.89 million), ESPN (1.79 million), and Fox News Channel (1.78 million), according to Aimee Deeken in MediaWeek.

Broadcast networks still generate buzz

Partly due to the success of original cable programs such as The Sopranos, the broadcast networks began including more blood, gore, and violence in their prime-time offerings. When the reality craze faded in the mid-2000s, many crime and mystery dramas filled network schedules. The networks favored these types of shows because the frightening elements and violence held viewers' attention. In addition, most of these shows featured self-contained episodes that still drew strong audiences in reruns. Compared to serialized dramas, where the stories continue to evolve over time, crime shows allowed people to watch one episode at a time without feeling like they were missing something, thus increasing the likelihood that they would tune in to the show again.

The CBS program CSI: Crime Scene Investigation led the annual TV ratings three times in the mid-2000s. It focused on a team of forensic scientists at the Las Vegas Crime Lab, who are called in to help the police process crime scenes and examine evidence in bizarre and often gruesome murder cases. The success of CSI led to two spin-off series which focused on forensic teams in New York and Miami, and it also prompted a wave of similar programs on other networks. By 2005, crime and mystery series accounted for 37 percent of the prime-time TV schedule, as well as eleven of the top twenty-five shows in the annual TV ratings.

The networks' crime wave generated some criticism about the increasing level of violence on television. In fact, an article in The Americas Intelligence Wire pointed out that sixty-three dead bodies were visible on prime-time network broadcasts during the last week of September 2005—more than twice as many as a year earlier. Some parents' groups expressed concern that exposure to TV violence might make children less sensitive to violent behavior in real life. But broadcasters argued that they were only trying to compete with cable shows, video games, and theatrical movies, in which the effects are usually more graphic.

In any case, a few broadcast networks showed a willingness to break out of the crowd and create innovative new shows, like those found on cable. This strategy worked particularly well for ABC, which scored big ratings and lots of media attention with its slate of new dramas in 2004. The network introduced Lost, a suspenseful drama about a group of plane crash survivors stranded on a spooky tropical island. It featured a large cast of characters whose background stories are gradually revealed in flashbacks, or scenes depicting memories of earlier events. The series also earned praise for its cinematography, which some critics said was worthy of a theatrical film. ABC also created a hit with Grey's Anatomy, a medical drama that focused on a group of young interns working at an urban hospital. The show climbed into the top five during the 2005 season, and the network recognized its popularity by awarding it the coveted spot following the 2006 Super Bowl.

Perhaps the most talked-about new show on ABC, however, was Desperate Housewives. Producer Marc Cherry (1962–) said that he wanted to create a show that ordinary viewers could identify with. He designed a smart, quirky, darkly funny soap opera about a group of middle-class, suburban wives and mothers. The story centers on four female neighbors who band together to figure out why a former member of their circle committed suicide. In an unusual twist, the dead woman narrates the tale. Desperate Housewives became an immediate hit with viewers and helped ABC vault from fourth to second place in the overall network ratings. Some critics hoped that ABC's success would encourage the other broadcast networks to focus on creating innovative, quality programming as well.

For More Information


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Garner, Joe. Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Lasswell, Mark. TV Guide: Fifty Years of Television. New York: Crown, 2002.

Lichter, S. Robert. Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishers, 1994.

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McNeil, Alex. Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Sackett, Susan. Prime-Time Hits: Television's Most Popular Network Programs, 1950 to the Present. New York: Billboard Books, 1993.

Stark, Steven D. Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today. New York: The Free Press, 1997.


Bauder, David. "Almost Unnoticed, U.S. Prime-Time TV Becomes the Place for Blood and Guts." The Americas Intelligence Wire, November 21, 2005.

Boedeker, Hal. "Crime Dramas Dominate the Network TV Schedule." Orlando Sentinel, November 25, 2005.

Deeken, Amy. "TNT, USA Top Cable Ratings." MediaWeek, December 19, 2005.

Friedman, Wayne. "Stellar Programs Aside, Reality Losing Its Shine." Television Week, May 3, 2004.

Sellers, Patricia. "ABC's Desperate Measures Pay Off." Fortune, November 15, 2004.

Wallenstein, Andrew. "Emmy Still Loves Raymond." Back Stage, September 22, 2005.


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