Aired: Fox, 1997-2002
Stars: Calista Flockhart, Greg Germann, Jane Krakowski, Peter McNichol, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Portia Di Rossi, Gil Bellows, Lucy Liu, Lisa Nicole Carson, Dyan Cannon, Robert Downey Jr.
Synopsis: The life of brilliant young attorney Ally McBeal is complicated. She takes a job at a prestigious Boston law firm despite the fact that her former love, Billy, and his new wife work there-and Ally is still in love with him. Then there are the eccentric characters in the office, like quirky John Cage, who’s never lost a case, and money-hungry Richard Fish, the head of the firm. Ally’s zany work life and attempts to find a new man stimulate her overactive imagination, including fantasies about a dancing baby.
Impact: “Ally McBeal” was a whimsical blend of courtroom antics, fanciful comedy, memorable characters and topical subject matter. It was extremely innovative, often using fantasy sequences to expand the storytelling. Created by “L.A. Law” veteran David E. Kelley, the show was less about legal cases and more about Ally’s colorful personal life. The series was a major hit for Fox at a time when the network was still struggling for ratings, and won a bunch of Emmys, including comedy series (1999) and three lead actress awards for Ms. Flockhart. The show also had cultural implications, presenting the contemporary single woman in a new light, a step beyond Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
American Idol: The Search for a Superstar
Aired: Fox, 2002-present
Stars: Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson
Synopsis: Singers from across America compete to become the next pop music superstar. Twelve finalists are selected by the judges-Mr. Cowell, Ms. Abdul and Mr. Jackson-and invited to Hollywood to vie for the title of American Idol. America votes each week to determine who stays and who goes until a winner is finally chosen.
Impact: This American version of the British sensation “Pop Idol” has been as big a phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic as the U.K. incarnation is there. Essentially, “American Idol” is “The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour” for the 21st century, with the injection of venom in the form of Simon Cowell as the judge everyone loves to hate. Since its 2002 debut, “American Idol” has been a ratings juggernaut, as well as the ultimate water-cooler topic. It has helped to elevate Fox from the fourth-place network to a serious contender. The recording success of “Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood has underscored the influence of “American Idol” on pop culture.
America’s Funniest Home Videos
Aired: ABC, 1990-present
Stars: Bob Saget, Tom Bergeron
Synopsis: Viewers are encouraged to send in what they think are their funniest home movies. America then watches the selected clips and votes for the top three videos of the week. The top choice for the week wins a $10,000 prize; at the end of the season, all of those winners compete for a $100,000 grand prize.
Impact: Long before everyone was posting videos on YouTube.com, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” was the place to see the bloopers, gaffes and crazy home movies of everyday folks. The show started as a series of specials but has since become an ABC staple. With the advent of digital technology, more and more people are using home computers, camcorders and cell phone cameras to make their own video productions, and those pieces continue to feed “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and the interest viewers have in real-world videos.
America’s Most Wanted
Aired: Fox, 1988-present
Star: John Walsh
Synopsis: In an effort to capture real-life criminals, “America’s Most Wanted” re-creates the crime in detail, asking home viewers to help find the culprit. Hosted by John Walsh, the father of Adam Walsh, a young boy who was abducted and murdered, the show is part reality TV, part documentary.
Impact: “America’s Most Wanted” has been an unlikely hit for Fox. With John Walsh’s strong presence as host and the blatantly lurid depiction of true crimes, viewers have found the show compelling. But the real success of “America’s Most Wanted” has been in its effectiveness in finding criminals and bringing them to justice. The show has had a profound effect on how TV can be used to pursue criminals. In 1996, Fox attempted to cancel the show, but the outcry of the public and the authorities led to “America’s Most Wanted” returning to the regular schedule.
Beverly Hills, 90210
Aired: Fox, 1990-2000
Stars: Jason Priestley, Shannon Doherty, Ian Ziering, Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Luke Perry, Brian Austin Green, Tiffani Thiessen, Gabrielle Carteris, Carol Potter, James Eckhouse
Synopsis: When the Walsh family moves from a modest Midwest home to the swankier climes of Beverly Hills, high school student Brandon and sister Brenda try to adjust to their new life. Over time, they make new friends, fall in and out of love, graduate, go to college and head out on their own.
Impact: Attractive young actors, glamorous Beverly Hills locations, high school angst and lots of romance were the recipe for success as concocted by veteran executive producer Aaron Spelling (“Dynasty”) and head writer Darren Star. Mr. Spelling and Mr. Star tapped into the viewing interest of a younger demographic, an audience the other networks weren’t pursuing as aggressively. Jason Priestley and Luke Perry emerged as teen heartthrobs, while Shannon Doherty’s antics on and off the set filled the tabloids, and viewers kept tuning in. The show was a major hit for Fox and spun off “Melrose Place,” another success for the Spelling-Star combination.
Aired: NBC, 1982-1993
Stars: Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Rhea Perlman, Kirstie Alley, George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, Nicholas Colasanto, Bebe Neuwirth
Synopsis: The daily goings-on in a Boston neighborhood bar owned by former Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone. Sam’s complicated romances with Diane Chambers and later Rebecca Howe were often front and center, but the colorful characters who peopled the bar-including regulars like Norm and Cliff-as well as employees Carla and Woody, were also a source of comic delight.
Impact: The chemistry was just right for NBC’s “Cheers” from the moment the show began. Easy-going and effortlessly funny, “Cheers” simply presented the characters in the bar and comedy ensued. Ted Danson became a star as the perfect straight man, allowing the likes of Kelsey Grammer and Rhea Perlman to give their zany comic characters a chance to shine. The show started slowly ratings-wise, but eventually it became a hit and anchored NBC’s Thursday night lineup. “Cheers” dominance in the ratings, coupled with the other hits on Thursday night, gave NBC a stranglehold on the night that lasted until 2000. Mr. Grammer’s character was spun off in “Frasier,” another big hit for NBC.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Aired: CBS, 2000-present
Stars: William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, Jorja Fox, George Eads, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert David Hall, Eric Szmanda
Synopsis: The Las Vegas crime lab investigates murders from a forensics point of view, following procedures down to the slightest hair and fingerprint from the crime scene. Led by Gil Grissom, an expert on bugs, the investigators follow the evidence and, more often than not, solve the crime.
Impact: “CSI” is a hit show that surprised the networks. In fact, ABC turned down the project because they thought the concept of forensics too confusing for the average viewer. CBS gave the show a chance and discovered viewers were actually fascinated by all the minute details. “CSI” turned out be entertaining and educational, proving a detective show didn’t have to involve gunfights and car chases. Procedural dramas imitating “CSI” cropped up around the dial, and two spin-offs from “CSI,” “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY,” hav
e been just as successful for executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Aired: Fox, 1989-present
Synopsis: Cameras follow the action when real-life cops are out on the job. Police officers from all over America are featured.
Impact: “Cops” was one of the first reality TV series, taking viewers inside police cars and on the beat with actual cops during their workday. Despite the fact that many of the incidents are similar, the show continues to be arresting viewing. Fans of the show never seem to tire of the chases, violence and foul language that characterizes a typical police interaction with a suspect. The show remains a hit for Fox, as well as a syndication and home video success. Without benefit of stars or even hosts, “Cops” underscored the fact that reality TV could be both compelling and profitable.
The Cosby Show
Aired: NBC, 1984-1992
Stars: Bill Cosby, Phylicia Rashad, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Keisha Knight Pullium, Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, Sabrina Le Beauf
Synopsis: The Huxtable family lived in a stylish house in Brooklyn, where obstetrician Cliff and attorney Claire raised their rambunctious clan of five, instilling good values and honoring their African-American culture. Over time, the older kids were married, but they never really left home, a fact that frustrated Cliff no end.
Impact: Derived from Bill Cosby’s standup comedy act, “The Cosby Show” became the quintessential family sitcom of the 1980s. The fact that the Huxtables were African-American was a breakthrough for American television. Mr. Cosby infused the show with universal family situations to which all viewers could relate. Wisely, Mr. Cosby also used caustic humor to keep the comedy from getting overly sentimental. “The Cosby Show” won the comedy series Emmy in 1985 and was the anchor of NBC’s Thursday lineup that led to Nielsen dominance. In 2004, TV Guide named Mr. Cosby’s character the greatest TV dad of all time.
Aired: NBC, 1994-present
Stars: George Clooney, Sherry Stringfield, Julianna Margulies, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, Laura Innes, Anthony Edwards, Goran Visnjic, Maura Tierney, Alex Kingston, Ming Na, Mekhi Phifer, Paul McCrane, Parminder Nagra
Synopsis: In a typical Chicago hospital emergency room, the ailments-both serious and mundane-of everyday patients are interwoven with the lives of the busy doctors and nurses tending them.
Impact: Created by novelist and M.D. Michael Crichton, “ER” captured the drama and angst of the medical personnel working in a pressure-packed, big-city hospital emergency room. The show was more like a motion picture than most TV shows, using cutting-edge cinematography and editing to give the show an energy and excitement that was new to medical dramas. The show made stars of George Clooney and Noah Wyle, and catapulted NBC to the top of the ratings. “ER” also won the drama series Emmy in 1996, as well as many technical and acting Emmys.
Aired: NBC, 1994-2004
Stars: David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry
Synopsis: A group of twentysomething friends hang out together in their New York City apartments and a local coffee shop called Central Perk.
Impact: From the catchy theme song to the attractive cast of young actors, “Friends” was the NBC sitcom that took everyone by surprise. The critics weren’t enthusiastic and ratings out of the box were modest. But somewhere in the midst of season one, Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyle became a sensation, the song was all over the radio and “Friends” took off. There was major character development over the 10 years the show aired, linking the characters romantically in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, every one of the “Friends” actors became stars on their own, branching out into feature films and other TV ventures. By the time the show came to a close, it was one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time.
Aired: ABC, 1991-1999
Stars: Tim Allen, Patricia Richardson, Richard Karn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Zachary Ty Bryan, Taran Noah Smith, Earl Hindman
Synopsis: Family man Tim Taylor’s life revolves around the things he loves most: his wife and kids, his do-it-yourself TV show and playing with big-boy toys like cars and power tools.
Impact: Tim Allen used his standup act as the basis for “Home Improvement.” In doing so, the comic touched a responsive note with the male demographic. This instantly set “Home Improvement” apart from many of the other sitcoms on the air, giving ABC a major hit. It also led to a spate of men’s sitcoms including “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “King of Queens.”
Malcolm in the Middle
Aired: Fox, 2000-2006
Stars: Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston, Justin Berfield, Erik Per Sullivan, Christopher Masterson, Craig Lamar Traylor
Synopsis: The middle child of the ultimate dysfunctional family, Malcolm wants to be a normal kid. But when it’s determined that he has a genius IQ, he’s transferred to the gifted class and has an even tougher time trying to be an ordinary kid.
Impact: No live-action sitcom has ever depicted a dysfunctional but loving family as successfully as “Malcolm in the Middle.” Borrowing its tone of anarchy from “The Simpsons,” this comedy was like a Mad Magazine version of the American family, with Dad as a good-hearted boob, Mom a domineering powerhouse and the kids as a motley crew of oddballs. Unlike most situation comedies, the show regularly broke the fourth wall to let Malcolm talk to the viewers, another innovation that set the show apart.
Aired: NBC, 1984-1990
Stars: Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, Edward James Olmos, Saundra Santiago, Olivia Brown, Michael Talbot
Synopsis: Miami police detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs work deep undercover to infiltrate the South Florida drug scene.
Impact: NBC programming head Brandon Tartikoff supposedly conceived the idea of “Miami Vice” by writing down the words “MTV cops.” Whether that was actually the germination of this creative detective series, “Miami Vice” sprang onto TV screens and immediately changed our perception of cops. There was the look of the show, with fashion designer Gianni Versace setting trends in the way he dressed the actors and Ferrari supplying the sports cars in which characters cruised the streets of Miami. The music also was integral to the show, featuring top vocalists of the day like Phil Collins and Glenn Frey, as well as Jan Hammer’s memorable theme. The series changed Don Johnson’s life, launching him to stardom and a film career. Michael Mann, the show’s executive producer, also used the show as a springboard to features. Overall, “Miami Vice” was a major influence on the police genre. Without “Miami Vice,” there probably never would have been an “NYPD Blues” or “The Shield.”
Aired: ABC, 1985-1989
Stars: Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Allyce Beasley, Curtis Armstrong
Synopsis: Maddie Hayes, a successful model, discovers that her business manager has embezzled her fortune. All she has left is a tax dodge in the form of a detective agency run by David Addison. To keep Maddie from closing down the firm, David convinces her to join him in running the business as a moneymaking operation.
Impact: From its beginning as a two-hour TV movie to its use of fantasy and musical sequences, “Moonlighting” wasn’t like any other detective series. In many ways, it was more of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy than a contemporary TV detective series. As mismatched lovers, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd had just the right on-screen chemistry to remind viewers of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” especially with the rapid-fire dialogue and inside jokes. More audacious than “Remington Steele” or “Hart to Hart,” “Moonlighting” broke the rules and succeeded in changing the detective g
Murder, She Wrote
Aired: CBS, 1984-1996
Stars: Angela Lansbury, William Windom, Tom Bosley
Synopsis: Successful mystery writer Jessica Fletcher lives a happy, quiet life in Cabot Cove, Maine. When murder crops up in her cozy village, Jessica invariably solves the case.
Impact: The setup for this enduring mystery drama was not groundbreaking or unique, but viewers didn’t mind. “Murder, She Wrote” was like comfort food, familiar, homey and satisfying. Angela Lansbury, who was not even the first choice for the role of Jessica Fletcher (Jean Stapleton and Doris Day both turned it down), become a TV superstar thanks to this show. Her Q rating soared and her popularity kept viewers tuning in for more than a decade. Ms. Lansbury was nominated a dozen times for an Emmy as lead actress in a drama, but never won.
Aired: ABC, 1993-2005
Stars: Dennis Franz, Jimmy Smits, David Caruso, Amy Brenneman, Sharon Lawrence, Kim Delaney, Nicholas Turturro, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp, Sherry Stringfield, Charlotte Ross
Synopsis: A grim, realistic and up-close look at the daily work of New York police detectives, in particular the gruff Andy Sipowicz, who struggles to stay sober and sane despite the pressures of his life and work.
Impact: Creator Steven Bochco took the police drama to another level with “NYPD Blue.” It was tougher, grittier and harder-edged than any previous cop show, which was reflected in the hand-held camerawork, the quick-cut editing and the raw dialogue. Before it even aired, the show created controversy. Affiliates balked at broadcasting the pilot because it contained partial nudity and foul language. Mr. Bocho convinced ABC to stand by his show, but he later admitted that if “NYPD Blue” had not been an immediate success, ABC would have dropped it. “NYPD Blue” not only survived, it thrived. Cast changes, including the unexpected exit of David Caruso after just 26 episodes, had no effect on the show’s popularity. “NYPD Blue” won the Emmy for drama series in 1995, as well as numerous other Emmys, including Dennis Franz’s four lead actor awards.
Aired: ABC, 1988-1997
Stars: Roseanne, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Alicia Goranson, Michael Fishman, Johnny Galecki, Sarah Chalke, Estelle Parsons, Shelley Winters, Tom Arnold
Synopsis: Dan and Roseanne Connors struggle to make ends meet and raise their three kids as best they can, even when everything seems to be working against them.
Impact: “Roseanne” worked because it was a funny, occasionally warm and overall accurate depiction of a working-class family living in America and facing tough times. It wasn’t unusual for Roseanne to try to delay paying a bill by neglecting to sign a check, or for Dan to scrounge for extra work. The show leapt to the top of the Nielsen ratings and stayed there for its first six seasons. Like the star herself, “Roseanne” was bold and provocative, taking on issues rarely broached in sitcoms, such as drugs, alcoholism, obesity, domestic violence and homosexuality. “Roseanne’s” success was the catalyst for the networks to take other standup comedians and put them in sitcoms based on their acts.
Aired: NBC, 1990-1998
Stars: Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Wayne Knight
Synopsis: New York neurotic bachelor Jerry Seinfeld has three equally peculiar close friends with whom he spends most of his time. Together and apart, the foursome let the little quirks of dating, dining and getting by in life dominate their conversation.
Impact: Using a fictionalized version of himself as the centerpiece for an observational comedy about the little things in life that are annoying, Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David created a sitcom that struck a responsive chord with viewers and made “Seinfeld” a major hit. It was a slow build, and NBC nearly canceled the show after its inauspicious start, but once “Seinfeld” hit its stride, it became a phenomenon. Catchphrases from the show are still part of the American lexicon, including “master of your domain” and “no soup for you.” “Seinfeld” was a different kind of sitcom, one not about a family or even a group of people brought together by a common interest. It was a show about nothing, an idea they wrote about during the sitcom’s run when Jerry was contemplating starring in an NBC comedy series. It was also a show in which the characters did not learn lessons or find meaning from their actions. In the end, they were as shallow, uptight and selfish as they were when the series began-and that was just the way Mr. David and Mr. Seinfeld wanted it.
Aired: Fox, 1989-present
Stars: Julie Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria
Synopsis: The Simpsons are the typical American family, living in Springfield, USA. Dad Homer is a dolt, but he loves his wife, Marge, and their kids: Bart, a rebel who calls himself an underachiever and is proud of it; Lisa, who’s talented, bright and worries about the state of the world; and baby Maggie.
Impact: Matt Groening’s clever animated shorts about a family called “The Simpsons” first appeared on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Fox was so impressed that Groening was urged to expand the shorts into a half-hour series. “The Simpsons” was a sendup of American life and culture, and TV audiences took to it immediately. While it wasn’t the first animated series to make it in prime time, it was the one that made the biggest splash, being named the best TV series of the 20th century by Time magazine, winning Emmys and a Peabody and impacting American culture in a variety of ways. “The Simpsons” was irreverent and satirical, poking fun at everything from religion to convenience stores, but never in a mean-spirited way. It never alienated viewers; it winked at them. This year, “The Simpsons” makes the jump to the big screen, but the TV series shows no sign of ending any time soon.
Aired: NBC, 1982-1988
Stars: William Daniels, Ed Begley Jr., Norman Lloyd, Denzel Washington, Ed Flanders, Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, Christina Pickles, David Morse
Synopsis: Young doctors join the staff of St. Eligius Hospital in Boston, a venerable but struggling institution that boasts some of the top specialists in the world, like the cantankerous heart surgeon Mark Craig.
Impact: Before “ER,” there was “St. Elsewhere,” a medical drama that was challenging, inventive and controversial. Instead of presenting a state-of-the-art hospital, St. Eligius, the real name of the facility, was old and financially strapped. Administrators and doctors were often at odds about care, and ethical issues were as important as medical decisions. “St. Elsewhere” also took on controversial subject matter like HIV, a first for a prime-time TV series, but usually balanced the heavy drama with dark comedy. “St. Elsewhere” had one of the most memorable endings ever for a primetime series. The final scene showed Dr. Westphall’s son, Tommy, who had autism, playing with a snow globe that housed a model of St. Eligius. The camera then revealed Dr. Westphall was not an M.D. but a construction worker. And Dr. Auschlander was Tommy’s grandfather. The father speaks to an unresponsive Tommy, saying the boy is in his own world playing with that toy. Viewers were left to ponder if St. Elsewhere was real or just part of Tommy’s secret world.
Aired: CBS, 2000-present
Star: Jeff Probst
Synopsis: A group of strangers are stranded on a remote island location to compete in a game of wits, stamina and skill. The one who survives all the challenges and avoids getting voted off by other players who’ve been eliminated wins the grand prize-$1 million.
Impact: “Survivor” is regarded as the first reality TV series to become a breakout success. Following the format created in England and other
countries, executive producer Mark Burnett brought “Survivor” to America in 2000. In its first season, it jumped to the top of the Nielsen charts and continued to be a hit in its second and third seasons. The other networks quickly followed CBS’ lead and a spate of reality TV shows were broadcast. Some worked, most didn’t, but “Survivor” continued as the most popular of all. “Survivor” rolled out a myriad of editions going to exotic locales around the world, from Australia to Africa to the South Pacific. There was also a popular all-star version of “Survivor.” Along the way, “Survivor’s” creators have tweaked the game by changing rules and adding twists like Exile Island and the Immunity Idol.
The West Wing
Aired: NBC, 1999-2006
Stars: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Stockard Channing, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Janel Maloney, Dule Hill, Joshua Malina
Synopsis: President Jed Bartlett’s tenure as commander in chief as seen through the eyes of his senior staff members of his administration, all of whom work in the west wing of the White House.
Impact: “The West Wing” wasn’t the first TV drama about politics, but it is the one that made the inner workings of government fascinating and compelling viewing. With its sharply drawn characters, excellent acting, complicated dialogue and breakneck pace, it took network TV drama to a higher level. Series creator Aaron Sorkin conceived the idea while scripting the feature film “The American President,” realizing he had the material for a much longer piece. When “The West Wing” premiered on NBC, some believed the Bartlett administration reflected the Clinton administration, then in power, especially since Mr. Sorkin’s writing tended toward the liberal. But viewers obviously didn’t mind: Polls at the time showed a majority of the country would have voted for Jed Bartlett had he been a real candidate for the presidency. “The West Wing” was a success critically as well, winning the drama series Emmy in each of its first four seasons, as well as the Peabody.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
Aired: ABC, 1999-2002
Star: Regis Philbin
Synopsis: This game show offered contestants a chance to answer a series of 15 multiple-choice questions, with the prize for each correct answer growing until it reached the top prize of $1 million. Along the way, the player gets three lifelines to assist him – 50/50, where two answers are eliminated; phone a friend; and ask the audience.
Impact: The era of the primetime game show was a thing of the past, or so it seemed until the surprise success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in 1999. Hosted by the amiable Regis Philbin, “Millionaire” took the TV world by storm and quickly shot to the top of the Nielsens. ABC capitalized on the game’s success by airing it several times a week. The strategy backfired, however, and before long the show had run its course. But, thanks to “Millionaire,” other game shows cropped up in primetime, including current imitators like “Deal or No Deal” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”
Aired: Fox, 1993-2002
Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Robert Patrick
Synopsis: Two FBI agents investigate the weird and unexplainable cases the agency doesn’t want revealed to the public. Mulder has personal reasons for believing in the paranormal world, but Scully is a skeptic.
Impact: Part science fiction, part detective drama, “The X-Files” succeeded in capturing the imagination of the public for nearly a decade. “The truth is out there” was the tagline for the show, and each week Mulder and Scully explored the weird and unexplainable to find it. Created by Chris Carter and inspired by shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker,” “The X-Files” played on the cynicism of the times, where conspiracy theories involving government cover-ups (like Watergate) were real, not theoretical. “The X-Files” moved beyond cult status to become a genuine hit for Fox. In 1998, it also became a feature film.