Let’s go back to the very beginning, back to when TV became an entertainment medium and shows that people wanted to watch and advertisers wanted to be associated with were born.
Let’s make a list, a big one. Some of these shows topped the rating charts, some didn’t. Many won Emmy Awards, and many more were escapist fluff. But what they all have in common is some level of influence on the medium as it evolved into a cultural force and a very big business.
When we think of the beginning, the black-and-white 1950s come to mind. But the first American television picture to be broadcast (a weather map from Arlington, Va., to Washington, D.C.) was actually in 1926. Experimental stations were established to test television broadcasting in the 1930s. CBS and NBC were granted their commercial television licenses for their New York stations in 1941. There were roughly 7,000 TV sets in American homes in 1945 and regularly scheduled programming began in 1946.
In the early going, comedy favorites like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and Father Knows Best come to mind. Variety was popular, hosted by personalities like Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen and, of course, Ed Sullivan. There were countess Westerns, including Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger. Quiz shows like The $64,000 Question, Truth or Consequences and What’s My Line seemed ubiquitous. Dragnet was an early pioneer of crime drama storytelling. The Twilight Zone was one of the many sci-fi anthology series.
News and non-scripted programming like Candid Camera were viewing options, too. Still, there was only a handful of options, yet there always seemed to be something to watch. It was all of America, before America fragmented.
Different themes prevailed. The 1960s was chock-full of fantasy series like Bewitched, The Munsters and Batman. Variety like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Westerns were everywhere. With the 1970s came gritty Norman Lear sitcoms, Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore, The Waltons. The 1980s introduced three very different families: The Huxtables (The Cosby Show), the Ewings (Dallas) and the still very present Simpsons. Also in the decade, Miami Vice injected pastels into fashion, and the networks began to recognize the value of the demographics with dramas like thirtysomething and St. Elsewhere. In the 1990s, NBC’s dominance on Thursday escalated with Seinfeld, Friends and ER and the network’s mammoth crime franchise Law & Order began.
The era of the forensic-based drama began, in 2000 with CSI. HBO was setting the standard for originals with Sex and the City and The Sopranos and the reality/competition, courtesy of CBS’ Survivor and Fox’s American Idol, became schedule mainstays, as is MTV’s Jersey Shore.
What follows are 100 shows worth noting. Beginning with The Milton Berle Show in 1948 and ending with The Walking Dead on AMC, we have something for everyone.