The 1990s is considered as the age of alternative media. Up until this point, television was the main mass medium with three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – offering very limited selections of programs. But by the 1990s, the continuing expansion of cable and satellite TV meant more channels and more choices for programming. By the end of the decade, about 65 million households had a cable subscription service. In addition, several new broadcast networks had also come into play.
TV used to be a shared experience. In many ways, it brought together many people no matter the age, status, or race. But with cable and satellite services becoming more accessible, television began to fragment. Unlike before where programs were made to attract a wider audience, television in the 1990s was the opposite. Programs tended to attract a smaller audience, or audience of a definite age group, income or preferences in order to attract certain advertisers.
Plus, the fact that television sets had become a lot cheaper would mean that families went from having a big TV set in the living room to having a TV set in almost every room (including TV sets in the kitchen and even in the bathroom). That resulted to the decline of quality family time.
At this moment, writers and producers were more free to experiment with their own material, and went to think out of the box to create shows that would certainly etch the minds of the viewers. The creativity led to some shows like Seinfeld, Ally McBeal, The Simpsons, Beverly Hills 90210, Quantum Leap, The X-Files and The Real World.
Medical and medical-mystery dramas also came to the fore during this decade, with popular shows like Diagnostic Murder, ER and Chicago Hope gaining new fans of the TV genre.
Beverly Hills 90210, a drama series about the lives of affluent teenagers in Beverly Hills, kick-started the teen soap genre. It was then followed by similar shows like Felicity, My So-Called Life and Dawson’s Creek, which won more legions of young fans.
After the decline of soap operas, police and crime dramas enjoyed renewed popularity and provided a means of escapism (rather than tackling “hard” issues). Among the most-watched dramas of this type are NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Nash Bridges (which heralded the comeback of Don Johnson, who had starred in the hit series Miami Vice).
Although the animated sitcom The Simpsons debuted in 1989, it was considered as one of the milestones of 1990s television. The successful series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001), which stars Chuck Norris, became notable as one of the last Westerns to be produced for television. Other shows like Baywatch and Melrose Place also dominated the TV airwaves in the 1990s.
Game shows on the primetime slot became a hot trend towards the end of the decade, popularized by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? hosted by Regis Philbin.
Another crucial turn for television in the 1990s is the birth of reality TV, which was started by MTV’s The Real World in 1992. Although reality TV was still in its infancy during the 1990s, this gave a strong indication that it would become dominant in the next decade.
Here are some of the most popular 1990s shows that now have the “classic TV” status:
1. Seinfeld (NBC) – Seinfeld became immensely popular during its original run because it deviated from the average sitcom formula. It is a “show about nothing” which throws sarcastic, offbeat humor about everyday life as observed by Jerry Seinfeld, who plays a fictionalized version of himself as a stand-up comedian. It ran for nine seasons (1989-1998), won 11 Emmys, and became a cultural phenomenon. Check out our list of the most famous Seinfeld phrases to either refresh your memory of the show, or to introduce yourself to the world of Seinfeld!
2. The Simpsons (Fox) – The Simpsons is an animated sitcom which follows the everyday life of the Simpson family who lives in the fictional town of Springfield. Since it first aired in 1989, The Simpsons has won critical acclaim and received 31 Emmy Awards (so far). It is now the longest-running animated series and sitcom of all time, and it’s still around up to this day. No doubt about it, The Simpsons is also one of the most influential sitcoms to come out in the 1990s.
3. Friends (NBC) – If there’s a show that truly defined the 1990s generation, then Friends must be it. It stars an ensemble cast – Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer – who play as yuppies living in Manhattan. Friends definitely hits a sweet spot among 20-to-30-something viewers. It became a pop culture phenomenon and even started a famous fashion trend: the “Rachel cut.” Check out “Friends –What Made the TV Show So Popular?” for more fun trivia.
4. The X-Files (Fox) – Created by Chris Carter and starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents who investigate strange and unexplained occurrences, The X-Files was one of the surprise hits of the 1990s. It ran for 11 seasons (1993-2002) and spawned a couple of films, spin-offs, comic books and reboots. That’s quite a testament of its profound popularity and influence on the American TV landscape and pop culture. Read “Overview of The X-Files” for a quick recap of its history and its memorable dialogues.
5. ER (NBC) – Created by author Michael Crichton (who was a doctor himself), ER might be the best hospital drama series of all time. This beloved series about the lives, loves and losses of medical professionals at a fictional Chicago hospital spanned over 15 seasons, won 23 Emmys. And most importantly perhaps, the series launched the career of future Hollywood A-lister George Clooney.
6. Beverly Hills, 90210 (Fox) – Co-created by Aaron Spelling, Beverly Hills, 90210 was the series that popularized the “teen drama” genre. It is about the lives, loves and challenges of the high-school kids in the affluent Beverly Hills area. The series made Jason Priestly, Shannen Doherty, Luke Perry, Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling teen idols and household names.
7. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC) – This endearing sitcom stars Will Smith as the poor, street-smart youngster who is sent by his mother to live with his relatives at their mansion in Bel-Air. The clashes between the two opposite classes and lifestyles provided the laughs. Will Smith was already a popular rapper by the time The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was launched. However, the success of the sitcom made him to pursue an acting career, which became successful. It spanned over six seasons (1990-1996).
8. Baywatch (NBC, syndicated) – The action-drama series about a group of attractive lifeguards patrolling the beaches of Los Angeles once suffered low ratings and got even canceled after its first season on NBC. But after Baywatch was syndicated, it rose to become one of popular shows in 1990s and cemented a place of the American pop culture (not to mention the famous red bathing suits that became a hot trend in beach wear!)
9. Frasier (NBC) – The spin-off of Cheers, Frasier‘s mix of physical comedy and high-brow brand of humor nearly outdid Cheers when it comes to laughs. It stars Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist who leaves Boston and returns to his hometown Seattle to be with his father and brother. He also works as a radio host.
10. Roseanne (ABC) – The main reason why Roseanne was successful and enjoyed nine long seasons (1988-1997) is that most average American families related themselves with it. The series focuses on the working class family who struggles with everyday problems such as marriage, children and money. Centering on the crass and unapologetic working-class mom Roseanne Conner (played by Roseanne Barr), Roseanne became a winner on the ratings and won many awards (such as several Emmy trophies and a Peabody award). As of this writing, a reboot of the series is due in late March 2018.