The 1990s were the decade when cable began to take over, diversifying what viewers watched, which would eventually dilute the popularity of any single show. Cable channels went from 79 in 1989 to 171 in 1998, according to the California Cable and Telecommunications Association. When Seinfeld's "The Contest" episode had its first rerun in 1992, it received more viewers than an entire network receives in a week in 2013. Sitcoms ruled the airwaves, with gritty crime and law dramas following close behind.
Laughing It up: Sitcoms
In 1997, 10 of the top 20 Nielsen-rated shows were sitcoms: "Seinfeld," "Suddenly Susan," "Friends," "Naked Truth," "Fired Up," "Single Guy," "Home Improvement," "Frasier," "Spin City" and the "Drew Carey Show." Eleven years later there would be only one sitcom in the top ten. In addition to the top shows in 1997, other shows that garnered high rankings were "The Cosby Show," "The Golden Girls," "Cheers," "The Simpsons," "South Park," "Full House," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Roseanne," "Married with Children" and "Murphy Brown."
Taking It Seriously: Dramas
On Sept. 13, 1990, "Law & Order" launched, becoming a critical success and spawning several spin-offs. Other popular dramas in the 1990s included "ER," "Touched by an Angel," "Dr. Quinn -- Medicine Woman," "NYPD Blue," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Baywatch," "LA Law," "Murder She Wrote," "Matlock," "Melrose Place" and "Northern Exposure."
Lovers and Villains: Daytime Television
Throughout the 1990s, the daytime soap operas that held the top rankings were "The Young and the Restless," followed by "All My Children," and "General Hospital." The end of the decade also saw the launch of the series "Passions" on NBC. In 1999, Susan Lucci won her first Daytime Emmy after 19 straight years of being nominated for "All My Children."
Just the Facts, Ma'am: News and Talk Shows
"60 Minutes" on CBS ruled the airways in the 1990s, but other shows were growing in popularity. "The Oprah Winfrey" show launched in 1986 and she won the Daytime Emmy for Best Talk Show Host six out of the ten years of the decade, once tying with Rosie O'Donnell. In 1992, the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh premiered a television show that ran until 1996. In 1996, the news satire television series "The Daily Show" began its long successful run.
For the Younger Set: Children's Programming
On Oct. 1, 1992, the Cartoon Network was born, expanding children's programming from its morning slot to an all-day, every day format. The 1990s saw the launch of such shows as "Pokemon," one of the most successful animated television shows of all time. Also popular were "Spongebob Squarepants," "Rugrats," "The Power Rangers," "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." In 1992, "Barney," the purple dinosaur, made the transition from a home video series to a PBS series, becoming a pop culture icon.
Where No One Has Gone Before: Science Fiction
Nearly 20 years after the original series had aired, the Star Trek franchise was back in full strength during the 1990s with "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager." It also saw other science fiction shows hit the prime-time such as "X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."
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