Television Shows in the 1990s

The 1990s were a transformative decade for television, marked by a blend of groundbreaking shows that not only entertained but also mirrored and sometimes challenged the social issues of the time. This era of TV was characterized by its daring originality, diverse genres, and the emergence of cult classics that continue to resonate with audiences today. From sitcoms that became the heart of family entertainment to dramas that tackled real-world issues with unprecedented depth, the ’90s set a new standard for what television could achieve. Let’s dive into the vibrant world of ’90s television and explore how this golden era shaped the landscape of modern TV.

The 1990s were not only a period of significant content evolution in television but also a time of substantial change and growth for TV networks themselves. Networks like NBC, CBS, and Fox played pivotal roles in shaping the television landscape, each contributing in unique ways to the era’s cultural zeitgeist. Their strategies, programming choices, and responses to emerging trends offer a fascinating glimpse into the business of television during this transformative decade.

How NBC, CBS, and Fox Defined ’90s Television

“Must-See TV” was the phrase on everyone’s lips in the 1990s. NBC had perfected the ratings-gold primetime lineup when it began broadcasting popular TV shows on Thursday nights. Actually, “Must-See TV” began in the 1980s when shows like The Cosby Show, Cheers, and L.A. Law dominated the primetime ratings. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that NBC began promoting their Thursday night lineup with the memorable advertising slogan.

Thursday nights are important to the networks because audiences who tune in are generally younger and more affluent. For this reason alone, movie studios advertise Friday releases heavily on Thursday nights. By programming their stronger sitcoms and dramas on Thursday nights, NBC was able to beat out the programming fare on the other networks and dominate the evening’s ratings. The heavy advertising for the network’s Thursday night lineup became a catchphrase for anyone referring to the night’s programming.

Later during the decade, “Must-See TV” shows like Friends, E.R., Will & Grace, Seinfeld, Wings, Frasier, and others became ratings hits.

Friends TV Series 1994–2004
Will & Grace:

But NBC wasn’t the only network scoring ratings gold during the 1990s. ABC soon created its own must-see TV on Friday nights by programming family sitcoms like Family Matters, Boy Meets World, and Full House in their lineup. These shows were a hit with pre-teen audiences and made household names of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on Full House and characters like Family Matters’ Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), whose catchphrase “Did I Do That,” was a throwback to catchphrases popularized during the 1970s.

CBS had created a stable primetime lineup that appealed to older audiences, earning the unfair moniker the Geriatric Network within the industry. Shows like Murder She Wrote, the quirky Northern Exposure, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Due South, and Touched By An Angel appealed to viewers with more conservative tastes. Touched By An Angel, starring Della Reese and Roma Downey, inspired a fanbase that was very protective of the show.

Unlike CBS, the Fox Network leaned toward edgier and more youthful programming to appeal to mainstream audiences with such shows as In Living Color and Beverly Hills 90210. Though 90210 was often derided for its unrealistic portrayal of young people (as compared to the ABC failure My So-Called Life), it was nonetheless popular with teen audiences looking for glamorous depictions of their lives. The network also aired quirky programs such as Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Herman’s Head, Bakersfield P.D., and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., but few of these shows managed to make it past the first season.

In Living Color:
Beverly Hills 90210:

The Fox Network did score a ratings hit with Martin (1992), a sitcom starring Martin Lawrence, which opened the way for other black-themed sitcoms like Living Single (1993) and Roc (1994).

But it wasn’t until The X-Files premiered in 1993 that the Fox Network cracked the top 25 with audiences. The show would go on to be one of Fox’s most successful and long-lasting programs, airing well into 2002 when it finally left the air. Later, shows like Party of Five and New York Undercover (1994) also helped to put the network on the map.

The X-Files:

Though The X-Files was about the paranormal and government conspiracies, it took a serious approach (with dashes of humor) to the subject as alien abductions and black helicopters became well-known tropes within the show’s storytelling arcs.

Dramas and Sci-Fi: Pushing the Boundaries

During the 1990s, television dramas, particularly police procedurals, following in the path of Hill Street Blues, became more naturalistic in the way they portrayed cops and their work. In 1990, NBC premiered Law & Order, a procedural that combined police investigative work and its legal ramifications. Starring Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth, Law & Order was a by-the-book show that rarely deviated from the show’s premise.

But the way it portrayed the actual work of cops and prosecutors gave the show a realism that differed from such 1980s cop shows like Miami Vice.

In fact, many of the show’s storylines were ripped directly from the headlines. Law & Order would later spawn spin-offs such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, all of which continue airing to this day.

In 1993, ABC premiered the hit cop drama NYPD Blue. Created by Steven Bocho and David Milch, NYPD Blue followed in the same vein as Bochco’s previous Hill Street Blues by detailing the screwed-up lives of New York City police detectives, aiming for far more realism for network TV. Starring a roster of actors like David Caruso (who left after the first season), Dennis Franz, Jimmy Smits, Kim Delaney, Amy Brenneman, Sherry Stringfield (who would leave the show after its debut season to appear in NBC’s E.R.), and others, NYPD Blue was far grittier and more dramatic than Law & Order.

But it was the show’s penchant for using nudity, a first for primetime network broadcast television, that would earn it ratings and critical attention.

That same year, NBC premiered Homicide: Life on the Street, based on the successful non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Street by Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon. Executive produced by film director Barry Levinson, Homicide was unlike any detective show on the air, often revealing the mundane and routine aspects of investigative work. Featuring a stellar cast (Yaphet Kotto, Andre Braugher, Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer, Jon Polito, Melissa Leo), the show’s first three seasons told storylines that were taken directly from the book, thus creating a naturalism and realism that even NYPD Blue lacked.

Unlike other cop shows, Homicide didn’t wrap up each episode with tidy endings, and often, cases, such as the Adena Watson murder, were never closed (the Watson case was based on the actual murder of eleven-year-old LaTonya Wallace depicted in the book). Yet, also unlike other cop dramas, Homicide did not have support from NBC outside of network exec Warren Littlefield, who was the show’s lone champion. During its second season, NBC only ordered four episodes, and the show was often subject to cancellation rumors.

NBC also pressured the producers to feature more sensationalistic storylines, which was the exact opposite of the show’s original intent, and to hire more telegenic actors in the cast. Still, Homicide lasted for seven years on NBC and spawned a TV movie, influencing television and earning fond remembrances of the show’s fans.

During 1987, the twentieth anniversary of The Summer of Love, television turned nostalgic as networks began airing shows that appealed to the baby boom generation. Shows like China Beach (about nurses during the Vietnam War) and Thirtysomething epitomized baby boom/yuppie sensibilities. ABC’s Thirtysomething and The Wonder Years, which both debuted during the late ’80s, continued their popularity into the early nineties, creating a genre in of themselves as other shows such as ABC’s Home Front (1991) and NBC’s I’ll Fly Away (1991), aired during this period.

The ’90s: A Decade of Iconic Sitcoms and Soaps

The generation that benefitted most during the 1990s were Gen-X’ers. As alternative and grunge music began dominating the airwaves, network executives began greenlighting TV programs that appealed to this growing demographic.

Shows such as the 90210 spin-off, Melrose Place, Friends, Seinfeld, and others were popular with younger audiences who loved their TV shows with an extra dose of irony. In the case of Melrose Place, which began as a straightforward drama about twentysomethings living in an L.A. apartment building, the show’s creator and producer, Aaron Spelling, scored a ratings hit after the show languished in the ratings during the first season by adding popular actress Heather Locklear to the otherwise lackluster cast and started soaping up the show’s dull storylines.

Melrose Place TV Series 1992–1999
Melrose Place:

Melrose Place became a cultural zeitgeist among fans, along with Friends and Seinfeld, two NBC shows that likewise changed the face of television. Seinfeld, which premiered in 1990 but became wildly popular after its second season, was billed as a show about nothing. It became a ratings and ad revenue coup for the network, sparking NBC’s “Must-See TV” ad campaign.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of two new networks, the UPN (United Paramount Network) and WB (Warner Brothers).

Like Fox a decade before it, WB began airing in large, urban markets, so their network programming was developed precisely to appeal to their demographics. These networks began airing what many derisively labeled “ghetto” programming, shows that appealed to a largely African American audience with sitcoms like Homeboys From Outer Space, Sister, Sister, The Wayan Brothers, and Parent ‘Hood.

The UPN network began airing shows like Star Trek: Voyager and Moesha, starring Brandy Norwood, and its spin-off The Parkers. Many of these shows varied in style and popularity, but all filled a void for black audiences.

When many black TV shows wound up on these networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox began a virtual white-out in programming. Such shows as NBC’s A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, starring rapper Will Smith, and Family Matters were popular during the early ’90s, but after they left the air, very few TV shows like it took their place.

The Fox Network had success with shows like Queen Latifah’s In Living Single, which held its own opposite Friends on Thursday nights, Charles Dutton’s critically acclaimed sitcom Roc, and South Central. South Central, in particular, won critical praise for its realistic portrayal of an African American family struggling with poverty. But the show lasted only one season.

When the UPN network began opening up in more markets, it abandoned programming that appealed to Black audiences in favor of teen programming, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Felicity, Charmed, Dawson’s Creek, and others. By the end of the decade, both Roc and Living Single were off the air, and network programming became whiter and whiter, prompting the NAACP to launch campaigns to protest the lack of non-white characters and actors in primetime.

Even shows like Friends, which took place in New York, were criticized for not featuring a more multicultural reflection of the city in its cast. In 1999, when the Aaron Sorkin drama The West Wing debuted, activists criticized the show for not featuring a realistic portrait of Washington, D.C., in its largely all-white cast. Sorkin addressed the issue during the first season by creating Charlie Young, the president’s personal aide, played by Dule Hill, who became a significant character in the show’s drama.

Female Characters of ’90s Television

Television’s depiction of women during this period had a wide and often disparate range. Shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, and LaFemme Nikita (based on the 1990s French thriller) featured women characters who were every bit as smart and kick-ass as their male counterparts on shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Other shows like My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Party of Five, and Felicity featured young, intelligent, and thoughtful women that contrasted with shows like Beverly Hills 90210 or Clueless. In sitcoms, actresses Kristen Johnson, Jane Curtain (3rd Rock from the Sun), and Julia Louis Dreyfuss (Seinfeld), among others, flexed comedy muscles that were as well-honed as their male co-stars. And Heather Locklear, undoubtedly the queen of primetime, literally saved TV shows like Melrose Place and Spin City (particularly after its star, Michael J. Fox, left the show shortly after disclosing his illness with Parkinson’s Disease).

Two shows that aired during the 1990s that featured female leads and reflected the post-feminist generation were Fox’s Ally McBeal and HBO’s Sex and the City.

Ally McBeal (1997), starring Calista Flockhart, unlike most of its primetime counterparts, featured a character that was at once flighty and self-absorbed. In fact, many of the show’s fans and critics often pointed out the character’s shortcomings.

Ally McBeal TV Series 1997–2002

Created by David E. Kelley, Ally McBeal revolves around a young attorney who works in a law firm filled with some of the ditziest lawyers ever to grace primetime television. While McBeal was ostensibly a young professional, her only aspirational goals were to marry and have kids, forming the basis for many of the show’s dramatic and comedic situations as McBeal pined for her former childhood sweetheart, who was now married to another woman and fellow attorney. One of the show’s famous sequences occurred when McBeal danced with a phantom baby who represented her desire to have a baby and her fears over turning thirty.

HBO’s Sex and the City (1998), like McBeal, featured a cast of ultra-feminized, professional women whose preoccupations centered around love, sex, and a pair of strappy Manolo Blahniks, though not necessarily in that Order. Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis, the show followed each woman’s sexual and romantic exploits, often told through Parker’s voice-over as her character wrote out weekly sex advice columns.

Both Ally McBeal and Sex and the City exploited post-feminist attitudes of 1990s women as they explored relationships, careers, and fashion, quickly becoming a part of a chick-lit genre represented by books like Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The 1990s also saw a large number of characters who came out of the closet. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured gay and lesbian characters, while Party of Five, Sex and the City, and Homicide: Life on the Street explored bisexuality or alternative lifestyles. Xena: Warrior Princess toyed with the lesbian subtext between the two leads, Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), which was analyzed endlessly by the show’s fans.

ABC’s Ellen (1994), starring comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, became the first character in a primetime sitcom to be outed, following the lead’s own coming out in public. The “coming out” earned the show national headlines, but Ellen soon soured in the ratings when its main character, known largely for her puppy-doggish lovability, stopped being funny, and the sitcom was canceled shortly.

NBC’s Will & Grace (1998), however, would be far more successful with gay lead characters, lasting eight years on NBC, though many gays and lesbians criticized the fact that its male lead, played by Eric McCormick, never had a love life on par with his on-screen gal-pal (Debra Messing).

The Impact of Cable and Emerging Networks

The rise of cable networks in the ’90s, such as HBO and Showtime, further diversified the television landscape, offering viewers more choices and challenging traditional networks to elevate their content.

By and large, much of 1990s television went through enormous changes as cable opened up the level of competition for the networks, forcing them to look for alternatives in primetime programming and also presenting audiences with a wealth of choices.

The Legacy of ’90s Television

The television shows of the 1990s left an indelible mark on the industry and on viewers around the world. They expanded the horizons of what TV could be, exploring new genres, themes, and storytelling techniques. The decade’s programming was instrumental in shaping today’s television landscape, influencing the creation of content that seeks to entertain, educate, and inspire.

Moreover, the ’90s era of television played a crucial role in reflecting and sometimes challenging the societal norms of the time. Shows tackled issues such as race, gender, and sexuality, opening up important dialogues and promoting a culture of inclusivity. This legacy of social awareness and cultural reflection is perhaps one of the most significant contributions of ’90s television.

As we look back on this pivotal decade, it’s clear that the television shows of the 1990s were more than just entertainment; they were a reflection of a changing world. They captured the hopes, fears, and dreams of a generation, leaving a lasting impact on both the medium of television and the audiences who grew up with them. The ’90s will always be remembered as a golden era of television, a time when creativity flourished, and TV became a mirror to the world, inviting us to laugh, cry, and think.

Scroll to Top