How American television developed over decades

Two actors performing in scene from
Leonard Nimoy, left, as Mr. Spock and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in an episode of "Star Trek" from 1967. (© CBS/Getty Images)

For 70 years, U.S. shows have led the television industry as purveyors of popular culture worldwide.

As the medium has evolved, American shows can be grouped into three periods:

  • The golden age, with its situation comedies and dramas.
  • The growth of shows that reflect societal shifts.
  • The democratization of television and its attendant diversity, accelerated by cable and streaming services.

Golden age (1950s)

Three American broadcasting networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) dominated during the 1950s and for years afterward by offering innovative programming that set global standards.

Two women working at candy factory in episode of "I Love Lucy" (© CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Actresses Amanda Milligan, left, and Lucille Ball appear in an episode of “I Love Lucy” in 1952. (© CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

While many early television shows were broadcast live, the advent of recorded shows permitted reshooting and hence higher-quality productions suitable for rebroadcast and syndication. Michael Kackman, a television historian and associate professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, dates this transition to the American situation comedy I Love Lucy (1951–1957), starring the real-life husband-and-wife duo Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

Moreover, I Love Lucy originated the sitcom format, “including the three-camera setup, which remained the industry standard for decades,” said Dana Shockley, a professor at the Savannah College of Arts and Design who worked in film and TV editing from 1993 to 2018. Three cameras can film a wide shot that incorporates the entire production set, plus close-ups, thus reducing the number of times a scene needs to be reshot.

Using three cameras also allows for a live audience, Shockley said. “That’s important when you’re doing comedy, because actors are playing off of the audience reactions.”

Group of people filming television show (© CBS/Getty Images)
Camera number 3 is seen on the right in a behind-the-scenes photo from the set of “I Love Lucy” in 1951. (© CBS/Getty Images)

I Love Lucy, centered upon a New York housewife whose antics caused endless headaches for her Cuban bandleader husband, was an international sensation. Other popular shows of the era include the legal/crime drama Perry Mason (1957–1966), whose storytelling formula influenced shows like Law & Order (1990–2010), and The Twilight Zone (1959–1964), whose focus on the paranormal foreshadowed The X-Files (1993–2002).

Reflecting change (1960s–1980s)

In the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood produced TV shows that showed the world the many ways that American society was changing. Often, Kackman says, the shows “captured the energy of our always-incomplete attempt to form community.”

One example is Star Trek (1966–1969), a science fiction drama about peaceful space exploration in the 23rd century by the multinational, multiracial crew of the USS Enterprise starship. The show featured the first interracial kiss on American TV and spawned some of television’s most memorable catchphrases (“to boldly go where no man has gone before,” “live long and prosper” and “beam me up, Scotty”).

The late 1960s and 1970s saw an influx of women into the workforce, Shockley says, and TV shows such as Julia (1968–1971), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977) and Police Woman (1974–1978) reflected the real-life trend.

Man and woman performing in outdoor scene in TV miniseries "Roots" (© Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Richard Roundtree, left, and Leslie Uggams perform in the TV miniseries “Roots” in 1977. (© Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Roots (1977), an ambitious miniseries that garnered huge ratings, “was a cultural event,” Shockley says. Based on Alex Haley’s novel about several generations of an African American family whose bloodline is traced to the enslaved Kunta Kinte, the show had the largest Black cast in the history of commercial television, won numerous awards and popularized a format that has recently been revived by streaming services.

Kackman also points to the prime-time soap opera Dallas (1978–1991), which captured the imaginations of viewers across the globe. Revolving around the scheming Ewing family, which owns an oil company and a cattle ranch, Dallas was focused on the eldest son, ruthless businessman J.R. Ewing, one of TV’s most iconic antiheroes.

Man holding $100 bill from television show "Dallas" while surrounded by fans (© Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Actor Larry Hagman, in character as J.R. Ewing, signs mock $100 bills for fans in London. (© Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dallas was a precursor to recent shows built around compelling antiheroes: The Sopranos (1999–2007), Breaking Bad (2008–2013) and Ozark (2017–present), among others.

Spotlighting — and streaming — diversity (1990s–today)

In recent years, American shows have better reflected the nation’s demographic characteristics. Writers are developing diverse characters and themes, and producers are hiring diverse actors. Comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres, who starred in the sitcom Ellen (1994–1998) before hosting a syndicated talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, publicly came out as a lesbian in 1997. It was a risky career move at the time, Shockley says, but DeGeneres’ show did well and opened the door to such shows as Will & Grace (1998–2006) and Modern Family (2009–2020), which feature gay principal characters.

Ellen DeGeneres looking at applauding crowd (© Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Ellen DeGeneres hosts her eponymous show at New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2015. (© Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

These shows, Shockley says, helped change attitudes and probably helped to pave the way for marriage equality.

The emergence of cable TV in the 1980s, followed by internet streaming services in the 2000s, democratized television by spawning a huge number of shows available to smaller, niche audiences.

Kackman cites American TV shows about immigrants and ethnic families, dating from the 1970s to the present day, as evidence of an ever-growing democratization of the medium. From Good Times (1974–1979) and The Jeffersons (1975–1985) to Black-ish (2014–2022) and Fresh Off the Boat (2015–2020), he says, American TV depicts cultures that have “too often, and too easily, been ignored or dismissed.”

Producer and cast members of television show "Fresh Off the Boat" standing and smiling (© Joe Scarnici/WireImage/Getty Images)
The producer and cast members of “Fresh Off the Boat,” an American television show based on a chef’s best-selling memoir about an immigrant family settling in Orlando, pose for a photo. (© Joe Scarnici/WireImage/Getty Images)

Echoes of such shows are heard in Spanish-language telenovelas, in a popular British comedy series about immigrants and in other shows around the world that mine “a cultural tradition with deep roots in the U.S.,” a tradition of telling the stories of outsiders who find their footing in new communities and make them better.