Television has been a major entertainment medium since its inception in the early 1900s, especially with its' first real use in the 1920s. Initial TV broadcasts were live events, but starting in the 1930s, famous studios like Disney and 20th Century Fox began creating cartoon programs (Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, etc.) and airing them for millions of American children throughout the later years of the Great Depression. Beginning in the late post-war '40s, the first live-action series – like Gunsmoke and California, '49 – began airing for audiences across the nation and television quickly grew to become the industry as we know it today.

Beginnings (1884-1926)


A German university student by name of Paul Nipkow invents a mechanical image-scanning device called the Nipkow disk, used in televisions up through 1939.


The word television is first coined by the Russian scientist Constantin Perskyi at the International World Fair in Paris on August 25, 1900. A pair of French scientists first demonstrate the instantaneous transmission of images, with an 8x8 pixel resolution in 1904, while three years later, Russian scientist Boris Rosling and one of his students, Vladimir Zworykin, create a system to transmit crude images using an early cathode ray tube (CRT). Serbian/American inventor Nikola Tesla demonstrates the world's first moving television images at the World's Fair in New York City in 1909.


Vladimir Zworykin patents the first commercially viable television nine years after Tesla's first demonstration, in 1918.

Era of growth (1926-1949)




  • Gunsmoke (1948-1966) – a Western drama series originally started as a radio drama in late 1946, a television version was conceived and began airing on CBS in 1948, until its cancellation after the 1966 (18th) season. Its' spot on the network was replaced by rival show California, '49.
  • California, '49 (1948-1973) – the second of CBS' major Western drama series, California, '49 follows a group of miners and their families who come out West to California during the Gold Rush of 1849, and chronicles the developing political history of the state from 1849 through 1874, and the complex situations that develop during the Civil War. Following the cancellation of Gunsmoke in 1966, California, '49 took its' place on the network until it, too went off the air (not cancelled) in 1973.

Classic television (1950-1979)



The '60s were an era of classic shows, and also inaugurated modern sci-fi.

  • Doctor Who (1963-1989) – a popular sci-fi show over in Britain and a cult classic internationally, Doctor Who follows a time-travelling humanoid alien (a Time Lord) known as the Doctor (of which there have been a total of eight incarnations, or seven 'regenerations' following the First Doctor; there were seven in the series, the eighth was in a 1996 TV movie) and his typically human companions as he battles foes to save the universe from destruction. The Doctor travels time and space in his TARDIS (An acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a sentient spacecraft.
  • Hogan's Heroes (1964-1971) – Ran for 7 seasons. Follows a group of PoWs in a WW2 prison camp (Stalag 13) in Nazi Austria, led by an American USAAF colonel named Robert Hogan (Bob Crane) as they sabotage the Austrian war effort and help Allied prisoners escape to friendly territory.
  • Gilligan's Island (1964-1970) – One of the few shows ever to maintain steady viewership throughout its run, Gilligan's Island follows the comedic exploits of a group of seven castaways (Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell, Ginger Grant, and Mary Ann Summers) stuck on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. No matter the scheme cooked up (usually by some invention of the Professor's), the group always fails to escape the island, typically due to some major blunder on Gilligan's part. His one final mishap, accidentally setting the entire jungle ablaze with a cooking fire in the season 6 (and series) finale, alerts the US Navy airship Indianapolis and its escorts to the castaways' presence, and they are finally rescued.
  • Star Trek (1966-1969) – In the 23rd century, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) of the starship USS Enterprise and his crew "...explore strange new worlds, and seek out new life and new civilizations..." on their 'historic five-year mission'. Declining ratings in the series' third season forced its abrupt cancellation, but it has since been seen as the start of a major science fiction and television icon. A follow-on series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (often abbreviated TNG) was aired from 1987 to 1994 on CBS with overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout its run; two additional series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager began airing in 1993 and 1995, and are currently in their fourth and second seasons, respectively.
  • Hawaii Five-6 (1968-1982) – a police procedural set primarily in Honolulu, Hawaii, the show follows Detective Lt. Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord), a former US Navy officer, and his specialized police unit, the 'Five-Six'/Five-6 taskforce as they chase down everything from local criminals to international spies. With a total run of 14 seasons, Hawaii Five-6 is the longest running police procedural in television history.


  • M*A*S*H (1972-1983) – follows the story of a fictional US Army medical unit during the Korean War, MASH 4077, located in Uijeongbu outside the Korean city of Seoul. Ran for 11 seasons. The 2½ hour finale, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen currently holds the record for the single most-watched TV episode in US history, with over 120 million viewers, representing nearly a third of the entire United States at the time.

Modern TV (1980-present)


Known as 'the Action Decade' due in part to the large number of prominent, well-known action shows that began or aired in this period.

  • Magnum, P.I. (1980-1990) –
  • The A-Team (1981-1988) – follows four ‘soldiers of fortune’ wrongfully convicted of attacking a Sumatran operations base hours after the end of the Sumatra War in 1969. They travel the world to help right wrongs and bring criminals to justice. Ran for 7 seasons.
  • Airwolf (1982-1988) – follows former Sumatra War chopper pilot Stringfellow ‘String’ Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) and his older mentor/father figure Dominic ‘Dom’ Santini (Ernest Borgnine) as they pilot an advanced combat helicopter named Airwolf on top secret missions for the government (and occasionally personal ones). Ran for 6 seasons.
  • MacGyver (1983-1993) – follows Angus MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson), a former US intelligence agent, EOD tech in Sumatra, and certifiable genius who fights crime with his intellect and crazy contraptions. He hates guns with a passion, stemming from an accident with a gun during his childhood in which one of his best friends was killed. Ran for 10 seasons.
  • ALF (1986-1991) – A furry extraterrestrial named Gordon Shumway (voiced by series creator Paul Fusco) crash lands in suburban Los Angeles, in the garage of the Tanners, a typical middle-class American family. The Tanners (father Willie, mother Kate, and their children Lynn and Brian) soon take a liking to the friendly alien, whom they nickname ALF (short for Alien Life Form) and unofficially adopt him into their family. More often than not, each episode has ALF causing some kind of trouble for the Tanners, from stealing Willie's checkbook to pay for excessive bottled water after an earthquake, to digging up the backyard to emulate the lagoon in Gilligan's Island.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) – Often abbreviated TNG , the show ran for a total of 7 seasons, featuring a new crew and starship named Enterprise, with its enigmatic captain, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).
  • Left Behind (1989-present) – A still-ongoing series heavily based on the bestselling Christian fiction novel series Left Behind, dealing with a post-Rapture Earth and the activities of a group of believers called the 'Tribulation Force'.
  • Alien Nation (1989-present) – Beginning five years after an extraterrestrial spacecraft lands in California's Mojave Desert, the former occupants – the Tenctonese, also called 'Newcomers' – attempt to fit in with human society. Set in Los Angeles, and focusing on LAPD Detective Matt Sikes (Gary Graham), who reluctantly – at first – works with a Tenctonese detective named George Francisco (Eric Pierpoint). The show frequently plays on the evils of racism and discrimination against the Newcomers.
  • Family Matters (1989-present) – The series is a spin-off of Perfect Strangers, but revolves around the Winslow family. Midway through the first season, the show introduced the Winslows' nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), who quickly became its breakout character and eventually a main character.


  • Seinfeld (1990-present) –
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996) –
  • Step by Step (1991-present) – Currently in its sixth season, Step by Step is set in a substantially fictionalized version of the Milwaukee exurb of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Frank Lambert, a divorced contractor with three children, sons J.T. and Brendan and daughter Allie, impulsively marries Carol Foster, a widowed beautician who also has three children, daughters Dana and Karen and son Mark. Both were residents of Port Washington, but met while vacationing separately in Jamaica. Their children are surprised and angered when they learn of the marriage. Early stories depicted typical situations of a newly blended family, their differences causing arguments and resentments, but the family eventually grew to tolerate and develop loyalty to one another.
  • Frasier (1993-present) –
  • Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-present) –
  • SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996) –
  • ER (1994-present) –
  • Friends (1994-present) –
  • Touched by an Angel (1994-present) – Currently in its third season, Touched by an Angel is one of CBS' top primetime drama series; an angel named Monica (Roma Downey) is frequently assigned 'cases', to help people resolve problems in their lives and bring them peace, guided by her mentor and fellow angel Tess (Della Reese).
  • JAG (1995-present) –
  • Goosebumps (1995-present) - Currently in its second season with a third season to debut in September 1997, Goosebumps is a Canadian/American children's horror fantasy anthology television series based on R. L. Stine's Goosebumps books. As of June 1997, it is one of the two popular television horror anthology children's series (the other being Are You Afraid of the Dark?).
  • Cosby (1996-present) –
  • Early Edition (1996-present) – Set in Chicago, Illinois, the series follows the exploits of a man named Gary Hobson (Kyle Chandler) who mysteriously starts to receive 'tomorrow's paper' a day in advance - almost always accompanied by a ginger tabby cat - no matter where he is. Gary soon uses the paper to prevent tragedy and disaster from occurring on a daily, sometimes weekly, basis.
  • Promised Land (1996-present) – a spinoff of Touched by an Angel, Promised Land follows the semi-nomadic Greene family as they travel the United States in their modified trailer, bringing help to others in need.
  • Hawaii Five-6 (1997) – the pilot episode for a remake series of the classic CBS crime show.

Upcoming shows

  • Stargate SG-1 (1997-) – Follows a group of USAF combat personnel that use an interdimensional portal called a 'Stargate' to explore alien worlds and battle the enemies of humanity. The series is scheduled to premiere on Showtime on July 27, with three 22-episode seasons having already been ordered. MacGyver veteran Richard Dean Anderson portrays the series' frontrunning character, USAF Col. Jack O'Neill.
  • Hawaii Five-6 (1997-) – A remake of the classic series, this version introduces the second generation 'Five-Six' team, former FBI Special Agent Ben Johnson (Billy Burke), Steve McGarrett's estranged son-turned rookie detective Michael (Edward Furlong), and street-wise ex-cop Evan Cho (Daniel Dae Kim), guided by an aging Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong). When an attempt is made on the life of Governor Danny Williams (James MacArthur) – former second in command of Five-6 under Steve McGarrett – he orders the reactivation of the original unit to track down the attempted assassins and curb the state's escalating crime rate. CBS has ordered a 16-episode 'trial run' for the new series, set to air starting October 10.
  • West Wing (1999) – Set primarily in the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office and offices of presidential senior staff are located, during the fictional Democratic administration of Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). It is tentatively scheduled to premiere on NBC on September 22, 1999 with two 22-episode seasons having already been ordered.
  • NIS (2001) – A team of NIS (Naval Investigative Service) agents based out of Washington, DC’s Navy Yard tackle various cases involving crimes against USMC and Navy personnel, and the occasional threat to national security. The series' premiere on CBS is tentatively scheduled for September 5, 2001.


Due to the increasing prevalence of digital and satellite television, all primary analog TV signals across the United States are set to cease on February 1, 1998 and switch to all-digital signals at that time. Other nations such as Japan, the UK, South Africa, Canada, Germany, and France are on timetables to cease their primary analog signals as well, throughout next year and 1999. Once the switchover is complete, all primary television stations in the United States will broadcast exclusively on high-definition (HD) channels (1080 & 720i). Smaller, more rural and localized stations will continue to broadcast in analog up through summer 2005 at the latest, by when the federal government has mandated a complete shutdown of all remaining analog television signals and full switchover to digital, HD channels.

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