The history of American television is a complex one. It’s been an evolution, a collaboration over time between talented engineers and inventors at the beginning of the 20th Century and later, a mixed bag of competing creative minds and wealthy production companies. In 1927, the first use of a long distance television prompted Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to proclaim, “human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance in a new respect, and in a manner hitherto unknown.” By 1936, about 200 television sets were in use world-wide; by 1939, television was demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair where President Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to appear on television. Following the second World War, TV quickly flourished throughout the country.
Many of us with stricter parents were likely raised to regard TV with a kind of reverent moderation. While it is probably for the better that we spent more time doing homework than watching hours of The Simpsons, the world has undeniably benefited from the invention of television – in the past, it’s been successfully used for the diffusion of news, information and educational programmes. Recently, though, with taboos being broken left, right and centre online, television shows are competing to stay relevant and current. Thus, a slew of reality shows and cartoons with questionable values have come to the fore. While these certainly do not hold the same educational potential as a History Channel documentary, there’s still a space for all of these shows in the modern stage. Television, if regarded properly, can be a resource for anything from knowledge to guilty pleasure to family bonding. With Netflix, YouTube and Hulu now taking over the traditional box, this list celebrates some of the best loved, most successful shows in the U.S. ever: The 10 longest-running American Television Programs. Some are nostalgic, while some have staying power even today…
10. My Three Sons (1960-1972)
My Three Sons ran for 12 years and has 380 episodes. This situation comedy centers on the lives of engineer and single father Steve Douglas, his three sons, and their live-in grandfather (Bub). In later seasons, the audience meets an adopted son, stepdaughter, and another generation of sons, who all join the original gang. It was nominated for three primetime Emmys, and in 1962 the show won a Golden Globe Award for the Best Television show. The first five of its impressive twelve seasons are filmed in black and white, while after the show moved to CBS in 1965 it appeared in color.
9. Dallas (1978-1991)
The primetime soap opera Dallas ran for 13 years, comprising 357 episodes. Created by David Jacobs, the show documents the lives of a family living in Texas whose ownership of an oil company and cattle-ranching land has left them quite wealthy. The series centered around two feuding families; later on, it focused on oil mogul J.R. Ewing and his shady business deals. Its famous cliffhanger episode “Who Done it” is still the second highest rated prime-time telecast in history. The series was revived in 2012, and was met with widespread positivity from critics and it’s recently been renewed for a third season.
8. Knot’s Landing (1979 – 1993)
Knot’s Landing ran for 14 years, with 344 episodes. The show follows five married couples living in Seaview Circle, a suburb of Los Angeles. It’s a soap opera, so of course plenty of drama unfolds among the various characters. Knot’s Landing was created by David Jacobs; though it is always acknowledged as a spin off of Dallas – also written by Jacobs – the concept itself predates Dallas. The storyline of Knot’s Landing was initially rejected by CBS in 1977; interestingly, however, the show took off and ultimately ran about a year longer than Dallas even though it had fewer episodes.
7. Bonanza (1959-1973)
Bonanza also ran for 14 years with 430 episodes. Another Western show, it was set in the mid-1800s on a ranch in Nevada. Behind Gunsmoke (which we’ll get to later), Bonanza is the second longest running Western series. The show chronicles the Cartwright family’s adventures, lead by Ben Cartwright. Unlike a traditional Western, this show is considered to be more character focused – as it explores the relationships between the Cartwright family members – rather than being centered mostly on the range. The theme song has been recorded by a number of artists; Johnny Cash was the first to record a full length version of the theme song, singing new lyrics he had composed with Johnny Western (an American country singer).
6. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966)
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet ran for 14 years and featured 435 episodes. The show’s leading characters are in fact the real Nelson family: husband and wife Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, as well as their two sons, David and Ricky. The show focused on the everyday life of the family – arguably one of the first reality-esque TV shows, a predecessor to the Osbourne’s perhaps? The family’s father, Ozzie, wrote and directed all of the series’ episodes. This show holds the record for longest running television sitcom in America. (You can still find reruns on the Retro Television Network.)
5. Death Valley Days (1952-1970)
Death Valley Days ran for 18 years logging 451 episodes. The show draws much of its content from actual pioneer stories from western Nevada and southeastern California in the late 19th century. Before it became a syndicated television show, Death Valley Days was a radio broadcast created by Ruth Woodman in 1930. Each episode was introduced by a host – one of whom was former President Ronald Reagan before he entered politics (the rest is history). The show was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Western or Adventure Series in 1955, and won a Western Heritage Award for the Best Factual Television Program in 1961.
4. Lassie (1954-1972)
Lassie ran for 18 years and featured an impressive 588 episodes. Indeed, the pup herself is often referred to as “the world’s most famous dog.” Originally, Lassie was a character in a story called “Lassie Come Home” by Eric Knight. The story was so popular that the first Lassie movie was released in 1943. Later, the television show began its successful run. This family drama follows the adventurous Rough Collie, Lassie, and the people surrounding her. The show was created by producer Robert Maxwell and trainer Rudd Weatherwax. Lassie won two Emmy awards and it’s been said that it “pioneered the family drama.” Every year of its run on CBS, Lassie placed first in its time slot. She continues to be a well-known and beloved character even to this day.
3. Law and Order (1990-2010)
This epic series tells the story of the police, detectives, and lawyers who investigate crimes; often, it features insights into the perpetrators themselves. Many of the stories are based on real crimes ripped from the headlines, though, of course, there are often generous adjustments. The show takes place largely in New York City and has had myriad star-studded casts over the years. Creator Dick Wolf has a net worth of a cool $250 million. The original series has spawned a hugely successful franchise which has produced the well-known spin-offs Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent (the marathons of which may or may not fill a hungover Saturday afternoon…). The success of the show can be attributed to a consistently strong cast, the courtroom quarrels, and the heinous crimes which are such morbidly compulsive viewing they make turning your TV off seem foolhardy at best.
2. Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
With a 20 year run, this epic drama has 635 episodes to its name. The show was created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer Josh Meston. It began as a radio series, which ran from 1952-1961 before it was adapted to television. The show takes place in Kansas during the settlement of the ‘Wild West,’ featuring the legendary U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon. It is America’s longest-running live-action television series. For 4 consecutive years (from 1957-1961), Gunsmoke ranked as the number one television show in America. Since the show ended there have been five TV movie spin-offs. Furthermore, a slew of well-known publishing companies have published several books that are based on the TV series. Even though it has long been off the air, Gunsmoke has continued to be a household name and will most likely always be regarded as one of the best and most successful television shows of all time.
1. The Simpsons (1989-present)
The Simpsons, famously the longest-running American series ever, has been gracing our screens for 25 years, with over 541 episodes and counting. The show centers around the Simpson family, and their riotous and often purely satirical lives. This animated, teen/adult-focused comedy first aired in 1989. Since then, the show has won a whopping 27 Emmy Awards, 29 Annie Awards, 5 Genesis Awards, 9 International Monitor Awards and 7 Environmental Media awards. It is no wonder creator Matt Groening has a net worth of about 500 million dollars! Dan Castellaneta, the goofy voice of Homer Simpson, has a net worth of about 60 million dollars – not too shabby. In fact, this show is so popular that Homer’s famous exclamation “d’oh!” has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.