Here’s How TV Genres Have Trended in Popularity Over Time
During the days of I Love Lucy and The Brady Bunch, TV shows were family-friendly, wholesome, and lacked diversity. In the 1950s especially, traditionalism and uniformity served as the basis of American culture—and TV shows in the ‘50s reflected those values.
You don’t have to look back far to see that as society shifts over the years, TV genre popularity trends in line with those changes. For instance, the Space Race era ushered in a buzz around sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek. Just before the millennium, TV series like South Park, The Daily Show, and Ellen explored homosexuality, political corruption, mental illness, and more—at the same time those topics were discussed more broadly in the media.
As cultures, laws, and communities evolve, TV genres do too. Taking those changes into account, which TV genres have reigned supreme despite changing values? Which TV genres have been the most popular over the years?
At the tail end of the 1960s, the US landed on the moon. In the same timeframe, action and sci-fi saw a massive spike in popularity. Two years prior, in 1966, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible premiered—a sharp contrast from The Flintstones, which was at the height of popularity in the early 1960s and highlighted a Stone Age family with minimal technology (who, we must not forget, rode dinosaurs).
Action, comedy, and crime dominated TV in the 1980s. Magnum P.I., Matlock, and Murder, She Wrote took the cake for the crime category. The Golden Girls, Cheers, and Full House claimed the comedy genre, and Miami Vice and The A-Team won over action and non-action fans alike.
Comedy, crime, and action almost exclusively dominated the early 2000’s. Gilmore Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs, and The Office won over the hearts of comedy lovers everywhere. Meanwhile, CSI, The Wire, and Veronica Mars were class favorites among all genres.
In 2004, 23% of the shows in the top 100 were adventure. All-in-all, the top-rated adventure shows in the 2000s were Lost, Firefly, and Once Upon a Time.
In a day and age when Kanye West tried to run for president and the President himself originally debuted as a reality TV star, the comedy, The Politician, was the second-most popular TV show in 2019.
The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse series, was the number one most-popular TV show in 2010—which is two years before the ancient Mayan prophecy predicted the world would end.
The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War (and resulting protest movement), and JFK’s assassination categorized the US during the 1960s. It’s no secret that television was an effective form of propaganda, and in that vein, The Andy Griffith Show—which idealized white small town life and encouraged patriotism—was the most popular show on air at the time.
Columbo came to the scene in 1968 and by 1971 was the most popular TV show of the year. The mystery, whodunit-themed series followed a blue-collar detective that busted criminals and threw them in jail. In the same year, President Nixon led the charge on the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration spiked dramatically as a result.
That ‘70s Show, Will & Grace, and Sex and the City entered the limelight in the late 1990s. All shows were controversial in nature because they touched on topics like drugs, homosexuality, feminism, and sex—wildly popular topics which were rarely discussed (most notably by educational institutions).
Animation saw a 29% increase in popularity in 1999. On the whole, the top-rated animation TV shows in 2020 are Rick and Morty, South Park, and Family Guy. Each adult cartoon focused on political satire, and clearly, was well-received.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—whose storyline revolved around a Black family—was one of the most popular TV shows in 1990. This was telling since a major cultural shift categorized American culture in the 1990s. For example, at the time, rap music gained a larger audience, thanks to Black culture—the TV show’s theme song was even rapped by the West Philadelphia born and raised prince himself.
Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, and The Handmaid’s Tale all rose to popularity between 2017 and 2019. Each show explores topics that, although controversial, still aren’t as widely talked about within society (think mental illness, abuse, and rape). The Me Too movement, which erupted in 2017, focused on something also not talked about enough publicly: sexual assault.
With the end of communism looming, spirits were high in the 1990s—so much so that multicamera laugh track comedy sitcoms à la Friends, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond snagged the top spots for the most popular TV shows during the time.
To find the most popular TV shows over time, we analyzed IMDB TV show data on English-speaking shows in the US from the past 50 years. To obtain our top 100 shows, we calculated the percentage of annual shows ranked highest (out of 100) per genre based on the genre IMBD categorized each TV show in.
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