The 1990s Were a Revolutionary Decade That Forever Changed How We Watch TV

From the Gulf War to Fox and HBO

A major TV industry shift took hold during the '90s. Sources: Getty Images, CNN, NBC, TiVo
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This article is part of a series celebrating our being 40 Years Bold, highlighting four decades—and counting—of Adweek, whose editors look back at notable news, trends and people, and at what could be in store for the next 40 years.

In January 1991, as the Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm was underway, my family and I spent each evening anxiously huddled around the TV, watching the events unfold in real time on the other side of the globe. But like many TV viewers, for the first time ever, we weren’t glued to ABC, CBS or NBC for our Desert Storm fix, but rather CNN, which was on the ground in Baghdad with correspondents like Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett and had managed to outhustle its broadcast rivals when it came to substantive, compelling news coverage.

And that was only the beginning of a major TV industry shift that took hold during the decade.

Nineties television may have been dominated by Must-See TV—the branding NBC famously used to tout its hit shows like Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends and ER—but this was the decade that networks beyond the big three broadcasters began making waves of their own, and causing audiences to change their viewing habits. The combination of current events, blockbuster deals and a game-changing piece of legislation turned the concept of Must-See TV into something that began to describe several other outlets—and set the industry on the path that led to today’s Peak TV era.

Given that the NFL remains TV’s most-watched programming, it’s not a surprise that the biggest television coup of the ’90s also involved professional football. In December 1993, Rupert Murdoch stunned the industry by winning rights to the Sunday NFC package—owned by CBS since 1956—in an eye-popping $1.6 billion, four-year deal. Fox went on to strike new affiliation deals with dozens of networks (including 20 former CBS affiliates), merging with New World Communications and upgrading its affiliate status. After launching in 1987, Fox was finally a broadcast network to be reckoned with, and its new NFL audiences also stuck around for shows like The Simpsons, The X-Files, King of the Hill and Ally McBeal, which helped the network crack the Nielsen top 30 for the first time. (With the various NFL packages expiring after the 2021 and 2022 seasons, another upstart, like a streamer, could take a page from the Fox playbook and make a similarly aggressive bid of its own.)

This was going on as the cable universe continued to expand, adding networks like FX and HGTV (both of which debuted in 1994). CNN’s success earlier in the decade prompted two new competitors to arrive in 1996: MSNBC (then part of a partnership between Microsoft and NBC) on July 15 and Fox News on Oct. 7. In 1993, Bruce Springsteen lamented the expanding cable universe in his song “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” but viewers increasingly had found several cable programs to talk about, including South Park, The Real World and SpongeBob SquarePants. During the decade, cable subscribers grew from 51.7 million in 1990 to 67.3 million in 1999, just shy of its 68.5 million peak in 2000.

And cable found itself with a new competitor: satellite TV. DirecTV launched in 1994, with Dish Network following two years later, giving consumers more options than cable—and allowing those living in rural areas to perhaps have cable access for the first time. DVRs (including TiVo) began rolling out in 1999, making it easier than ever before to record a TV program and time-shift it, instead of watching live.

Meanwhile, as the TV universe began to expand, media companies also started bulking up to keep pace. In 1995, Disney said it would merge with Capital Cities/ABC, its first steps toward growing the entertainment empire that has continued with it acquiring most of 21st Century Fox this year, and Westinghouse Electric Co. bought CBS that same year.

But merger mania really heated up when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in six decades, which deregulated the cable industry and allowed telephone companies and broadcast networks to own cable networks. That set the stage for some of the industry’s bigger mergers—at least at the time—including AOL-Time Warner in 2000, CBS-Viacom in 2000 (those companies spun off in 2006 and reunited on Dec. 4) and Comcast-AT&T Broadband in 2001.

While all these big moves were making noise throughout the decade, HBO was quietly working on something that would prove to be even more disruptive to the industry: creating boundary-pushing programming that was every bit as good as—and, in many cases, better than—its broadcast peers. The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted in 1992, was critically acclaimed, but it was the one-two punch of Sex and the City (in 1998) and The Sopranos (seven months later, in 1999) that ushered in a new golden era of television, and inspired other networks like FX and AMC to start competing in the space. That led to shows like The Shield, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Damages and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In other words, Must-See TV was just getting started.

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: December 8, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT