What Are The Longest Running Prime Time TV Shows? Today I’ll answer this question. It’s a fact that as evidenced by the massive amount of content available on streaming platforms, American TV has come a long way since the early days of prime time.
The evening programming lineup that would become known as prime-time television first aired in autumn 1946, and consisted mainly of sports, variety shows, and quiz shows. At the time, there were only four broadcasting networks and plenty of empty air time, a reality that’s hard to fathom only a few decades later.
As we move away from rigid programming schedules into a TV landscape dominated by streaming, let’s take a look at the longest-running syndicated shows of all time, and reflect on what makes them great.
The Blueprints of a Successful TV Show
In an interconnected, global world where 24/7 access to nearly every service and desired commodity is guaranteed, the very idea of prime time seems almost quaint and old-fashioned. In many ways, it is, yet prime time is far from obsolete, even as streaming continues to dominate the at-home entertainment landscape.
Depending on a viewer’s time zone, prime time falls in the range of 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. The idea behind prime time is that networks would air their strongest and most popular programs during the times of day when audience numbers were highest. This strategy was thought to attract the greatest number of viewers.
Without air time as a crucial factor, modern showrunners must use different strategies in order to attract audiences and keep them engaged over the long term. So what makes a show stand out from the seemingly endless pool of entertainment choices? It’s important to note that a show’s longevity doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality or its reputation among viewers.
For example, AMC’s Breaking Bad consisted of just 5 seasons but is widely recognized by critics and audiences alike as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Featuring enduring characters and gorgeous cinematography, the iconic show is plot-driven, thus constrained by the storyline. If viewers miss a single episode, they may fall behind. In comparison, many long-running prime-time shows rely primarily on episodes that can stand alone.
When it comes to a program’s popularity, there’s also genre to consider: in general, TV shows that stand the test of time fall squarely into a few distinct genre categories. Boasting 32 seasons, making it the longest-running of all time in any genre, The Simpsons is a family-oriented animated series. It sits atop a list of immensely popular crime dramas, including Criminal Minds and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and fictional medical-oriented shows like ER, which ran for 15 seasons.
How Television Programming Affects Your Brain
As a whole, humans are visual learners, which may explain the massive global popularity of TV and film as a medium. According to research, in fact, approximately 90% of the information processed by a human brain is visual. What’s more, we process visual information at a rapid pace, some 60,000 times faster than written text.
Yet our propensity towards visual learning comes with a cost, at least where our health is concerned. Interestingly, exposure to fictional medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy can negatively affect one’s health and health literacy, according to a 2017 academic study. One theory postulates that, by watching medical dramas, viewers may falsely infer some type of medical knowledge, which has dangerous implications.
From a public health standpoint, the issue is particularly glaring. Research indicates that the majority of Americans struggle with the concept of health literacy, defined as one’s ability to understand their personal health needs and make informed choices regarding healthcare. Based on fictional plots and potentially exaggerated medical information, medical dramas may thus serve to undermine health literacy on a global scale.
The Contenders: From Crime Dramas to Family-Oriented Classics
Although humans love video for a number of reasons, why certain TV shows become our collective favorites in lieu of other, similar programming choices is less clear. There are plenty of theories out there, of course. For instance, fictional crime dramas are fascinating because they stimulate our basic human need for survival, and activate fear receptors, all from the safety of home.
Whether fear-inducing or wholesome and inspiring, here are some of the longest-running prime-time shows of all time, in no particular order.
A juggernaut in the realm of syndicated prime-time television, The Simpsons has solidified its place in pop culture and is a household name around the world. The world first met the endearing animated family on December 17, 1989. As of press time in 2022, The Simpsons is still on the air.
Law & Order: SVU
Despite the enduring popularity of crime dramas, few have enjoyed such a lasting prime-time run as Law & Order. The franchise’s flagship program, and its namesake, ran for a full two decades. Featuring much of the same cast, the subsequently released Law & Order: SVU remains a prime-time staple, with 23 seasons under its belt.
His name may be unfamiliar to many modern viewers, but Lassie captured the hearts of countless Americans in the early days of television. The story of a loyal collie named Lassie, and the humans who loved him, the program ran for 19 seasons, beginning in 1954. Lassie received back-to-back Primetime Emmy awards in 1955 and 1956.
18 seasons strong as of 2022, Grey’s Anatomy is the longest-running medical drama on prime time. The show features Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, the show’s namesake, and is syndicated on a number of cable channels. New prime-time episodes air on ABC.
Whatever the genre, from medical dramas to reality TV, our favorite TV programs help shape our perception of life while simultaneously providing an escape from the real world. We can only hope that our favorites stay on the air for as long as possible, maybe even rivaling the aforementioned long-running classics.