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Television has been part of our lives for decades and these stations have shaped its past, present and future. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’ll be counting down the "Top 10 Most Iconic TV Channels of All Time."
For this list, we’ll be ranking based on clout and reach in the stations’ respective programming, but we’ll only be looking at broadcast and cable channels and networks, so while Netflix entertain masses, you won’t see it here.
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Since the beginning of television, the Big Three US broadcast networks dominated the industry. The upstart Fox Network turned it into the Big Four when it hit the airwaves in the late 1980s. No other over-the-air broadcaster has been able to join the club since. Fox’s huge initial success was due to innovative risk-taking programming and one show in particular: The Simpsons. Over the years they have solidified their place as a major player and even spawned a top-rated, albeit divisive, cable news channel, the Fox News Network.
The original 24 hour cable news channel started broadcasting in 1980 from Atlanta, Georgia. While they have moved headquarters, changed owners, hosts and graphics several times and expanded with bureaus around the world, they haven’t altered their logo once. When you see it, you know right away what you're watching, even before James Earl Jones says, “this is CNN.” They may not be number one in the American cable news ratings anymore, but they are still one of the most recognized and trusted news brands in the world.
The Cartoon Network is always a good topic for discussion, but Nickelodeon, or just plain Nick, delivers the toons, produced through its own animation studio, just as well as the CN, and then some. Primarily aimed at kids and early teens, Nick was first launched as “Pinwheel” in 1977 and took on its more familiar moniker in '79, before rising to prominence in the 80s and 90s, producing and airing both live action and animated shows on its flagship channel and several sister cable stations. It’s also the host of the Kids’ Choice Awards, and it's the channel that gave us SpongeBob Squarepants.
This Big Three network spent the first few decades of its existence playing catchup with CBS and NBC. Sports, children’s programming and a partnership with the Walt Disney Company, its future owner, kept it afloat in the early years. Eventually shows like The Flintstones, Happy Days and a slew of soap operas would put it on the map. ABC would continue to grow in the 90s thanks to its focus on sitcoms and development of the TGIF lineup and today, thanks to dramas, it is still on top of its game.
Sports and TV go hand in hand, but it took ESPN to make the relationship exclusive. The first all sports all the time cable channel hasn’t wavered from the one thing it covers since it first went on the air in 1979, just as it hasn’t dropped its first and now signature SportsCenter show from the lineup. It has expanded quite a bit and now counts seven sister stations all branded with a variation on the ESPN name. When they call themselves the worldwide leader in sports, they mean it.
The Columbia Broadcasting System, better known as CBS, got the moniker of the Tiffany Network for the prestige it had during the Golden Age of Television. The network that gave the world I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, and All in the Family was also responsible for bringing credibility to television news through shows anchors like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. While the network’s ratings dominance waned for a few decades, it came back to prominence in the 2000s with its unchanged and unblinking eye logo still looking over everything.
This is the only network on our list that has dragons. It's also the only one responsible for making commercial-free highbrow premium cable TV a thing. During the 70s and 80s it ran movies, sporting events, and stand-up comedy specials. In the 90s, it started making batches of original TV shows at a time when the airwaves were dominated by shows with over 20 episodes a season. HBO bucked the longstanding model and opted for quality over quantity with its dramas, producing only around ten episodes a season each, an approach they still use today. Several of their competitors have followed suit, most notably AMC.
“I want my MTV” wasn’t just the marketing slogan of this music-centered cable channel, it was the call that ushered in the music video era in the 1980s. MTV not only changed television, but how music was sold to the public. There is even a recognized MTV Generation. The station’s format also inspired other successful networks like BET and VH1. While today the main channel is more reality-TV oriented, they still play music videos on their sister stations and the MTV Music Video Award remains a sought-after trophy for artists.
With some of the most classic British comedies and dramas as well as current worldwide hits produced in the UK all released under its brand, the BBC is what most people think of when you say British TV. Originally founded in 1922 as a radio network, this state-funded broadcaster started producing and airing TV in the 1930s, taking a break for the Second World War. Today, they have the largest number of employees of any broadcaster in the world and also have a globally respected news division.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
While it may have had its ups and downs over the years, the oldest of the major networks in the US is consistently in the top three ratings-wise, and its familiar peacock logo is synonymous with TV itself. Even its New York headquarters in Rockefeller Plaza is famous. Since first going on the air in 1939, it has launched the careers of countless household names, pioneered late night TV as well as science fiction television, and was the first major network to produce and air programs in living color.