Thirty years ago, a TV revolution began when HBO went up on satellite. To commemorate this event, CableWORLD selected what it feels are the top 50 satellite-delivered shows, televised events and moments of the past 30 years. When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier touched gloves on Sept. 30, 1975, to begin the heavyweight fight known as The Thrilla in Manila, a communications revolution was being touched off halfway around the world. In Vero Beach, Fla., cable executives and technology leaders gathered to watch the fight (won by Ali) on HBO, the first cable network to be distributed commercially by satellite. For many, this is the most important event in the history of cable. HBO’s delivery on the Westar 1 satellite marked the beginning of the modern era of cable television. No longer constrained by its Earthbound coaxial wires, microwave antennas and archaic distribution systems, cable could leap over mountains, oceans and vast distances to become a truly national—and international—communications medium. The significance wasn’t lost on some clever entrepreneurs, media mavens and nascent TV programmers. Within five years, USA Network, Showtime, ESPN, MTV, BET, C-SPAN, CBN, Bravo and Nickelodeon went airborne. Ted Turner took a small UHF TV station and turned it into the first satellite-delivered “superstation,” today’s TBS, and then launched the first 24-hour news network, CNN. The next five years would further expand cable programming choices with launches that included Disney, Lifetime, Playboy, The Weather Channel, Discovery Channel, HSN, Nashville Network (now Spike TV), A&E, AMC and pay-per-view. The number of cable franchises multiplied as cable companies raced to wire America. Satellite-delivered cable was first demonstrated at the 1973 NCTA convention, The Cable Center says. Among the cable pioneers responsible for the advance were Gerald Levin of HBO, Sidney Topol of Scientific-Atlanta, Robert Rosencrans, who carried the 1975 fight on two Florida systems, and Monte Rifkin, whose ATC carried it in Jackson, Miss. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of HBO’s satellite launch and the dawn of cable’s modern age, veteran cable writer and analyst Craig Leddy and CableWORLD editors assembled this list of the top cable programs, events and moments made possible by cable and satellite communications. These 50 have made cable the all-pervasive medium that it is today. We’d like to hear your choices and comments on our selections. Please e-mail us at: Selection Criteria Theatrical movie releases, although a leading part of cable, were not included on our list. Local and regional programs, while also important, were not included since their development was not primarily dependent upon satellite communications. To narrow the field, selections were made based upon all or some of the following criteria: Historical significance—a milestone or breakthrough in TV programming. Industry implications—significance for the cable industry as a whole. Originality—a new concept, innovation or leader in its genre. Popularity—high ratings, critical acclaim, longevity or cultural notoriety. Memorable—it’s easily recognizable. 1. Live From Baghdad: First Night of Gulf War Coverage (CNN) This was our toughest call on a list of tough calls: Bernie Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett or Tony Soprano? Some argue the importance of CNN’s Gulf reports far surpasses New Jersey’s most famous family. Yet even The New York Times dubbed The Sopranos a cultural icon and politically correct NCTA features the HBO series prominently in a recent ad campaign about cable’s gifts to the country—but the ad mentions cable news first. As the opening salvos of the 1991 Gulf War fell around them, Shaw, Holliman, Arnett and other CNN staffers provided vivid descriptions in cable’s defining moment as a global communicator. 2. The Sopranos (HBO) A vocal contingent in our editorial offices argued that CNN’s coverage can’t be No. 1 since the influence of cable news, while impressive, doesn’t even dent broadcast news numbers. The pro-CNN camp retorts that The Sopranos‘ influence is limited a bit by being on premium cable. Still, the success of The Sopranos totally changed the game for broadcast networks (remember Bob Wright’s memo to NBC’s minions to develop shows like it?). It’s also had a halo effect on cable nets, raising their game (FX, most notably) and redefining why HBO (and, by extension, cable) isn’t “just television.” As Tony would say, ya gotta problem wid dat? 3. ESPN Sunday Night Football In 1987, cable moved into the big leagues of televised sports when ESPN paid $153 million for a National Football League prime-time rights package, a precursor of dozens of sports to come cable’s way. 4. Nicktoons (Nickelodeon) Nicktoons was the name originally given to an animated block in 1991 that included Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy, which sparked a wave of animated staples of American youth and consistent cable ratings. 5. Choose or Lose (MTV) The importance of the MTV generation was underscored in 1992 when MTV turned it into a political force by making voting cool and essential. Cable activism blossomed with efforts including Lifetime’s Stop Breast Cancer for Life, VH1’s Save the Music, Nickelodeon’s The Big Help, BET’s Rap-It-Up and 1995’s multi-network Voices Against Violence Week. 6. Wrestlemania (WWF) Colorful and campy, this 1985 event made wrestling a ratings stronghold and pay-per-view cash machine. 7. SportsCenter (ESPN) Upon its launch in 1979, SportsCenter carved a niche as the first and last word on sports. Bristol continues to regard SportsCenter as the anchor of its programming. We agree. 8. The O.J. Simpson Trial (Court TV, CNN, BET, E!, others) “The trial of the century” in 1994-95 sparked a new era of trial coverage, celebrity journalism and media circuses, echoed in this year’s Michael Jackson trial. 9. Larry King Live (CNN) From Geraldo to Hardball, from Crossfire to The O’Reilly Factor, cable has presented its share of interviewers, call-in hosts and prognosticators. Since his cable debut in 1985, none have had the durability or breadth as the one and only, the King. 10. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) What began as a news parody has become seriously influential as the go-to news source for America’s youth and a media/government watchdog. 11. Weather Center (The Weather Channel) For anyone who thinks cable isn’t an essential service, watch what happens when a hurricane draws near and see how vital The Weather Channel’s coverage becomes. 12. On Location (HBO) Starting in 1975, HBO’s comedy performances elevated or launched the careers of many great comedians as stand-up became a mainstay of cable programming. 13. The Real World (MTV) Reality TV way before reality TV was cool (it launched in 1992 and led to the acceptance of the genre on these shores). TRW demonstrates the perverse fascination of watching real-life people that you utterly despise. 14. The Terry Fox Story (HBO) In 1983, HBO created the first made-for-pay-TV movie—based on the real-life heroics of a disabled runner—and began a streak of critically acclaimed HBO Films. 15. Shark Week (Discovery Channel) One of the earliest of cable’s programming themes. Since 1988 Discovery has made sharks compelling and, dare we say, fun. 16. Michael Jackson’s Music Videos (MTV) Sure, you have your favorite music video (was that you bopping to Duran Duran?) but few elevated the genre more than Michael Jackson’s 1983 videos for Billie Jean, Beat It and Thriller, the latter of which was selected by MTV as the greatest music video ever made. 17. National Geographic Explorer (Nick, TBS, MSNBC, Nat Geo Channel) This look at the natural world actually began on Nickelodeon in 1984. It moved to TBS to become one of the longest-running and most-awarded shows on cable, before heading to MSNBC and finally landing at its namesake home, National Geographic Channel. 18. The Paper Chase (Showtime) The pay network’s successful 1983 revival of this dramatic series spurred participation from Hollywood stars and studios in original cable series. 19. Crossfire (CNN) Cable’s quintessential show for political wrangling, it ran from 1982 until its drubbing by Jon Stewart earlier this year. 20. Double Dare (Nickelodeon) Starting in 1986, the children’s game show and its Super Sloppy spin-offs helped put Nickelodeon on the map and brought a fresh approach to the genre by letting kids be kids. 21. Live Aid (MTV) The international concert for world hunger relief in 1985 began a string of fund-raising events, including TNN’s Farm Aid, Bravo’s Unfinished Stories and HBO’s Comic Relief. 22. Sex and the City (HBO) Carrie and her New York friends were all the rage beginning in 1998 through their farewell phenomenon in 2004. They live on via syndication on TBS and WGN, where they’re more ladylike. 23. Biography (A&E) With unique looks at the famous and infamous, the popular (though now waning) series that began with Mike Wallace in 1961 was nurtured by A&E in 1987 and spawned its own network and a host of knock-off bio series on other cable networks. 24. Murder, She Wrote (USA Network) In addition to demonstrating the power of original dramas, USA Network proved the value of off-network series by turning the original CBS program from 1984 and other ex-broadcast series into ratings strongholds. 25. South Park (Comedy Central) The South Park kids followed such wacky cartoons as Beavis and Butt-Head and Ren & Stimpy, but they’ve managed to endure through hysterical social commentary and occasional scatological humor. Kenny lives! You bastards! 26. Morning Call (CNBC) Once the stock market opens, it’s off to the races with on-your-toes business reporting delivered by “money honey” Maria Bartiromo and caffeinated correspondents who manage to make bond trading sound exciting. 27. Washington Journal (C-SPAN) Each morning, cable’s gift to America, C-SPAN, sets the tone for Washington and the country by reviewing the day’s newspapers and previewing congressional debates. 28. Tyson-Holyfield II (Showtime Television) While boxing has had many big moments on HBO, Showtime and PPV, in 1997 the largest PPV boxing audience watched Mike Tyson’s memorable munching of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Yeeouch! 29. MTV Video Music Awards Cable rewrote the rules for awards shows when Madonna’s memorable performance launched the VMAs in 1984. It presaged awards shows such as the ESPYs, BET Awards, Kids Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards and VH-1 Fashion Awards. 30. Sept. 11, 2001 Every network was challenged to take stock of its responsibility and react in a professional manner. They passed the test by adding their own perspectives and placing the nation’s interests first. The multiple events of that day were the genesis of the now ubiquitous news crawl. 31. Def Comedy Jam (HBO) From 1992-98, Russell Simmons’ stand-up comedy show brought many up-and-coming comedians into the spotlight. 32. Land of the Mammoth (Discovery Channel) Discovery garnered historically high ratings with specials about mammoths in 2000 and 2001, a precursor of quality BBC co-production Walking With Dinosaurs and the outstanding Blue Planet series. 33. The CableACE Awards An instant history lesson: The Emmys didn’t recognize cable programming prior to 1988, so cable took an important step and created an awards show in 1979 to tout cable fare. It was equally important for cable to shut it down in 1997 and compete for Emmys. 34. MTV News Kurt Loder and crew continue to provide a unique mix of music and celebrity news, world events and social causes, all well crafted for their audience. 35. Emeril Live (Food Network) Even after 1,500 shows, Emeril Lagasse’s on-camera presence has proven to be as irresistible as his garlic- and spice-laden cuisine. His five-hour live special on Shop At Home in July shattered records. Bam! 36. MTV Spring Break MTV’s body-shaking, bikini-clad (barely) coverage of youth gone wild, for better or worse, has become an annual rite of spring. 37. NBA Playoffs (TNT) Another annual rite of spring, TNT’s dizzying array of playoff games has made cable the place to be for hoops fans. 38. Oz (HBO) HBO’s first one-hour drama, the gritty ensemble show set inside a maximum-security prison ran from 1997 to 2003 and continues life in reruns. 39. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) A recent phenomenon, but powerful nonetheless as it showed gay TV shows could be accepted by the general public. 40. Trading Spaces (TLC) Home decorating—and ratings for such programs—was never the same once TLC let neighbors swap abodes and redecorate them. 41. The 700 Club (CBN, now ABC Family) Recent remarks notwithstanding, Pat Robertson built a network—and a presidential bid—on the foundation of his long-running late-night talk show, further proving that politics and religion have firm places in cable’s lineup. 42. Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo) After more than eight years, 100 episodes and countless blue index cards, host James Lipton has become a cultural icon by asking penetrating questions of actors and directors. A guest he’d like to have queried? Aristophanes. 43. X Games (ESPN, ESPN2) ESPN tapped into youth street sports with its own annual event in 1995, a move that made the all-sports net relevant for a younger audience and put ESPN2 on the map. 44. Band of Brothers (HBO) The 10-part miniseries from 2001 about a parachute division in World War II let viewers feel the action, and won six Emmys as a result. 45. The Goodwill Games (TBS) The brainchild of Ted Turner, the games began in 1986 in Moscow as a way to ease tensions during the Cold War through friendly athletic competition. Five other Goodwill Games followed. 46. Fraggle Rock (HBO) Spawned by Muppet creator Jim Henson, the Fraggles romped from 1983 to ’87 and marked an ambitious effort to mix kids fun with themes about human relationships. 47. From the Earth to the Moon (HBO) The 1998 miniseries about the Apollo space program, hosted by executive producer Tom Hanks, was HBO’s most expensive production to date, with a budget of $68 million. 48. SportsCentury (ESPN) A 48-member panel selected the best athletes of the 20th century and ESPN turned their stories into top-notch profiles. After the completion of the original 50 profiles, SportsCentury was relaunched as the signature bio series for ESPN Classic. 49. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Comedy Central, Sci Fi Channel) Also known as MST3K, robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot spent 10 years ridiculing B-movies and demonstrating cable’s ability to produce a cult following. 50. Booknotes (C-SPAN) The greatest testament to this show that brought books and their subjects alive was the outcry from literati and garden-variety readers alike when host Brian Lamb called it quits last year after 801 episodes. One viewer wrote: “Lamb’s show was the most straitlaced stream-of-consciousness bit of showbiz on a rigidly anti-showbiz outlet in the history of entertainment.” More of Cable’s Best From 30 Years of Programming Other programs worthy of a top 50 list. America’s Cup (ESPN): Established the use of cameras on boats and help popularize the sport. America Undercover (HBO): Nobody’s handled documentaries better than Sheila Nevins. And the Band Played On (HBO): A searing docudrama indictment of the AIDS crisis from executive producer Aaron Spelling, of all people.
Beavis and Butt-Head (MTV): Mike Judge’s teenage goofballs turned “Eh-heh-heh-heh-heh” into a national catchphrase. Behind the Music (VH1): The mold-making August 1997 series tracks the rise, fall and resurrection of pop stars. BET News (BET): We’re talking pre-Viacom here. Dinner & a Movie (TBS): The original and still the best interstitial movie franchise. E! True Hollywood Story (E!): What Behind the Music did for pop, THS did for the rest of culture. Forensic Files (Court TV): Forensics before it was cool; led to CSI, Crime Story, etc. If These Walls Could Talk (HBO): Cable’s first “all-women’s” movie with an all-star cast. Investigative Reports With Bill Kurtis (A&E):The former CBS News anchor is now one of cable’s most lauded documentarians. Iron Chef (Food Network): The sports-style food fight from Japan is outrageously entertaining. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (Showtime): This is the blurb on Garry’s show, the only blurb on Garry’ show, Garry did a comedy that broke right through the fourth wall. Lizzie McGuire (Disney Channel): Launched tween programming craze & Hilary Duff’s career. Lou Dobbs Tonight/Moneyline (CNN): Cable’s original financial journal of record. Monk (USA): The phobia-plagued detective, played to Emmy-winning hilt by Tony Shalhoub. Mr. Show (HBO): Cult comedy favorite from Bob Odenkirk. MTV Unplugged (MTV): The groundbreaking acoustic music series debuted January 1990 and just relaunched with Alicia Keys Unplugged. NASCAR (TNN, TBS, TNT, Speed Channel): Cable catapulted auto racing to a year-round American pastime. NFL Prime Time (ESPN): A highlight show you come home to watch, and the home of Chris Berman. Nick News Specials (Nickelodeon): Don’t overlook Linda Ellerbee’s excellent news reports for kids. The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News): Established conservative—OK, no-spin—views on cable. The Outer Limits (Showtime): TV’s longest-running science fiction anthology series. Pop Up Video (VH1): Factoids rejuvenate music-video viewing. Powerpuff Girls (Cartoon Network): The city of Townsville, home to cable’s first superhero toon phenom. Queer as Folk, Resurrection Blvd., Soul Food, The L Word (Showtime): No limits, indeed. Real Sex (HBO): Another take on sex: kinky documentaries Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel (HBO): Serious sports reporting; also deserving is Bob Costas’ HBO work. Red Shoe Diaries (Showtime): The first long-running adult drama on premium cable. Remote Control (MTV): First MTV show to depart from the music video format. The Shield (FX): The network’s first breakout series. Silk Stalkings (USA): Cable’s longest-running drama. Six Feet Under (HBO): We still haven’t stopped thinking about the ending of that final episode. SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon): A multibillion dollar franchise and a crossover with late-night stoners. Could have/should have been on our top 50 list. Squawk Box (CNBC): M-to-F-morning must-see TV for armchair stockholders. Taken (Sci Fi): First sci-fi series to win an Emmy. Talk Soup (E!): The talk-show recap show with a smirk premiered in 1991 with host Greg Kinnear. Total Request Live (MTV): Giving viewers what they ask for since ’88. Tour de France (OLN): Put the network on the map and made Lance Armstrong a star. U.S. Open (USA): A tennis staple for two decades. Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (USA): The first dog show event on national cable—and still the best. Wild On (E!): Where travel, exotic destinations and celebs collide. World Poker Tour (Travel): Started cable’s poker craze; props too to ESPN’s World Series of Poker. Yo! MTV Raps (MTV): Dr. Dre and Ed Lover turn MTV into a hip-hop nation. Wakshlag and Brooks Weigh In Wakshlag’s Top 10 Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, and Tim Brooks, EVP, research, for Lifetime, offer their lists of cable’s top programming of the last 30 years. 1. The Sopranos (HBO): Broadcasters outflanked and howl at Emmys as the show delivers quality, raw gritty content, with a budget they can’t match. HBO becomes way more than movies. 2. CNN Coverage of the Gulf War: Twenty-four-hour cable news comes of age as the Chicken Noodle Network scoops broadcast with images from the Persian Gulf. 3. Rugrats (Nickelodeon): A network maker. Nick was a 10-year-old network whose claim to fame was “slime” until this show changed just about everything in kids TV. Kids TV—not just for Saturday mornings anymore. 4. WWE Wrestling: USA to TNN and Spike and back again. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant may have moved on, but WWE passes the test of time. The guilty pleasure of countless young American men, delivering growth wherever it goes. 5. South Park (Comedy Central): Others may have been more outrageous but this show made potty mouth OK and made Comedy Central. 6. The Shield (FX): Hard and gritty content in scripted series puts FX on the map. 7. Sex and the City (HBO): Top-flight scripted sitcoms come to cable TV—and set new standards. 8. Larry King Live (CNN): Draws millions, establishing CNN as more than just news. 9. ESPN Sunday Night Football: A surefire audience draw with five of the top 10 telecasts on ad supported cable over the past decade. A winner with viewers and with cable operators. 10. SportsCenter (ESPN): Defined a genre and a network. Something to watch between all that other stuff. —Jack Wakshlag Brooks’ Top 10 1. CNN Coverage of the Gulf War
2. The Real World (MTV)
3. South Park (Comedy Central)
4. The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News Channel)
5. The Sopranos (HBO)
6. Rugrats (Nickelodeon)
7. Any Day Now (Lifetime)
8. Larry King Live (CNN)
9. Silk Stalkings (USA Network)
10. Strong Medicine (Lifetime)

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