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Plugged In magazine, highly music-centric in its early years as Parental Guidance, didn't talk about TV until its third issue. It tackled a fledgling program on an upstart network, calling it "a reflection of what is happening in the American family." But not in a good way. The Simpsons was a television rebel, an edgy, satirical stew that mercilessly tweaked American society by showcasing a bevy of bad behavior. Juxtaposed against some of 1990's more popular programs—namely The Cosby Show and America's Funniest Home VideosThe Simpsons appeared to some families to be the end of Western civilization.

These days The Simpsons doesn't just tweak "The Man"; it is "The Man"—a genial elder statesman that seems almost family friendly compared to Family Guy and other animated fare. Actually, if you watch a Simpsons episode from 1990 and compare it to 2010, the content is fairly consistent. The show hasn't changed. The culture has.

In 1990, about one out of every five homes had cable. TBS and ESPN were little-watched specialty networks, and HBO was known mostly for airing uncut movies. Fox, not even four years old, was a perennial also-ran in the ratings. Broadcast television's big three—ABC, CBS and NBC—dominated. Cheers, the year's top-rated show, regularly snagged 20 million viewers. Even a middling hit such as The Wonder Years, which ranked 30th in the 1990-91 television season, scored an audience of 13 million most weeks.

Network ratings are down today, even though there are 60 million more people in the U.S. With 84 percent of households receiving cable or satellite, the potential audience is diffused over hundreds of channels, not just three or four. Broadcast programs still get more viewers (Dancing with the Stars banked 21 million in September). But most of the critical darlings are daring, often crass cable shows not bound by broadcast standards. As younger audiences have gravitated toward this edgier fare, the broadcast networks have tried to keep pace by getting edgier themselves. They were enabled in 1996 by a rating system that gave producers a longer leash, while giving parents halfhearted "beware of dog" warnings about bolder content.

But this isn't to say that TV is uniformly horrendous. In some ways it's better and more intelligent. Shows such as ABC's Modern Family—loaded with problematic content unimaginable in prime time 20 years ago—can offer surprisingly sensitive and insightful looks at complex family dynamics. And while choice has coarsened the television lineup, some niche channels provide a family-friendly oasis. While reality TV can be Jersey Shore scummy, shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Biggest Loser are examples of hits that are entertaining, inspiring and relatively clean.

In the end, television is a business. As long as there are folks who demand quality family programming and advertisers willing to support it, there will be profit-conscious executives eager to deliver. If I've learned anything during the past 20 years, it's that there's good stuff out there. The trick is finding it.

You'll find this article and other 20th anniversary reflections—including quotes, letters, statistics, a timeline, trivia and more—in our special online flipbook. Click here to check it out!

Published October 2010