Top 10 Most Influential Cable TV Networks

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Looking to laugh? Or curl up to a good tearjerker? Maybe you want to learn a new recipe, or find inspiration to remodel your home. You’ll find TV shows offering all that in your cable or satellite TV lineup. More than 30 years into its maturity, cable TV offers programming for every taste — provided you are willing to shell out money each month for cable or satellite service. In a crowded programming landscape, a few channels stand out from the pack as trailblazers impacting pop culture. Here are 10 cable networks that have introduced us to new shows and personalities and changed our viewing habits.


10. OWN (Launched Jan. 1, 2011)

More than 30 years after cable TV’s infancy, a network was birthed around the premise of a singular personality: Oprah Winfrey. The iconic talk show host, known for sharing messages of personal empowerment via her hit syndicated show, created a branded channel around the same mantra. The Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, had been in the discussion phase for several years prior to replacing the Discovery Health Channel on New Year’s Day 2011. Ratings were sluggish in the months after the launch, but Winfrey is now at the helm of the channel after ending The Oprah Winfrey Show following its successful 25-year run. Anyone who doubts Winfrey’s network will be influential hasn’t been paying attention to the tremendous influence she has wielded on society in the past couple of decades.


9. HGTV (Launched Dec. 1, 1994)

In the early 1990s, TV shows such as This Old House and a string of personalities, including Bob Vila, began gaining notoriety as they shared with viewers the virtues of home improvement. Looking to expand on the interest, the E.W. Scripps Co. launched a channel devoted to the theme. A wealth of how-to shows have since permeated the channel’s lineup, focusing on remodeling, landscaping, interior design and gardening.


8. The Food Network (Launched Nov. 23, 1993)

As the 1990s progressed, technology advanced as cable operators added additional space on channel line-ups in the pre-digital days. This technical phenomenon helped create a plethora of specialty niche channels, focusing on topics that had not yet been touched since the dawn of cable TV. The Food Network was one such creation. Foodies across the nation rejoiced and a smattering of personalities/chefs — including Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray — have since become household names.


7. Nickelodeon (Launched Dec. 1, 1977)

Touted as the first network for kids in its early days, Nickelodeon also was one of the first cable TV channels launched as cities across the U.S. began embracing the next phase in TV technology. The channel’s deep origins date back to an Ohio-based cable system when it was known as the Pinwheel Network — the name referencing an early program, Pinwheel, aimed at a preschool audience. Nickelodeon came into its own two years after the launch and began expanding nationally with a widened program lineup. Generations of kids have since grown up watching a variety of shows that have made their imprint in pop culture — from You Can’t Do That on Television and green slime in the 1980s, to the shenanigans of The Rugrats in the 1990s and the crazy antics of SpongeBob SquarePants in the new millennium.


6. HBO (Launched Nov. 8, 1972)

The rise of the first pay-cable network, Home Box Office, or HBO, is synonymous with cable TV itself. Since 1965, HBO’s founder, Charles Dolan, had been working on the concept of a system that brought signals into homes through cable wires — a cutting-edge departure from the previous system of microwave relays. Seven years later, Dolan brought HBO to creation with backing by Time Life. From its inception, the channel — known primarily for showing movies and cutting-edge original series — has been a subscription service, meaning cable subscribers have to pay an additional fee to watch HBO’s offerings. The network also introduced us to unique programming deemed too edgy for network TV, most notably The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which went on to become prominent in pop culture and influence other TV shows.


5. The Weather Channel (Launched May 2, 1982)

Founded in 1982 by two veteran TV meteorologists, The Weather Channel began with a simple premise: to give viewers the weather — not only from their own backyards, but also across the globe. Early on, the channel used technology known as Weather Star that enabled individual cable companies to provide local weather information. While weather has remained the key premise since the day the switch was flipped, The Weather Channel has evolved through the years, providing personality-driven programming and long-form specials about — you guessed it — the weather.


4. ESPN (Launched Sept. 7, 1979)

From its earliest days, TV catered to sports fans with boxing matches, basketball tournaments and, of course, airings of America’s favorite pastime: baseball. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network — now known simply by its acronym, ESPN — was created out of this notion. Over the years, the channel has offered programming for virtually every sports enthusiast and has remained true to its original mission. SportsCenter, the first show to air on ESPN, continues to air. In terms of cultural influence, ESPN’s anchors have coined a plethora of colorful phrases that have been repeated on playgrounds and in gyms across the U.S., from Chris Berman’s trademark “Back, back, back, back, back” to Dan Patrick’s “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” And think of the big sports stories of the past few decades, then think about where you first saw that news break. Chances are, even if you weren’t watching ESPN at the time, you tuned in immediately to see what the network’s anchors had to say about the situation.


3. Fox News Channel (Launched Oct. 7, 1996)

For more than a decade-and-a-half, cable TV line-ups generally consisted of one wall-to-wall news network. A few imitations cropped up over the years, but quickly failed. In 1996, Microsoft and NBC joined forces to take on CNN — the granddaddy of cable news — with a new service, MSNBC. Less than three months later, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. joined the fray as well with a third service, Fox News Channel. Murdoch’s channel started modestly and reportedly was only available in about 10 million American households. From its earliest days, however, Fox News Channel stood out from its competitors with a glitzy approach to delivering the news that included fancy graphics, high-octane personality-driven news shows such as The O’Reilly Factor and controversy surrounding claims of an overall conservative approach to reporting.


2. MTV (Launched Aug. 1, 1981)

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” This was the opening line to one of cable’s most popular channels when it debuted. While the format has changed since launching with the video of Video Killed the Radio Star, there has been one constant at MTV, the cable network that at one time stood for Music Television. Throughout its three decades on the air, the channel has attempted to keep its pulse on pop culture and cater to the whims of the current youth audience. Through the years, MTV has influenced generations of youth, introducing them to such pop icons as Madonna and creating appointment television through such reality shows as The Real World and Jersey Shores.


1. CNN (Launched June 1, 1980)

A channel showing nothing but news all the time? TV analysts had their doubts when Ted Turner — the patriarch of cable’s earliest days — touted the premise of launching such a channel amid cable’s infancy. But Turner was undaunted, particularly after the success of bringing his Atlanta-based local TV channel, WTBS, to audiences across the nation through the burgeoning technology of satellites. Midway through 1980, Cable News Network, or CNN, was beamed into homes. The channel began with an introduction by Turner himself, followed by a newscast anchored by David Walker and Lois Hart, husband and wife in real life. Early on, Turner let the news be the celebrity, but as time went on, the personalities delivering the news played as much of a role in the presentation of the news as the content itself.

Written by

Dave Fidlin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and journalist. He has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites throughout his career. He grew up glued to his family's TV set and has been enthralled with the medium ever since.