National Geographic Society
National GeographicNat Geo Wild


From Seinfeld to the Real World, Pulp Fiction to Titanic

By Patrick J. Kiger

The 1990s marked a radical turning point for television. Up until that point, TV primarily was a mass medium with a three dominant broadcast networks, and a very limited selection of programs. With the top-rated programs attracting audiences of more than 20 million viewers, TV was group experience in many ways brought together young and old, rich and poor, and people of different ethnic groups. But in the 1990s, the steady expansion of cable and satellite TV provided viewers with more channels and more choices of programming, and during the decade, several new broadcast networks emerged as well. As a result, TV began to fragment. Individual programs tended to attract smaller audiences, and TV focused more and more upon attracting narrower slivers of the population who were of a certain age, income or tastes that advertisers coveted.

That dissolution also freed TV writers and producers to experiment with daring variations on the medium’s stock formulas. Seinfeld, which aired from 1990 to 1998, was an offbeat variation on the conventional sitcom, a “show about nothing” filled with sort of ironic, observational humor about everyday life normally seen in nightclub comedians’ routines. Beverly Hills 90210, on the air from 1990 to 2000, essentially was a soap opera, moved to prime time and set in a high school full of glamorous, affluent teenagers. The X-Files (1993-2002), was a blend of the classic police procedural with paranormal phenomena and explored the realm of conspiracy theories that had become a persistent part of the American consciousness. Another influential show was MTV’s The Real World, which debuted in 1992 and helped launch the phenomena of “reality” shows, in which producers filmed the lives of non-actors and distilled them down to the most provocative or entertaining moments.

The movie industry in the 1990s also changed radically with the growth of multiplexes—giant theater complexes that featured many smaller viewing rooms rather than one big one. But technology also changed movies. The new theaters also were equipped with increasingly sophisticated gadgetry designed to play vivid high-end digital soundtracks, and Hollywood filmmakers increasingly relied upon computers to create startling special effects, such as the morphing of the android assassin T-1000 into different shapes in director James Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Numerous other 1990s hits, such as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), and Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994). Cameron’s Titanic (1997), a spectacular recreation of the 1912 disaster, cost an unprecedented $200 million to make but earned over $2.0 billion globally to date, that set a pattern of studios breaking the bank to produce costly epics in the quest for mammoth profits.

But the multiplex blockbuster mentality, oddly, was paralleled by the growth of “indie” filmmaking, in which daring young directors somehow scraped together enough money to make arty, unconventional films that were marketed by small studios such as Miramax. The indie movement spawned movies such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), which paid homage to both old-school detective movies and 1970s “Blaxsploitation” flicks. Another game-changing film was Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, a 1999 low-budget horror film that ingeniously pretended to be an amateur documentary, and which was one of the first films to be marketed extensively over the Internet.


  • Tonya vs. Nancy photo

    Tonya vs. Nancy

    When figure skater Nancy Kerrigan is injured by a mystery attacker, it soon comes to light that...

  • All Videos