Every television show has an expiration date. While a fantastic series sometimes ends before viewers think it should (hello,
Running for 20 seasons from 1955 through to 1975 on CBS, with a grand total of 635 episodes, Gunsmoke (20 seasons) Gunsmoke is the only western to make the list. And while Law & Order, next on the list, managed to sneak in just as many seasons, Gunsmoke still takes the cake for live action dramas in the U.S. with far more episodes. Interestingly, the show began as a radio series before making its way to the small screen (which was, back then, a really small screen). It’s disheartening that an animated show managed to knock Gunsmoke off its pedestal in terms of longest-running show. But the show is celebrated to this day. In 2006, CBS and Paramount Home Entertainment released three DVD box sets to honor Gunsmoke’s 50th anniversary.
This NBC police procedural and legal drama came onto the scene long before cop and legal dramas gained their stranglehold on primetime television. While the show was officially cancelled in 2010 after 20 seasons and 456 episodes, one can’t deny the impact it has had for the genre. Law & Order (20 seasons) Law & Order inspired many others of the same ilk, from CSI, to Criminal Minds, and its own direct spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which makes the list as well. SVU, as the show is known by fans, continues to air after 17 seasons and 389 episodes. Perhaps the most iconic thing to come out of Law & Order, however, is the signature “dun-dun” sounds that signifies scene changes throughout each episode. When it only takes two, simple notes to recognize a show, you know it’s made a significant impact.
A second animated series on the list is the satirical and crude South Park (19 seasons) South Park, which has been running for 19 seasons and 267 episodes, and is still going strong on Comedy Central. While The Simpsons presents adult content in a relatively masked manner, South Park holds nothing back, tackling any topic with as much prejudice, mockery, and “toiler humor” as writers and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone can muster. This isn’t an animated show you watch with the kids, nor is it for the faint of heart or the easily offended. It’s a wonder some episodes even made it past censors, striking a nerve with everything from mockeries of religious groups to racial slurs. But clearly, viewers who truly understand the purposely-distorted focus of the show are amused, and continue to be entertained by the bright-eyed, potty-mouthed young characters.
Ah, Lassie. It’s the lovable, loyal rough collie dog that goes on adventures with her bevy of friends, including both animals and humans. Running 547 episodes over 17 seasons on CBS, from 1954 through to 1971, the show saw Lassie move from one young boy owner to another, traveling on her own, landing with a group of United States Forest Service Rangers, and finally living in a children’s home for orphaned boys. Wherever she was, though, Lassie brought sheer joy. She was one of the first animals to reach true “star” status, and make us believe that a dog was really trying to “tell us something” by barking or tugging on a shirt sleeve. Lassie (17 seasons) Lassie paved the way for those of the canine persuasion to become bona fide entertainment royalty.
Having just been cancelled last year after a stellar 15 seasons and 335 episodes on CBS, this crime drama captured viewers’ attention by focusing on one of the less glamorous, but more fascinating, aspects of crime: the crime scene investigation. The show teetered on the line for what is considered acceptable for primetime TV, touching on controversial topics and featuring graphic violence that some thought was a bit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (15 seasons) too graphic for regular network television. But without CSI, there may not have been a Dexter. While its now also-cancelled spin-offs CSI:Miami, CSI: New York, and CSI:Cyber, weren’t quite as high caliber as the original, the series was a staple on our TV screens throughout the ‘00s.
NBC’s ER (15 seasons) ER ran for 15 seasons from 1994-2009, over a total of 331 episodes. Arguably known best as the show credited with making George Clooney a superstar and bona fide heartthrob, ER tackled real-life medical issues from the perspective of an emergency room, and was often lauded for its realism - the focus was on the treatment, not on the patients and their back-stories, or heavy drama for the sake of entertainment. Today, so many others follow in its footsteps, including Grey’s Anatomy, which is on currently on track to overtake ER as the longest-running medical drama on TV. Now in its 12th season, Grey’s is just three seasons shy of snagging the title.
Along with several other series, like The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965, CBS), Bonanza (1959-1973, NBC), Dallas (1978-1991, CBS), and Knots Landing (1979-1993, CBS), the list of scripted TV series in the U.S. that have run for quite some time is lengthy. And many of those that made the top 20 are still on the air today, poised to inch up the ladder. Family Guy, for example, is in its 14th season on Fox. And several series are currently in their 11th seasons, including Criminal Minds (CBS); Supernatural (WB, CW); Bones (Fox), and American Dad (Fox).
Though it’s hard to imagine any other scripted series managing to achieve such a stellar run as The Simpsons, it’s clear that good writing can ensure a great series enjoys a long and healthy life on TV. And sometimes you don't even need great writing. WWE's episodic Monday Night Raw has not run as long as The Simpsons, but it has a lot more episodes, numbering more than 1,000 since its debut in 1993. Breaking Bad), others linger on well past their best-by date ( That ‘70s Show, anyone?) But some simply continued to dish out great storylines, haul in viewers, and enjoy long, successful runs, from start to eventual finish.
Most of the longest-running series on TV are news programs:
Meet the Press has been running for an impressive 68 years, giving it the title of longest-running show, across all genres, in U.S. history. Today has been going for 64 years (and counting). Late night talk shows also make the grade. The Tonight Show celebrates 61 years on the air, making it the longest-running talk show worldwide. And who can forget the weird world of wrestling. But primetime scripted series have managed to stand the test of time, too.
From a show about a lovable dog to a risqué animated series, here are 7 of the longest-running U.S. scripted primetime series of all time, based on the number of years they were (or have been) on the air. (Keep in mind this list is limited to just U.S. scripted series that aired – or currently air – during primetime hours.)