This year marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek: The Original Series, a show that launched a thousand ships… well, six spin-off series and thirteen movies, as well as novels, comics, and games. After fifty years, the franchise is still living long and prospering. The latest Star Trek film (Star Trek Beyond) comes out this month and a new TV series (titled only Star Trek) is due to hit the small screen next year. It’s a vast, sprawling empire of a franchise and it’s not the only one. There are a huge number of shows that have remained on the air for decades at a time (in one form or another). From news programs and talk shows like The Daily Show (now on its 21st season) to skit comedy shows like Saturday Night Live (on the air since ’75), a whole host of American shows have become television institutions. It’s not just US shows, either. The UK loves its soaps, with shows like Eastenders running uninterrupted for decades (Coronation Street has been on TV since 1960!). Another British favorite, Doctor Who, had an initial run of 26 seasons, before being re-vamped in 2005 (the re-launched series is approaching its tenth season). There’s no doubt that we love to see our favorite franchises continue for as long as possible – but which shows take the prize for longest running of all time?
Note: We’ve rounded up the longest-running US franchises ever, excluding skit shows, unscripted shows (i.e. talk shows), documentary or educational series, and news programs. Like Star Trek, these are shows that will immerse you in a fictional world, continuing it through spin-offs and connected series. Shows are ranked in order of which franchise contains the most overall seasons – although it is worth noting that because seasons and episodes vary in length, the most seasons doesn’t always translate to the most screen time.
15. Stargate SG1 (10 seasons, Franchise: 18 seasons)
This sci-fi franchise evolved from the film, with a new cast carrying on the adventures of the characters we met in Stargate. Along with many new faces, Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) and Colonel Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) travel to new planets through Stargates, ancient alien technology that was found on Earth. Nominated for six Primetime Emmys, the show was such a successful film spin-off that it got multiple spin-offs of its own. First, Stargate: Atlantis sent a new team through the gates in search of the fabled lost city of Atlantis, in a series that lasted five seasons (and starred Jason Momoa, DC’s new King of Atlantis, Aquaman!). With two successful shows in the franchise, a third was created: SGU: Stargate Universe. This third series followed another team, stranded on an Ancient ship (very Star Trek: Voyager) but only made it two seasons before cancellation. Finally, a third spin-off was created, Stargate: Infinity, a little-known animated series cancelled after the first season.
14. South Park (19 seasons, ongoing)
This foul-mouthed animation caused real controversy with its 1997 debut. Based on popular animated shorts that became viral videos, South Park was darker, cruder, and more violent than any other animation. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the show became immensely popular, especially with teens and college students who loved seeing such an adult-oriented cartoon. Just two years after the show first aired, a feature-length film was made (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) which brought the show’s lewd humor to the big screen. However, the series didn’t just find success through shock value. South Park quickly became known for its biting satire and inimitable style, even going on to win five Primetime Emmys (and ten other awards). The series continues today, with season twenty coming to screens this fall, and it remains one of the highest-rated shows on Comedy Central. Although still considered too coarse and taboo by many, the show has broadened its audience considerably and is now recognized as much for political commentary as for being gleefully offensive.
13. Gunsmoke (20 seasons)
This classic Western aired on radio as well as television, with the small-screen episodes spanning twenty years (1955 – 1975). Starring James Arness as Matt Dillon, small-town lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, the show revolves around Dillon’s struggles to keep the peace amid gunfights, land disputes, and other classic Western conflicts. The show is officially the longest-running primetime, commercial, live-action, scripted TV series of the 20th century, and was TV’s number one rated show for several years (’57 to ’61). Often held up as a shining example of the genre, Gunsmoke has earned an impressive fifteen awards over the years, including five Primetime Emmys (and four Golden Globe nominations). Although it has now been over forty years since the end of the show, a series of TV-movies were made in the late eighties and nineties, and the show has had a long-lasting impact on pop culture. Probably the most recognizable reference from the show remains the phrase “get outta Dodge” – a line pulled from the show and still commonly used today (although many using it may have no idea that they are referencing a TV show).
12. Lassie (19 seasons, Franchise: 21 seasons)
Everybody remembers America’s most famous canine companion – the sheepdog Lassie. Since the novel Lassie Come-Home was published in 1940, Lassie has been adapted over and over again, in eleven movies, four TV series, and even a manga and anime. In every one, the basic premise is the same. Lassie is a steadfast and preternaturally intelligent dog who helps the various humans that she belongs to over the years. It’s sweet and nostalgic, and while multiple dogs played the part of Lassie over the years, she remains one of the country’s best-loved canines. The original television series ran from ’54 to ’71 and consistently placed first in its time slot on Sunday evenings. After it came to a close, an animated series briefly appeared to take its place, titled Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, which ran to ’75. The live-action show was then rebooted in ’89, with The New Lassie. This revamp was a first-run syndication and lasted only two seasons before cancellation.
11. Cheers (11 seasons, Franchise: 22 seasons)
Though it was one of the most popular sitcoms of the ‘80s, Cheers is almost as famous for having a spin-off more successful than the original show. The sitcom ran for eleven seasons from 1982 to 1993, following bar owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and his staff and regulars. It was an original concept, with the majority of other sitcoms focusing on a family home, and one that allowed for an unusual cast of characters. One of the most famous patrons of Cheers was Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), a psychiatrist who initially joined the show as Sam’s rival for Diane’s (Shelley Long) affections. He quickly became a series regular before the character moved to Seattle to host a radio show – which became the premise of the spin-off series Frasier. Frasier then ran for eleven seasons, and won an incredible 37 Primetime Emmys over that period. By the time the show wrapped in 2004, it was recognized as one of the most successful spin-offs ever made.
10. Beverly Hills 90210 (10 seasons, Franchise: 24 seasons)
This teen drama set at the fictional West Beverly Hills High School followed a group of teens and their relationships, friends, families, and school drama over a period of ten years. The show (and subsequent spin-offs) take place in real time, leading to constant cast changes as characters aged out of high school, but the series remained hugely popular throughout the ‘90s. The first spin-off, Melrose Place, was launched two years after Beverly Hills 90210, when a love interest of Kelly’s (Jennie Garth) was used as a connection to a new series about a group of young, attractive characters living in LA. Much darker and more serious than the original show, Melrose Place appealed to an older audience, and continued for seven seasons. The third show in the franchise, Models Inc, was a Melrose Place spin off about a modelling company – but it failed to take off and was cancelled after the first season. In 2008, 90210 returned to the original franchise concept, where two siblings move from small-town Kansas to Beverly Hills and struggle to adjust to the change. With good reviews and several Teen Choice and People’s Choice Award nominations, the series managed five seasons on the air. Melrose Place was also re-vamped in 2009, but was cancelled after the first season due to low ratings.
9. The Simpsons (27 seasons, ongoing)
The first family of television, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have been entertaining us with their animated escapades for nearly thirty years. Over that time, a lot has changed for The Simpsons. The drawing style has evolved from the early, spiky style to a much softer, rounded one. A vast number of supporting characters have developed from bit parts to thoroughly developed people with their own story arcs. While it still often deals with political commentary, the series has gone from being quite controversial and adult-oriented to being acceptable viewing for all the family (although that may have more to do with the world around it changing, rather than the show itself!). The Simpsons has even been adapted into comics, film, video games, and a ride at Universal Studios, and original songs from the series have been released into collected albums. Still going strong (although some feel that the series has been declining in quality in recent years), The Simpsons has become a cornerstone of American animation.
8. Happy Days (11 seasons, Franchise: 28)
This wholesome sitcom aired in the ‘70s, but came with a heaping dose of nostalgia as it is set in the ‘50s. Following a family in Wisconsin and their teenage kids, Happy Days is a saccharine-sweet picture of idealized American Life, and viewers ate it up. Although it continued for eleven seasons, the show declined drastically in quality by the end – so much so that it coined the phrase “jumping the shark.” Used to refer to a show that resorts to wacky plotlines to keep viewers interested, the term comes from an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz (Henry Winkler) literally jumped a shark on water skis. The series sparked multiple spin-offs. Two were successful on their own merits; Laverne & Shirley (8 seasons), following the exploits of two of Fonzi’s friends, and Mork & Mindy (4 seasons), about an alien living on Earth and spun off of an episode of Happy Days that was originally a one-off dream sequence. Other less-successful spin-offs included Joanie Loves Chachi (2 seasons), where two of the original characters move to Chicago to make it in the music business, Blansky’s Beauties (1 season), and the animated The Fonz And The Happy Days Gang (1 season).
7. Star Trek: The Original Series (3 seasons, Franchise: 30 seasons, ongoing)
Although Star Trek’s first TV outing didn’t actually do very well the first time around, it launched one of the best-loved and longest-running franchises ever. The Original Series was cancelled after three seasons, but its success with fans and in syndication convinced the studio who owned it to give things another shot. Star Trek: The Animated Series was created in 1973, continuing the adventures of the original crew in cartoon form, running until 1975. Although Star Trek didn’t return to TV for over a decade, the franchise continued on the big screen with multiple films before a second live-action show was launched in 1987: Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hugely more successful than The Original Series, TNG ran for seven seasons (and four films), and is considered by many fans to be the franchise’s best offering. Three more series followed. Deep Space Nine, the only series to take place on a space station, rather than a ship, ran from ’93 to ’99. Voyager came next, also running for seven seasons from ’95 to ’01. Finally, Enterprise took over in ’01, although it is generally agreed to be the least popular of the live-action Star Trek series, and was cancelled after only four seasons. After over a decade without a new Star Trek series, we are looking forward to the next installment starting next year – it will be interesting to see if this new series can run for more than seven seasons, the most that any of the Star Trek shows has managed so far.
6. Dallas (14 seasons, Franchise: 31 seasons)
This wonderfully Texan soap opera followed the back-stabbing antics of the Ewing family, owners of an oil company and cattle-ranching land (but not a moral compass, apparently). Over fourteen seasons spanning three decades (the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s), fans were treated to schemes and rivalries both personal and professional (and often completely over the top). Originally conceived as a mini-series, the show did so well that it was turned into an ongoing series, and even got a spin-off in ’79: Knot’s Landing. This second show followed some of the Ewing clan as they started a new life in LA, where they discovered the same kind of manipulative people who they left behind in Texas. Dallas also got a revamp in 2012, with a new series that followed the next generation of the Ewing family. Combining old and new cast members, the show received decent reviews, but the ratings weren’t good enough to keep it going past a third season.
5. All in the Family (9 seasons, Franchise: 35 seasons)
This groundbreaking show was a typical American sitcom with one very important difference. Instead of a lovable father-figure to lead the show, this comedy starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, a World War veteran who was a generally horrible human being. Through the characters racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally bigoted perspective, the show was able to deal with a huge range of current issues – all with a dollop of good humor. The show originally ran for nine seasons from ’71 to ’79, and spawned a whopping seven spin-off series. The most successful spin-off, The Jeffersons, actually ran for longer than the original show, clocking in at eleven seasons from ’75 to ’85. Maude, the first spin off, followed Archie’s wife’s cousin and lasted six seasons, as did Good Times – a spin-off of Maude (making it a spin-off of a spin-off!). Archie’s own continuing adventures were chronicled in Archie Bunker’s Place, which picked up where the original show left off the same year that All In The Family ended, and lasted four seasons. The show also led to three unsuccessful attempts at spin offs; Gloria, Checking In, and 704 Hauser, all of which lasted a single season.
4. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (15 seasons. Franchise: 36 seasons)
Putting a new spin on cop shows and crime procedurals, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation looked at solving crimes from the perspective of the forensic investigators, rather than the police. The original series is set in Las Vegas, where a team of CSIs investigate a different crime each week (usually a particularly violent or dramatic one). Famous for its inclusion of scientific principles and unusual camera angels and visual choices, the show was an immediate hit. Although sometimes criticized for how graphic it was, the show was so popular that it spawned two equally successful spin-offs (plus one significantly less successful spin-off). CSI: New York and CSI: Miami followed the same basic format and principles as the original series, simply set in different cities and with new teams. There were some other differences in focus and approach, but all three shows are incredibly similar – which makes the success of all three at the same time even more impressive. The original CSI ran from 2000 to 2015, while CSI: Miami quickly followed in ’02 for ten seasons, and CSI: New York ran for nine seasons starting in ’04. The latest spin-off, CSI: Cyber, premiered in 2015 and followed an ensemble casting that included Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette and TV royalty Ted Hanson as they investigated cyber crimes. Despite the franchise’s strong track record and big name stars, CSI: Cyber was cancelled after two short seasons, due generally poor reception by critics and fans alike.
3. JAG (10 seasons, Franchise: 34 seasons, ongoing)
A police procedural with a Navy flavor, JAG, like Cheers, is a series with a spin-off more successful than the original show. JAG stands for Judge Advocate General, the legal branch of the military. The show is a classic police procedural, covering crimes connected to the military. Like Law & Order, the series used real-life cases as inspiration and to drum up viewers. The show led to the wildly successful NCIS, a similar series focusing on the Naval Criminal Investigative Services – special agents investigating crimes involving both the Navy and the Marines. NCIS then launched two spin-off series of its own, NCIS LA (which launched in 2009) and NCIS New Orleans (which launched in 2014). Like the similar CSI franchise, these spin-offs were almost identical to the original, but with new casts and in new locales. Although JAG itself came to a close in 2005, NCIS and the two NCIS spin-offs are still going strong.
2. All My Children (37 seasons)
This long-running US soap opera hits second place without a single spin-off to its name. This one series ran for over forty years, from 1970 to 2011, with over 3,400 episodes in total. With such a long history on air, the cast changed hugely over the years, many actors stayed the course from start to finish, with some appearing in over a thousand episodes, and many credited in over 500 episodes over 37 seasons. The central figure of the series is Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), who married ten times over the years that the show was on air. Her life and loves in the fictional suburb of Pine Valley forms the bedrock of the sprawling drama that was hugely popular for the first thirty years it was on the air (before a decline in the last ten years). The series also takes place in the same fictional universe as several other soap operas including One Life To Live, General Hospital and Loving, with crossovers between the series. Although they are not generally considered to be a single franchise, the shared universe means that we are including them as one super-soap for the purposes of this list.
1. Law & Order (20 seasons. Franchise: 47 seasons, ongoing)
The classic police procedural, Law & Order ran for twenty seasons before its cancellation in 2010, making it the longest-running crime drama on primetime television at the time (and tying it with Gunsmoke for longest-running live action primetime show). Each episode of the show tracked a single crime from police investigation to prosecution in the court system, often taking inspiration from real life cases that made headlines. Although not the first show of its kind, Law & Order is one of the best-known and most popular examples of the genre, leading to multiple spin-off shows. Law & Order: Criminal Intent ran for ten seasons, introducing the criminal’s point of view to the original format and showing the audience the crimes being planned and committed as well as investigated. The more successful spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, focuses on sexually motivated crimes and otherwise mimics the original format. Shortened to Law & Order: SVU, the series stars Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay, and surpassed the original in popularity, with the cast looking forward to an eighteenth season set to air in September.
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