The World's Most Powerful TV Shows Of The Past 25 Years

Stephen Colbert

TV doesn’t get much respect.It rots your brain and grows couch potatoes. But the so-called idiot box also swings elections, rewires brains, snares criminals, and even sways the Supreme Court.

The following may not be the best shows of the last 25 years—in fact, some are among the worst—but their impact reaches far beyond the living room.

As Russians were gearing up to go to the polls in July 1996, Boris Yeltsin was nervous about his job.

The weather gave him additional reason to panic. With the sun shining and the temperatures pleasant, Yeltsin fretted that his city-dwelling supporters would decamp to their dachas, or country cottages, instead of staying home and voting. Russia's president needed a way to keep his base from travelling.

His solution: a cunning use of soap opera. No show was more popular in Russia than the Brazilian morality soap Tropikanka, which regularly drew 25 million viewers to the state-owned network ORT. With the election looming, ORT made a surprise announcement: The show's finale would air as a special triple episode on election day between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

More amazing was the fact that the scheme actually worked. Because most dachas didn't have televisions, viewers stayed in the city, glued to their sets. When the episode ended, it was too late to trek out of town, but voters still had time to get to the polling station. Yeltsin's soap opera strategy helped him prevail by more than 10 million votes.

Meanwhile, The Young and the Restless can't even sway a lousy Senate race.

'America's Most Wanted' has helped capture over 1,100 fugitives since its debut in 1988.

FOX scored a sleeper hit with the musical series Glee in 2009.

But the show's real impact came between airings. As the rest of the record industry flailed, the Glee recordings found staggering success on iTunes. By the end of 2011, the cast had sold more than 11 million albums and another 36 million single tracks. Meanwhile, the cast's 2011 concert tour grossed more than $40 million. Forget garage bands--aspiring stars should be shooting garage teen dramas!

In 2011, Nickelodeon's favourite anthropomorphic sponge came under fire when a University of Virginia study showed that SpongeBob was hurting kids' ability to perform basic tasks.

The research involved a group of 60 4-year-olds who were asked to spend nine minutes watching an educational cartoon, watching SpongeBob, or colouring . Kids who watched SpongeBob scored significantly worse in tests involving solving puzzles, delaying gratification, and following instructions. The conclusion: rapidly paced TV with quick scene changes had a clear cognitive effect on children.

When the mainstream media picked up on the research, it decried the show's mind-melting powers. Nickelodeon fired back that SpongeBob was intended for older kids, not preschoolers. One of the study's authors even attempted to defend SpongeBob, pointing out that it was just one of many fast-paced cartoons.

Her other line of defence was less helpful: She speculated that the program was particularly taxing for kids' brains because it contained unfamiliar situations, like a talking sponge wearing square trousers. What's worse, if you ask us, is how it deludes children into thinking they could someday live in a pineapple under the sea.

In the 1980s, hour-long action shows were designed to lose money in their early seasons.

Many lost as much as $600,000 per episode before recouping the shortfall with nine-figure syndication deals. But by 1987, action reruns had stopped matching the ratings of their comedic counterparts. As rich syndication contracts dried up, so did networks' enthusiasm for dropping big money on explosions and gunfire.

Given that climate, even surefire hits like Paramount's Star Trek spin-off couldn't generate interest from the major channels. Undeterred, Paramount produced the series anyway and cobbled together its own group of local affiliates who agreed to broadcast the show.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in October 1987, more than 50 ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates preempted their networks' programming to air the two-hour premiere. Cash motivated this unprecedented defection. When local affiliates preempt their networks' programming, they get to keep all of the ad revenue from the show rather than share it with the network. Paramount gave episodes of The Next Generation to the affiliates for free, but with a catch. Each hour-long show included 12 minutes of ads. Stations could sell five of those minutes and keep the loot; the remaining seven belonged to Paramount.

The deal was incredibly profitable for everyone involved. At a time when most 30-second commercials sold for $30,000, The Next Generation's strong ratings let Paramount and its affiliates command $115,000. The studio responded by investing more heavily in the show to keep it at the top of the pile. By 1992, each episode had a $2 million budget--nearly double that of a normal network drama--yet it was still one of TV's most lucrative shows, pulling in $90 million a year in ad revenue for Paramount alone.

Other studios noticed Paramount's 40 per cent return on investment from its network-bypassing model and quickly jumped into the fray with shows like Renegade and Xena: Warrior Princess. By boldly going where no show had gone before, Star Trek: The Next Generation made TV safe for action again.

By 2006, 70 million Americans were tuning into CSI or one of its two spin-offs each week. That became a real problem for prosecutors.

As the show's popularity grew, jurors started expecting the full CSI treatment in every trial. But in the vast majority of cases, police don't need CSI-type technology to collar the perpetrator. The tests are expensive and can take weeks, and they tax already overworked crime labs. Circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, can be just as damning for far less money.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but prosecutors insist that the CSI effect has raised jurors' interest in high-tech forensic methods and led to undeserved acquittals. A study by Michigan judge Donald E. Shelton even discovered that investigators were doing unnecessary tests just to make it look like they were giving crime scenes a CSI-level scouring.

Real or not, prosecutors fear the effect could cost them an important verdict. Some attorneys now ask potential jurors whether they're fans of the show as they're determining who to weed out during jury selection.

In July 2011, something strange happened on a rerun of How I Met Your Mother.

Although the episode airing in syndication had been shot in 2006, a poster in one of the scenes was eerily modern: It was pushing Bad Teacher, a movie that had been in theatres only a few weeks. Did Neil Patrick Harris have a time machine?

The bizarrely prescient ad was the work of SeamBI, a company that has craftily elevated the practice of product placement by digitally inserting new ads into old scenes of syndicated shows. Currently, the company tends to insert posters and billboards as set dressing, but its vision doesn't end there. SeamBI plans to slice and dice markets so that your television does what the Web has been doing for years--help advertisers target very specific geographic areas.

Viewers in New York, for instance, might see a Manhattan-based billboard on an old sitcom, while Delaware viewers could see a completely different one while watching the exact same show.

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the scheme makes syndicated shows even more profitable, with How I Met Your Mother opening the floodgates to a whole new world. While the idea of seeing June Cleaver opening up a fridge full of Coke Zero or the Fonz leaning up against a poster for The Hangover 3 still seems laughable, SeamBI knows it's just around the corner.

Dixie Carter's character on Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, was known for her frequent monologues praising liberal causes.

Offscreen, however, Carter was a staunch Republican and found the diatribes repulsive. When the actress finally put her foot down, refusing to extol Democratic values, the show's producers crafted a bizarre agreement.

Each time Carter gave one of her character's trademark rants, she got to sing a song in a future episode. If only Congress would learn to make such compromises.

ER did more than make George Clooney a superstar. It also changed the way America ate.

In three 2004 episodes, the show explored a minor plot arc about a teenager who learns he has high blood pressure. The show's physician characters advise the young man to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.

While the plot sounds humdrum, it scared viewers straight. In 2007, researchers from the University of Southern California's medical school published a paper in the Journal of Health Communication that found that viewers who caught these episodes of ER had started walking or exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, or getting their blood pressure checked. How can anyone say watching TV is bad for you?

For years before his 1991 retirement, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall slipped away from deliberations each day to watch Days of Our Lives.

The show wasn't just a guilty pleasure; it helped shape the justice's understanding of the world. As Marshall once told Justice William Brennan, soaps teach viewers valuable lessons about life.

When NBC put Baywatch on its fall prime-time schedule in 1989, the network thought it had a hit.

How could a showcase for attractive women in swimsuits ever fail? But after the show scuffled in the ratings and took a critical pounding, NBC pulled the plug after just one season.

Nobody knew better than star and executive producer David Hasselhoff that mockery in the States doesn't preclude success abroad. (Remember, this was a man who had topped Germany's pop charts.) Hasselhoff and his co-producers bought Baywatch from the studio and re-launched it in first-run syndication.

It didn't take long for Baywatch to conquer the world. By 1995, the show was being translated into 15 languages and entertaining citizens in 144 countries … including Iran! In fact, the globe-spanning appeal of slow-motion running and scantily clad ladies helped Baywatch surpass Dallas as the most-watched TV show of all time. Not a bad legacy for a critical dud.

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Over 200 million records sold later, her heart is still going on.

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