In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the main character wears snap pants and goes to Ziggy Marley concerts. In Full House, one of the dad’s friends heads to Las Vegas to open up for Wayne Newton, while the daughter goes on dates at the local drive-in movie theater.
It’s not the kind the entertainment fare that you’d expect to appeal to people who swoon over Justin Bieber and Snapchat. But The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the story of a western Philadelphia teen’s move to western, wealthy, suburban LA, and Full House, about a widowed father raising his three girls with the help of his brother and friend, are among the hit TV shows from 20 and 30 years ago that have deep followings among today’s teenagers. A few other shows that have leaped the generational divide: Saved by the Bell and Boy Meets World.
A younger generation’s appreciation for old TV shows isn’t new. I grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and Happy Days on TV Land; my sister became absolutely obsessed with The Monkees when their show reran on MTV in the 1980s. Today there are plenty of reruns on MTV2, and almost anything old is available online, whether on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, or less legit but equally popular streaming sites.
To create this list we had to do two things:
1. Find the best TV shows from the '80s and '90s.
2. Find out how many teenagers like these shows.
For No. 1, we used IMDB. We searched for the most-popular TV shows according to their MOVIEmeter. You can try it yourself. Go here and change the URL to the period you’re interested in. So the '90s will be “&year=1990,1999."
To find out what teenagers like, we used Facebook. For each show we searched how many U.S. based users, between the ages of 13 and 19, like that show.
We crunched the numbers on scores of TV shows that originally aired during the ’80s and ’90s to see which have the most Facebook likes among 13- to 19-year-olds. One show, Friends, which debuted in 1994, had more than 2 million likes, and we found 24 others that had more than 100,000 likes. (See our graphic below for a full list of the most popular shows.)
Those numbers may not seem huge compared with, say, Breaking Bad’s 7.3 million likes on Facebook—but Nielsen’s Twitter TV rating tells us that “the Twitter TV audience for an episode is, on average, 50 times larger than the authors who are generating tweets.” One can can probably apply a similar amplifier effect to Facebook likes.
Not all hit TV shows from back in the day are resonating among today’s kids. MacGyver, the long-running show about a secret agent who prefers to solve crimes using duct tape and a Swiss Army knife rather than handle a gun, has a measly 13,000 likes among teenagers. Beverly Hills, 90210, the Aaron Spelling show that was on the air for 11 years, has only 13,200 likes.
Some pundits believe that pop culture nostalgia comes in 20-year cycles, which explains why the ’90s are so viral right now—and why, in our number crunching, the shows from the ’90s were, as a group, more popular today than the shows from the ’80s. Even today’s hipsters, who are supposed to not like anything, love the ’90s.
Judging by the social media commentary around the shows we looked at, some teens like the old fare because they think it’s quality TV—just like their parents did when the shows originally aired. Or they may just happen to like sitcoms, which are harder and harder to find today in the sea of supernatural dramas and reality shows aimed at teens. But other kids watch the old shows for the kitsch factor: So they can goof on them and tweet about it.
Fresh Prince, one of the most enduring ’90s TV shows, experienced a bittersweet resurgence in nostalgia last week with the news of James Avery’s death. Avery played Uncle Phil, Will Smith’s intimidating but well-meaning father figure.
A fake Will Smith Twitter account posted a screenshot of a direct message conversation with “NBC” about reuniting the cast in Avery’s memory. The message said if 300,000 people retweeted it, NBC would consider it. Over 300,000 did, a nice indication of popularity, but sadly not for a real cause.
Boy Meets World fans do have something to look forward to: Girl Meets World, set to premiere on the Disney Channel sometime this year. The sequel to the hit sitcom will star Ben Savage (Cory) and Danielle Fishel (Topanga) as parents of a 7th grader, navigating the ups and downs of junior high the same way they did 20 years earlier.
In the end, ’90s cultural dominance likely comes from a mix of reasons. They have dated references and outfits, but enjoyably cheesy life lessons and takeaways that remain the same. (Is Modern Family basically just an updated, more diverse Full House?) They’re available online, via TV, tablet and smartphone, at any time. And, let’s face it, today’s theme songs just don’t compare.