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10 TV Legends

10 TV Legends who Changed Television Forever


These TV legends gave us decades of our favorite shows and shaped the face of television. Some TV legends are no longer with us, while others will continue to bring us TV breakthroughs in the years ahead. They are the pioneers who have taken the TV medium and created art.

1. TV Legend: Lucille Ball

A photo of TV legend Lucille Ball
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Lucille Ball is considered by many as the queen of TV comedy. It's important to remember how groundbreaking I Love Lucy was when it premiered in 1951. Most people didn't own TV sets at that time, and in large parts of the country, there were no local affiliate stations on the air. Her show designed the TV comedy template that's still used to this day. I Love Lucy was the top show in the Nielsen ratings for most of its run, including when it ended in 1957. More than 50 years later, reruns are still on the air. Lucille Ball ran the Desilu Productions TV studio, which is now part of the Paramount Studios tour. Despite her role in the birth of TV comedy, Lucille Ball's quotes show that she values hard work more than fame or beauty.

2. TV Legend: Bill Cosby

A photo of TV legend Bill Cosby
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TV legend Bill Cosby is more than just a comedian. He has blazed trails through television for decades. When he was cast with Robert Culp on I Spy in 1965, he was the first black actor to co-star on a TV drama series. That was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. But Cosby has never been considered a "black" actor. He's worked to appeal to people of all races. His Fat Albert cartoon series and The Cosby Show TV comedy are both funny and family-friendly, which describes Bill Cosby's entire career. Before The Cosby Show premiered in 1984, many critics had said the TV comedy was dead. Not only did the show become the number-one program, it rescued the NBC network, which had long been stuck in last place in the Nielsen ratings.

3. TV Legend: Johnny Carson

A photo of TV legend Johnny Carson
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Johnny Carson wasn't the first person to host The Tonight Show on NBC, but he's the icon of late-night TV, even after retiring in 1992. Current late-night hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman both got huge career boosts thanks to Johnny Carson's invitations to appear on his show. But comedians with no connection to late-night TV also caught Carson's eye and got to appear on his stage, including Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld. For decades, millions of Americans made Johnny Carson a part of their nightly routine before going to sleep. In those days, there wasn't much else on at that time of night. But that doesn't diminish Johnny Carson's impact on television that continues even after his death.

4. TV Legend: Oprah Winfrey

A photo of TV legend Oprah Winfrey
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Like Bill Cosby before her, Oprah Winfrey has never let her skin color define her. She has made a unique and very personal connection with her audience through her ability to be herself and to share her struggles. After her syndicated talk show became an instant smash hit in 1986, Oprah Winfrey ventured into film and print media. She launched O, The Oprah Magazine and Harpo Productions. Along the way, she has become incredibly wealthy and powerful. She endorsed Barack Obama for president early in the 2008 campaign and is credited with helping him win the White House. Now she's at the helm of her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) cable TV channel, which made a sluggish start. But it's too early to count it as a rare failure.

5. TV Legend: Barbara Walters

A photo of TV legend Barbara Walters
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TV journalist Barbara Walters has been a trailblazer throughout her career. She made her national TV debut as a "Today Girl" on The Today Show in the 1960s. That was far from being an equal to the men on the program. Even though she would do her own interviews and reports, it wasn't until 1974 that she was named co-host, the first woman in that role. Two years later, Barbara Walters made headlines when she signed a $1 million a year contract with ABC to co-anchor the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner, who wasn't happy to be teamed with her. Despite the publicity of being the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast, the experiment failed in the ratings. But she later had hits with 20/20, The View and her list of TV specials.

6. TV Legend: Norman Lear

A photo of TV legend Norman Lear
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Younger TV viewers may never have seen Norman Lear's name on the TV credits. Yet he is the mind behind many of the most popular TV comedies of all time -- many still airing in reruns. Norman Lear gave us All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son and Good Times. It's hard to imagine watching TV in the 1970s without those classics. They were all groundbreaking shows, handling previously taboo subjects like racism, abortion, crime and death. The '70s were full of controversy and thanks to Norman Lear, his hit comedies were a reflection of those times. That was a huge shift from the 1960s, when despite historic events like the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, TV comedies were only a mindless escape from reality.

7. TV Legend: Lorne Michaels

A photo of TV legend Lorne Michaels
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TV producer Lorne Michaels was also able to capitalize on the societal changes of the 1970s to create breakthrough television. Saturday Night Live pushed boundaries and propelled many cast members on to bigger careers, like Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey. The live element puts an edge on the show -- viewers never know if they're about to witness a historic moment in the making or a train wreck. Lorne Michaels has had to evolve his show over the years so that it remains culturally relevant. SNL sketches have been turned into movies, like The Blues Brothers. His show has hit low spots, which have sparked occasional rumors of cancellation, but it always seems to return with fresh faces and a new outlook on comedy.

8. TV Legend: Walter Cronkite

A photo of TV legend Walter Cronkite
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Just as Johnny Carson is the enduring icon of late-night television, Walter Cronkite will always be the face of the nightly network newscast. After he took the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News, the broadcast was able to pull ahead of NBC. But Walter Cronkite influenced American life beyond the TV ratings. In one of the 12 events that changed the news, Walter Cronkite's personal reporting on the Vietnam War in 1968 began to change public opinion about the war and may have led President Lyndon B. Johnson to end his political career. Unlike many unemotional newscasters of his era, Walter Cronkite wasn't afraid to show his sorrow over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or his joy over man landing on the moon.

9. TV Legend: Mike Wallace

A photo of TV legend Mike Wallace
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The CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes is full of journalists at the top of their profession, but arguably it's the face of Mike Wallace that has marked the broadcast. Through his probing TV interview style, he can get people to reveal their innermost selves. That was true whether Mike Wallace interviewed crooked politicians or famous actors. Though he died in 2012, the style he brought to 60 Minutes will continue as will its ratings dominance on Sunday evenings. But hard-hitting interviews sometimes bring controversy. U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland sued CBS for libel after Mike Wallace interviewed him for a documentary. The case was later settled. Mike Wallace's legacy will live on through his son Chris Wallace, an anchor on Fox News Channel.

10. TV Legend: Mark Burnett

A photo of TV legend Mark Burnett
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You may think reality TV producer Mark Burnett doesn't belong on this list of 10 TV legends. But he's credited with making reality TV a prime time genre that's the equal of comedy or drama. His credits include Survivor and The Apprentice. While we may now take those shows for granted, think back to the excitement they created when they first aired because they were a fresh alternative to scripted television. Because they are cheaper to produce than comedies or dramas, we can count on reality TV to stick around. But Mark Burnett knows the planning and creativity required to execute reality TV successfully. He's won many Emmy Awards for his work and has even been executive producer of the Emmy Awards annual telecast.

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