75 YEARS OF TELEVISION

What are your favorite types of television programs? Do you like comedies, cop shows, movies, reality shows, news shows, sports, or a combination of the above? We all have our own opinions. Although the technology for sending and receiving tv signals had been around for several years, April 30, 1939 is the date that is generally cited as the birth of tv viewing as we know it. Why that date so precisely? Well, that was the opening date of the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, NY, and on that date President Franklyn D. Roosevelt opened the Fair with a speech that was carried on tv. To be sure, the speech could only be viewed by a very limited number of people – essentially, fairgoers who could view the speech at the Westinghouse and RCA Pavilions and a few thousand people in the NYC area who had tv sets and were within the very limited signal range, but it was a start.

In 1939 a tv set cost up to $10,000 in today’s dollars, not very affordable. But, before long, advances in technology and manufacturing efficiency reduced the price of a tv to within the range of the middle class. People bought more and more tv sets, tv stations multiplied, radio shows shifted to tv, and tv as we know it evolved into what it is today. For better or worse, tv has been an essential part of our lives – entertainer, news provider, and baby sitter, to name a few. It remains such even with the development of the internet and social media.

So, what have been your favorite tv shows? Which ones stand out in your memory from your childhood and/or young adulthood? Everyone has his or her own list. Mine includes seven that I not only enjoyed tremendously, but also that I consider to have been significant milestones. I could name many more, but I am limited by time and space. Therefore, below please find my list in alphabetical order.

1. ALL IN THE FAMILY

The show ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979. It was the first series to lead the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years (1971-1976). The main stars were Carroll O’Connor as Archie, Jean Stapelton as Edith, Sally Struthers as Gloria, their daughter, and Rob Reiner as Michael aka “Meathead.” It was considered to be a big risk as it was the first tv show to deal with controversial issues such as racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape and the Viet Nam War, which had been considered taboo on tv. The rousing success of the show paved the way for other shows to follow suit. In those pre-DVR days, many people stayed home on Saturday nights just to watch the show. Archie was seen as a “lovable bigot” and the good-natured butt of the jokes. His debates with Michael, the hippie son-in-law, were seen as allegories for debates taking place in the country as a whole. Audiences understood the humor, and did not take offense. It is difficult to imagine such a show being as successful in this day and age of political correctness.

2. CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE

Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962-1981). During this pre-internet era the evening news was the critical vehicle to provide most Americans with up-to-date news, and, therefore, shape public opinion. Cronkite’s seminal moment came when he “scooped” the rest of the news media to report that President Kennedy had been assassinated. His around-the-clock coverage of this critical event in an era of relatively primitive communications was extraordinary. I vividly remember the moment he told the nation that JFK had died. He stopped speaking, put on his glasses and read from a bulletin that had just been handed to him: “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time (glancing up at the clock on the wall) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” He was also a strong supporter of the NASA space program, covering it extensively. He reminded people of their grandfather. At least one public opinion poll named him “the most trusted man in America.” When he began to express doubts about the Viet Nam War he helped turn public opinion against it.

3. ESPN

ESPN launched on September 7, 1979 as the first all-sports network. At the time there were significant doubts that it would last. Critics asked, how could they expect to fill 24 hours a day solely with sports talk? Well, 43 years later ESPN has not only succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but it has spawned a plethora of imitators all over the country. At last count, approximately 98 million households (86% of cable customers) receive ESPN. It has also provided a second career for hundreds of former athletes as announcers, hosts and commentators.

4. I LOVE LUCY

I Love Lucy starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were married to each other in real life, with William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz, their landlords and friends. The show ran on CBS from 1951-1957 and was the most watched show during four of those six seasons. The show was a groundbreaker in several ways. For example, tv producers, in their infinite non-wisdom were reluctant to cast Desi Arnaz in the lead role because he was Cuban. Depicting an interracial marriage on tv was thought to be too risque, but, in the end Desi and Lucy prevailed. It was the first scripted show to be shot in front of a live audience. In addition, Lucy’s pregnancy with Desi Jr. became part of the show, which was a very controversial subject matter in the stodgy 1950s. They couldn’t even mention the word “pregnant” despite the fact that in several epicodes leading up to the birth Lucy is clearly shown to be pregnant. They even showed the real-life birth on tv with an audience of 44 million. In later years, when standards and mores became more permissive, Lucy recounted how controversial it was, saying that censors were loath even to mention the word “pregnant.” They tip-toed around the word in several ways, even calling one epicode “Lucy is Enceinte,” which is French for pregnant. Now, she reportedly said, “you can not only mention it but also show how the woman got that way.”

5. SESAME STREET

Sesame Street premiered in 1969. It is an educational television series aimed at children, which entertains and teaches primarily through the use of “muppets” developed by Jim Henson. It has and still does play a substantial role in educating young children. According to a recent survey approximately 77 million Americans had watched the show as children.

6. TEXACO STAR THEATRE

The Texaco Star Theatre ran from 1948 – 1956. TST was the first really popular tv show. It was hugely popular, and its star, Milton Berle, became known as “Mr. Television.” In fact, it was so popular that it was largely credited with driving the sales of tv sets. Tv ownership increased from 500,000 in 1948 to over 30 million in 1956. Many of those purchasing tv sets did so to watch “Uncle Miltie.”

7. TONIGHT SHOW

“Heeeeere’s Johnny!” The Tonight Show debuted in 1954 on NBC. It demonstrated that late night tv could be a ratings and money making bonanza for the networks. The best acknowledgment of this is the many imitators that have been launched through the years by all the networks. Imitation is the strongest form of flattery. Through it all, however, “Tonight” has remained #1.

It has had many hosts (How many of them can you name? See the list below.), but the best, most influential and most famous was Johnny Carson, who hosted from 1962-1992. For 30 years people would tune in, many of them undressed and in bed, to hear that famous cry and be entertained. How influential was Carson? Countless entertainers who made their debut on the show have gone on to be big stars. Furthermore, it is said that Carson singlehandedly created a run on toilet paper in the US after he commented, in jest, about a looming shortage. (Note: there have been ten permanent hosts of the Tonight Show, not counting the many guest hosts. They are Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lescoulie, Al “Jazzbo” Collins, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno – twice, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon.)

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

Well, that’s my list. As I said my selections are based on both the quality of the show and the show’s significance in influencing later tv shows and American culture. What’s your list. I’d like to know.

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