5 surprising things that 1960s TV changed | CNN (2022)

Katie McLaughlin, CNN

Updated 3:45 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

By 1960, television was firmly entrenched as America's new hearth. Close to 90% of households had a TV, making the device almost ubiquitous. The ensuing decade would see the medium grow in both importance and range.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

The first televised presidential debate was on September 26, 1960, and it involved U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, left, and Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The debate is largely credited with helping to make a star out of Kennedy, who won the election later that year.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

First lady Jackie Kennedy is shown in the Red Room of the White House on January 15, 1962, during the CBS News special program "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy." The program showed off the restoration work that was spearheaded by the first lady.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

Johnny Carson, with sidekick Ed McMahon, took over NBC's "Tonight Show" on October 1, 1962. Carson became a TV titan, hosting the program for 30 years and setting the bar for every late-night host to follow.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd in Washington during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, also known as the Freedom March, on August 28, 1963. The speech is considered one of the most important in American history, and it helped rally support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

President Kennedy was assassinated during a motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

Two days after Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald -- the man who had been charged with killing the president -- was fatally shot by Jack Ruby as Oswald was being escorted through the Dallas police basement. Oswald's shooting was shown live on national television.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

In 1963's thrilling Army-Navy game, Navy beat Army 21-15 behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. Today, the game is best remembered for the introduction of instant replay -- though many TV watchers were unaware of the technology and slammed CBS' switchboard in confusion. Now instant replay is a regular part of sports broadcasts.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

On February 9, 1964, the Beatles made their U.S. debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," kicking off the American strain of "Beatlemania" -- a fever that had already infected their native Britain. The show remains one of the highest-rated entertainment programs of all time.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

"The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC," the announcer intoned. The 1965 fall season opened with almost all of the "Peacock Network's" prime-time schedule produced on color film. By 1973, more than half of TV homes had a color set.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" could have been a bland animated special, but thanks to "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and his collaborators, it was something more. The show, which first aired in 1965, didn't use a laugh track. It included a jazz music score and -- most controversially -- featured Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke. The special was both a critical and commercial hit, and it has become a holiday mainstay.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

The two-part finale of "The Fugitive," which aired in August 1967, concluded the four-year run of the series about a doctor (David Janssen) pursuing a mysterious one-armed man (Bill Raisch) he believes killed his wife. The final episode was the most-watched series episode to that time, with more than 45% of the nation tuning in.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

"The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" had a countercultural bent that regularly raised hackles -- and delighted fans. Here, The Who's Pete Townshend, right, helps host Tom Smothers destroy his acoustic guitar as singer Roger Daltrey looks on following The Who's performance of "My Generation." The Smothers' battles with their network, CBS, would eventually lead to the show's cancellation.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite reports from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Cronkite's special, "Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite," concluded with his observation that the war would end in a stalemate. One month later, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

The 1968 Democratic Convention, held in Chicago, was a scene of chaos both inside and outside the convention hall. At one point, CBS correspondent Dan Rather, center, was treated roughly by security, prompting anchor Cronkite to comment, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan." Outside, protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching."

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

The 1968 presidential campaign went down to the wire, and little things may have made the difference -- such as Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, going on the popular "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" to say one of the show's catchphrases: "Sock it to me." Here, Nixon is flanked by Dan Rowan, left, and Dick Martin at an event in October 1968.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

In September 1968, the newsmagazine "60 Minutes" -- created and produced by Don Hewitt, center -- premiered with Harry Reasoner, left, and Mike Wallace, right. The tremendously influential show spawned a host of imitators and is still on the air today.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

Viewers hoping to see the wild conclusion of the AFL game between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders got a huge shock on November 17, 1968, when the broadcast was cut off so NBC could air a movie version of "Heidi" starring Jennifer Edwards. Angry fans flooded NBC's switchboard with calls. From then on, all networks stayed with their football contests until the end before moving to regularly scheduled programming. (The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute to come back and beat the Jets in what would forever be known as "The Heidi Game.")

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

In the "Plato's Stepchildren" episode of "Star Trek," which aired November 22, 1968, William Shatner (as Capt. Kirk) and Nichelle Nichols (as Lt. Uhura) kissed -- the first interracial kiss in TV history. The medium grappled cautiously with race relations through the decade.

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Defining moments in 1960s television —

Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. salutes the U.S. flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Aldrin and mission commander Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the moon. Globally, more than half a billion people watched on television.

Editor’s Note: Discover your ’60s personality by taking the CNN Sixties quiz.

Story highlights

In the '60s, Americans came to rely on TV for information and entertainment

With the Kennedy-Nixon debate, TV changed political campaigns

Shows, like "The Twilight Zone," tackled hot-button issues like racism

CNN

It’s hard for today’s generation to imagine watching TV in the 1960s – there was no TiVo or DVR (or even VCR). You watched what the networks put on and that was it.

And oh yeah, there were only three channels.

Yet television made some groundbreaking advancements in this decade as we learned from this week’s episode of “The Sixties,” and here are a few of them:

1. Television becomes a political force

By 1960, most American households had a television, and that year’s Nixon/Kennedy debate was the first televised presidential debate. For many Americans, it was their first introduction to John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was approached about the idea of debating his political opponent on television, he agreed immediately.

Kennedy was comfortable on-camera and sure he’d win. Nixon, however, began to sweat during the televised debate, and the American people began to doubt him.

No one realized just how much TV mattered until after those 1960 debates.

promo cnn sixties thu premiere_00000108.jpg video Watch a clip of CNN's "The Sixties"
exp promo series sixties britishinvasion reviews_00001709.jpg video The Sixties: The British Invasion Promo
video MLK and Malcolm X met only once?
1967, Woburn Abbey, Hippies enjoy themselves at the 1967 Woburn Abbey Love In (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images gallery 60 iconic moments from the 1960s

Later that election season, Kennedy appeared as a guest on NBC’s “The Jack Parr Tonight Show”; and when Nixon ran for president again in 1968, he made a brief appearance on the sketch comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and uttered the show’s famous catchphrase, “Sock it to me.” It was the first time a presidential candidate had appeared on a comedy show.

For the rest of his life, Nixon maintained that his appearance on “Laugh-In” won him the 1968 election.

So while TV arguably cost Nixon the election once, it may very well have snagged him the election the second time around.

If you enjoyed President Barack Obama’s appearances on “The Tonight Show” and Letterman, you can thank Richard Nixon.

From “The Sixties: Television Comes of Age” episode: Watch infamous “Tonight Show” tomahawk demo

2. The rise of TV journalism

Before the Kennedy presidency, television was far behind print journalism in terms of sources audiences relied upon for news. But soon, people relied on TV news for the day’s headlines as well as information on American troops in Vietnam, particularly the numbers of those killed or wounded.

When something major happened on TV, it affected the whole country at the same exact time.

TV news was the polar opposite of entertainment TV. The civil rights era, the JFK assassination and the space race all unfolded on TV.

As David Brinkley stated, “Television showed the American people TO the American people.”

During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, 83 million Americans were glued to their television sets as 10,000 antiwar protesters outside the Chicago Hilton chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” over and over as police pushed the crowd off Chicago’s Balbo Drive.

3. TV reaches a broader audience

“The TV was the center of the house,” recalled Tom Hanks, one of the executive producers of CNN’s “The Sixties” series. “I don’t remember a time without TV.”

Remember, there were only three channels (CBS, NBC and ABC) during the decade, and usually only one TV set per household. There were no “for mature audiences only” warnings.

The syrupy sitcoms of the 1950s made way for shows such as “The Dick van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” These showcased more realistic situations, although there were still the same idealized versions of humanity as the previous decade.

Griffith has stated that he put the best parts of himself and the people in his life into the inhabitants of the fictional town of Mayberry to achieve a blend of emotional honesty and laughs. That blueprint served as the benchmark for sitcoms for decades to come.

courtesy Craig Riegelhaupt gallery The late '60s through your eyes
President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with the Martin Luther KIng Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 3. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images gallery The civil rights movement in photos
The young band pose for a portrait in a boat, 1964. From left to right are: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Bill Wyman. Bassist Wyman joined the Stones in 1962 before leaving in 1993. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images gallery 50 years of the Rolling Stones
Nikita S. Krushchev speaking to East German Communist Party Congress on January 14, 1963 Robert Lackenbach/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images gallery 1963: From "General Hospital," to the death of a pope

“Leave It to Beaver,” which aired from 1957 to 1963, was the first show shot from the perspective of a child, bringing to life those universal embarrassing moments from childhood that kids were certain they’d never overcome, such as bringing home a bad grade or approaching the object of one’s affection.

Related: Archive of CNN’s May 29th Facebook Q&A with Jerry Mathers

That kid-centric model was later replicated in TV shows such as “The Wonder Years” and, more recently, “The Goldbergs.”

Eventually, shows began blending that “reality” with fantasy, which led to copycats: “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.”

4. The advent of the variety show

During the ’60s, there were 18 variety shows going on three networks!

It’s safe to say that television went “variety show crazy” for a while. Sunday night at 8 meant Ed Sullivan; but Dean Martin, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and Carol Burnett, to name a few, had eponymous variety-hour programs, too.

Beatles + Sullivan = Revolution: Why Beatlemania could never happen today

Variety was considered a man’s game at the time, but Burnett broke down a lot of walls with her three-wall sketch show. She and her cast mates sang, danced and did pratfalls – often breaking character and cracking one another up in the process. Kind of a precursor to SNL’s Debbie Downer sketch or most of Jimmy Fallon’s SNL sketches.

Burnett felt that if she was having fun, her audience would, too.

From “The Sixties: Television Comes of Age” episode: Carol Burnett’s pratfalls

5. Television begins to tackle serious issues

Through a fantasy/sci-fi lens, “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling often told stories of racism and fascism. Similarly, “Star Trek” addressed the notion of a time where social evolution has eradicated prejudice and mankind possesses no bias whatsoever. The space age series even featured TV’s first interracial kiss, in which Capt. James Kirk tells Lt. Uhura, a black woman, “Where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference.”

What you might not know about the 1964 Civil Rights Act

When Bill Cosby won the Emmy Award for male lead in “I Spy” in 1968, he stated in his acceptance speech, “We need more people in this industry to … let it be known to the bigots and the racists that they don’t count.”

Incidentally, race was a nonissue in “I Spy.” Cosby and actor Robert Culp, who was white, were equals in the series in which they played intelligence officers.

BONUS: There actually IS a legit reason why The Flying Nun can “fly”

The explanation: She weighs 90 pounds and the combination of her cornet and the wind lifts her. Totally makes sense. Now if only someone could explain how The Professor made all those nifty contraptions – usually out of coconuts – but couldn’t cobble together a (coconut) raft to get the gang off “Gilligan’s Island.”

Related: How Sally Field’s ‘Gidget’ broke the rules

Related: Television today is much better, right?

Related: 20 groundbreaking moments from ’60s TV

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