What's your most memorable TV moment? Was it watching the events unfold on Sept. 11, or the excitement built around the finale of your favorite sitcom? The thrill of following breaking news keeps some people glued to their sets, while others enjoy TV's sheer entertainment value. No matter how you watch it -- via broadcast, cable or delayed by a DVR -- there's no question television shapes our culture.
Inventors in the 19th century theorized about and even attempted to construct devices that would transmit moving images. The first television station began broadcasting in Wheaton, Md., in 1929 [source: FCC]. By 1960, nine out of 10 U.S. households had a black and white TV set, and 12 years later half the country was watching TV in color [source: Elert]. Similarly, programming experienced explosive growth from a handful of networks to hundreds of cable and satellite stations [source: FCC].
From TV's infancy, when audiences were captivated by the many firsts in broadcast history, to today, when the airing of iconic images can effect change, television's memorable events differ from person to person and generation to generation.
Still trying to narrow your list of outstanding moments in television history? Keep reading to discover 10 that made their mark on the past half-century.
10. Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate -- 1960
When candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy stepped in front of cameras in September 1960 for the first televised presidential debate, the world had yet to realize the impact of live television on politics. The debate was inevitably to be historic as television's debut in the political arena, but it goes down in the books as something even more significant -- the precise moment at which real-time image and styling began to matter in the public sphere.
When the two candidates took their places on the brightly lit stage, Senator Kennedy, who had been campaigning in California, looked tan and fit. In contrast, Vice President Nixon, who was recovering from a two-week hospital stay, appeared underweight and pale with a 5 o'clock shadow. The podium did not hide his ill-fitting suit and he refused make-up.
Who won the debate? Those who watched the discussion on domestic issues declared Kennedy the winner. Those listening to radio, unable to see Nixon's obvious discomfort, felt he had the upper hand [source: Allen]. In reality, television came out on top because it changed the way candidates use the medium to run for office.
9. The Beatles Invade the Ed Sullivan Show -- 1964
When the Beatles boarded the plane for their first trip to the United States in 1964, they were already huge stars in Britain, but they felt America was a different story. After all, the big stars typically came to the U.K. from the U.S., not the other way around. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic, touch down in New York, perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show," give a few concerts and return home several weeks later.
Little did they know, America was waiting on the edge of its seat. In the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, the country as a whole was anxious for some positive news; and the teen population, especially the girls, was primed for the arrival of the Fab Four.
According to Nielsen estimates, 73 million people tuned in to "The Ed Sullivan Show" that evening, establishing its place in history as one of the highest-rated non-sports shows of all time [source: Leopold].
The Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan not only changed their careers, it paved the way for other British rock groups to achieve success in the U.S. But the televised performance had an even greater impact on youth culture. The show legitimized the Beatles' style of music, and their appearance influenced everything from hairstyles to clothing styles, and eventually helped widen the generation gap.
8. Apollo 11 Moon Landing -- 1969
On July 20 1969, hundreds of millions of people around the globe were glued to their TV sets in anticipation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. They sat spellbound as the lunar module detached from the spaceship and they sighed with relief when it touched down. They were captivated by the images of the astronauts emerging from the capsule and planting a flag on the surface of the moon. And they listened with rapt attention as they heard Neil Armstrong say from a distance of hundreds of thousands of miles, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
While no one truly knew what the outcome of the mission would be, it was clear that landing on the moon would establish the United States as the front-runner in the space race, and that television could send the message to the world. The event was billed as "the greatest show in the history of television" and the astronauts followed a precise script calling for Armstrong to descend the ladder, stop on the third rung from the bottom, open a storage bay containing a TV camera and continue down to the moon's surface. Buzz Aldrin followed behind with another camera to film the landscape. The images captured by the cameras were shared with the world in 1.3 seconds -- the time it takes for light to travel to Earth [source: Bushman].
To the wonder and amazement of people across the universe, television allowed them to witness humanity's greatest achievement.
7. Thrilla in Manilla -- Ali vs. Fraiser -- 1975
For most sports fans, the significance of the 1975 Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier boxing match known as The Thrilla in Manilla was the intensity of the fight and the outcome of the clash. Yet for television fans, the significance of the fight was the potential of cable television to reach the masses.
Interest in the championship fight was high, but access to it was limited, especially since the battle would be fought in the Philippines. The two heavyweight boxers, Ali and Frazier, having met twice before, were battling it out for the crown and glory. The event carried an undertone of racial politics and verbal sparring took place outside the boxing ring before the first bell sounded.
Fans were anxious to see the fight, but to broadcast it locally, television networks would have to wait for film to be delivered to the station and by that time, it would be old news. But there was a new kid on the block -- cable television. Seeing an opportunity, HBO purchased the rights to the fight and on October 1, 1975, its subscribers saw The Thrilla in Manilla live via satellite.
That night, after nearly 15 rounds, Joe Frazier's manager pulled him from the ring and Muhammad Ali was declared heavyweight champion in one of history's most brutal bouts. The instantaneous broadcast of the fight demonstrated to audiences -- both those lucky enough to see it live and those who had to wait -- the capability of cable, which in turn changed the television industry.
6. "Roots" the Mini-series -- 1977
Television programming is a risky business. Sometimes a new type of program is a hit, but just as often it flops. Since its beginning, the staples of the television menu -- comedy, drama, news and variety shows -- were usually safe bets, but in 1977 ABC stepped out of the box and introduced TV's first consecutive-night mini-series, "Roots."
The 12-hour docudrama, which followed the lives of a family of slaves over several generations, stood out not only because it aired eight nights in a row, but also through its content and presentation. Unsure of the ultimate outcome, producers cast familiar white actors in supporting roles and jammed the series into the days before "sweeps" week so it wouldn't have a negative impact on the network's ratings.
The popularity of "Roots" was unexpected and unprecedented for a number of reasons. The story depicted blacks as the heroes and whites as the villains, a move that eventually changed the industry's thinking about black-oriented programming. And by blending fact and fiction in a soap opera style, the story captivated audiences who got a history lesson at the same time, thus paving the way for the production of future docudramas.
Much to the surprise of industry executives, "Roots" earned the top ratings spot each night it aired and the highest overall rating of any entertainment program at the time, as 85% of all US homes with televisions saw some or all of the mini-series [source: Bird].
5. Who shot J.R.? Dallas Season Finale -- 1980
In the spring of 1980, the biggest question on the minds of most Americans was not whether the US should boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow. It was "Who shot J.R.?"
J.R. was J.R. Ewing, the slick and slimy Texas oil baron from the prime-time soap opera "Dallas." The show, which began as a mini-series, evolved into a fast-moving weekly series revolving around the Ewing family and their oil business. Although filled with Texas-size glitz and drama, the series was not an instant hit, and its writers struggled to find a way to keep it on the air. With nothing to lose and no real plans for future episodes, they ended the 1979-80 season with J.R. being shot by an unknown assailant. Television audiences were left wondering, "who shot J.R.?" and the Texas tycoon's many family members and business associates were listed as potential suspects.
With J.R. on the verge of death, the season cliffhanger was born. Excitement built over the summer as CBS promoted the opening episode of season three using the now-iconic question. Thanks to a television strike, audiences had to wait to learn who shot J.R., but 90 million people were not disappointed when it was revealed that it was his sister-in-law, Kristen, whom he'd been sleeping with [source: Knolle].
"Dallas" lasted 12 more seasons, but none was as anticipated as the third. A decade later, ''Twin Peaks'' created a similar frenzy by stretching out the mystery of who killed high school cheerleader Laura Palmer. A few years after that, ''The Simpsons'' used a ''Twin Peaks'' parody on its way to revealing the mystery of ''Who Shot Mr. Burns?''
4. M*A*S*H Series Finale -- 1983
Although "Dallas" earns a place in television history for its "who shot J.R.?" season finale, ''M*A*S*H'' goes down in the record books for having the most viewers ever for a series-ending episode. Until the 2010 Super Bowl, the ''M*A*S*H'' finale also held the record for the most-watched television program in U.S. history [source: ESPN].
Running from September 1972 through February 1983, ''M*A*S*H'' was groundbreaking on a number of levels. Not only was it an anti-war comedy about the Korean conflict that lasted longer than the war itself, it was shown during a time when Americans were protesting involvement in the Vietnam War. Throughout the 11-year run, characters were occasionally replaced, but the irreverent spirit of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) remained the same [source: TV Series Finale].
According to the Nielsen Co., which tracks and estimates viewership, 105.97 million people watched the 2.5 hour Feb. 28 finale, titled "Good-bye, Farewell & Amen" [source:ESPN]. Audiences were not disappointed, as the episode artfully blended the comedic and heartbreaking elements that made the series so popular. The fate of the cast members in the series finale set the bar high for producers concluding other long-running programs.
3. OJ Simpson Car Chase to Verdict -- 1994-1996
Los Angeles, best known for creating some of television's most memorable moments in the studio, has also brought viewers some of the most surreal, yet real, drama ever. From the Rodney King beating in 1991 to the verdict a year later, which sparked the LA riots, TV viewers thought they had seen it all -- until O.J. Simpson drove onto the stage.
In June 1994, police suspected the football player turned actor of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. With a warrant for Simpson's arrest, police went to his house, but he had fled with a friend in his now infamous white Ford Bronco. Police tracked him down and a nearly two-hour, slow-rolling car chase ensued until Simpson returned home and was eventually arrested. The whole event, captured by more than a dozen news helicopters and broadcast live on TV, was seen by an estimated 95 million Americans [source: Linder].
If the car chase was bizarre, the trial of Simpson for the vicious murders was equally strange. From the bloody glove and the disheveled houseguest to the high-powered defense and overmatched prosecution, viewers were glued to their TV sets for weeks as they watched the latest "Trial of the Century."
2. September 11 Terrorist Attacks
As surreal as the OJ Simpson story was, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, eclipsed those images. It was a perfect September morning, and television networks were wrapping up their final hour of morning programming with light news. NBC's "Today Show" planned to air a piece on Howard Hughes and "Good Morning America" had an interview with Princess Sarah Ferguson about weight loss.
Suddenly, the news anchors received word and live feeds of New York City's World Trade Center having been hit by an airplane. Immediately, they were thrust into the role of reporting an unfolding news event with no idea what had happened or what would happen next, as evidenced by their shocked reactions to the second plane hitting the second tower.
People across the nation and the world rushed to their televisions and watched for hours as reporters and anchors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania reported tragic news that seemed to get worse by the minute. For days, audiences were both riveted and emotionally exhausted by the developing news and stories of the victims and heroes.
When wall-to-wall coverage of the attacks ended and analysis of the media began, those people in the studios on Sept. 11 and the following days earned high marks, while it became apparent just how inadequate U.S. coverage of other nations and peoples around the world had been. As a result, names, places and ideals that were foreign to many Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, are familiar today [source: Newsweek].
1. Hurricane Katrina -- 2005
Breaking news again dominated the airwaves in August 2005. For days, meteorologists tracked Hurricane Katrina, which formed in the Atlantic and seemed headed to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This time people were prepared -- or so they thought.
When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, hundreds of reporters were on hand to cover the storm and its damage. They braved the wind and rain as they reported on the strength of the hurricane, and when it passed they prepared to leave. In New Orleans, however, they soon discovered their job was just beginning; the levees built to protect the city broke and there were new, unexpected stories to tell. As days passed and conditions worsened, television continued to send images of death and destruction to the world. Viewers watched helplessly as cameras captured images of people clinging to the roofs of their houses trying to escape the rising water, and bodies on the ground were covered as respectfully as possible.
Many otherwise stoic reporters could not hide their emotion and pleaded with the government for help on behalf of the people of Mississippi and Louisiana. They described and projected horrific images, which eventually prompted greater action on the part of local, state and national leaders. But for many people it was too late.
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- Early Television Foundation - history of TV, with pictures
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