The 60s: A Decade Of Amazing TV Firsts

The 1960s broke a lot of new ground in many different areas of culture in America. Television, in particular, saw a host of firsts including the first airings of many classic and still well-known TV series as well as delivering a series of historic moments – as many people switched from radio to the television.

Breaking New Ground

Television culture has come to reflect the attitudes and the big issues of the day and it was in the 1960s that this first became true. So let’s take a walk down memory lane and see what came to be during the 1960s on American national television.

The First Televised Presidential Debate

In 1960 Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared up for the first time on broadcast TV. It’s easy to see from watching the clip that Kennedy was most at home using the medium of television and many people who watched the debate felt that he’d got the better of Nixon.

Interestingly, those who listened to the debate, without seeing it, on the radio vehemently disagreed. They felt Kennedy’s efforts were without substance and that Nixon had dominated the debate.

This marks the first time where image began to become more important than substance for politicians in America.

TV Ownership Passed a Major Threshold

In 1960 the percentage of American homes with a television passed the 90% threshold. That meant that nearly every American had a television set in their own home and was able to watch television at their leisure.

By the end of the decade, there were nearly 600 commercial TV stations competing for over $3.6 billion in revenue. A year later in 1970 there were 700 stations and today there are nearly 1,300. In today’s terms that $3.6 billion would now be worth over $60 billion. Television had become one of the most lucrative markets in America and far surpassed the radio markets of days gone by.

The Flintstones Went Prime Time

The Flintstones first aired on the ABC network on September 30, 1960, and it ran until April 1, 1966. The cartoon series showed Fred Flintstone and his wife, Wilma and their neighbors Betty and Barney Rubble living in a pre-historic world with a certain amount of modern style life interwoven with everything.

It would remain the most successful animated television debut of all time until three decades later when The Simpsons hit the small screen. The show bore more than a passing resemblance to the live series The Honeymooners and Fred Flintstone looks quite a bit like Jackie Gleason who played the lead in The Honeymooners.

The First Live Presidential News Conference

On the 25th of January, 1961 President John F. Kennedy became the first American President to hold a live press conference on television.

He began by reading a statement which related to a famine in the region which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He continued with an explanation as to how two American pilots had been freed from Russian custody and finished by raising points regarding forthcoming negotiations on atomic test ban treaties.

After which, he threw open the floor for reporters to ask questions. Kennedy later admitted that he knew his appearance mattered as much as what he said that day.

Dr. Kildare Came to the Small Screen

In 1961, there were several doctor-style shows that came to the small screen including Ben Casey but the best known of them all was Dr. Kildaire. Dr. Kildare began life as the creation of the author Frederick Schiller Faust, under the pen name of Max Brand, in the 1930s.

Several movies were made of the stories in the decades leading up to the 1960s but it was Richard Chamberlain in the starring role that really cemented the character’s popularity in the American imagination.

The character would reappear in the 1970s series Young Dr. Kildaire but the series was a commercial flop and was quickly canceled.

The “Vast Wasteland” Speech

Television’s early years were very much focused on the commercial potential of television without any real consideration of the power that television had in people’s lives.

In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow sought to change this. He made a speech which is famous for the phrase “vast wasteland” (it referred to the absence of a planned landscape for television) which encouraged broadcasters to balance the commercial with the public benefit.

In particular, he urged the possibilities for education to be seized upon and for the nation to learn from the use of television. In hindsight in 2011, Minnow said he felt he’d underestimated the power of television.

The First Television Broadcast Satellite

The 1960s was the decade of the space race and it is the moon landings for which it will be best remembered. However, from a television perspective, the most important day in the space race was July 10, 1962.

On that day the Telstar 1 communications satellite was launched and with it came the ability to communicate from every corner of the globe. Television could now be “live” from anywhere.

Its sister satellite, Telstar 2, was launched into space in 1963. Strangely, while neither satellite is in service anymore, both of them are still up there orbiting above our heads.

The Tonight Show Began A 30-Year Run

In 1962, The Tonight Show – starring Johnny Carson – was first aired on October 1. It broke new ground and established the current late-night talk show format.

The program began with a fast-paced monologue full of one-liner jokes and then went into a sketch comedy routine before focusing on interviews and music. Carson’s show attracted some of the biggest names in America including former Vice-President Nixon, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton.

More than 50 million people watched the final show when Carson went into retirement. That show was the first and only episode with no guest stars.

The Law Required TV Manufacturers To Make A Change

In 1962, the United States Congress passed the All-Channel Reciever Act. It required all TV manufacturers to support both UHF and VHF signals.

This was in direct response to the panic of public interest broadcasters who operated mainly on UHF frequencies. The successful major networks all broadcast on VHF by this time and it was seen as desirable to enable as much competition as possible in the American television market.

The law has been changed several times over the years to recognize that significant changes have been made to the way television is broadcast and consumed in the USA.

Television Kicked The Newspapers Into The Trash

Until 1963, the majority of American citizens got their main news stories primarily from the newspapers of the day.

The trend has never reversed. Today 57% of Americans consider the television to be their primary news source, with the internet and radio in second and third places. Print media is now in the last place and only it’s only thanks to those over 50 it survives at all. Fewer than 5% of 18-29-year-olds read any kind of newspaper.

General Hospital Races Toward the Record Books

According to The Guinness Book of World Records, General Hospital is the longest-running soap in America and is the third longest-running drama show in the world (just behind the British series The Archers and Coronation Street.)

It began in 1963 on April 1st and it was only the second soap ever to air on the ABC network (the first, Road to Reality, had been canceled after only a few months on air).

In its 50+ year run, General Hospital has won more Emmys than any other daytime television production. Faithful fans have watched more than 13,000 episodes in total.

The Assassination of a President

President John F. Kennedy was the first (and thankfully last) president to be assassinated in the TV age in 1963. The coverage of his assassination in Dallas, Texas would change the nation.

For four days the country hung on every word of coverage as the major networks tried to show what had happened and what might happen in the future.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s nearly immediate arrest ensured that the there was plenty to say regarding the issue. Oswald’s subsequent murder at the hands of Jack Ruby, as Oswald was transferred from Dallas Jail, would become the first live televised murder in American history too.

Pro-Football and the Power of Instant Replay

The NFL is America’s sport and the only surprising thing is that it took until 1964 before somebody realized that showing it on television would be a good idea.

The instant replay was considered to transform football from a “go and see it in person” to a “made for TV” sport.

Of course, even in 1964 it wasn’t a cheap license to pick up and CBS paid the handsome sum of $28 million for their rights to broadcast the NFL into the homes of the nation. By 2022 ESPN will be paying nearly $1 billion a year for the NFL rights by way of comparison.

Gilligan’s Island Cast Off

Gilligan is recognized as a major American cultural icon but peculiarly, the show itself wasn’t a runaway success when it was launched in 1964. It survived only a 3 season run and came off the air in April of 1967.

The plot revolved around 7 castaways on a desert island and their inevitable conflicts as they tried to survive and thrive despite their misfortune.

It was the act of syndication which saved Gilligan’s Island from obscurity. Constant repeat plays on multiple channels, particularly during the 70s and 80s, brought the show to millions who’d not seen it during its actual airing.

The Beatles Took America By Storm

The Beatles were the supergroup of the 1960s. The “Fab Four” from Liverpool were the first major trans-Atlantic crossover act and they enabled the “British Invasion” of the United States pop and rock charts.

They’d become popular in 1962 in the United Kingdom but it wasn’t until 1964 that their first American TV appearance brought “Beatle-mania” to the shores of the United States.

The show they appeared on was The Ed Sullivan Show one of America’s greatest TV shows of all time. The result? The Beatles became the greatest selling band of all time in America.

The 1960s Brought Us Jeopardy

Jeopardy! the American game show classic was created by Merv Griffin and it debuted on American television in March 1964 on NBC.

It ran for over 10 years until January 1975, it was rebooted from October 1978 to March 1979 and then again in 1984 and it is still running in that incarnation today.

It is known throughout the world for its “question as an answer” format and is syndicated far and wide. There are also several local versions such as the one filmed in Japan. It is the recipient of over 30 Daytime Emmy Awards and is considered to be one of the greatest TV shows in American history.

Edward R. Murrow Passed Away

Edward R. Murrow (or Ed Murrow as he was better known) was originally involved in radio broadcast before being one of the first television broadcast professionals.

His efforts included a reporting series which led to the eventual censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy and an end to the anti-communist and homophobic witch hunts that had pervaded all aspects of American life in the 1950s.

Ed Murrow was considered by his peers to be a bastion of honesty and integrity in journalism. He passed away in 1965 of lung cancer. This was almost certainly linked to smoking three packets of cigarettes a day for most of his life.

Days Of Our Lives Began

Days of Our Lives launched on November 8, 1965. It would become one of the longest running soap operas in the world.

It was seen on SOAPnet twice daily in addition to its NBC time slot when SOAPnet folded in 2013 – Days of Our Lives kept on going. It had been renewed until 2017 and there is an option for another year beyond that.

In the 1960s the show won praise for its portrayal of ordinary American lives and by the 1970s it was considered to be the most daring drama show on national television. Today, it remains the most widely-distributed soap opera in the United States.

Fred Friendly Resigned

Fred Friendly was a colleague to Ed Murrow and also had a reputation for sterling levels of integrity.

When CBS made the decision, in 1966, to show an episode of the hit comedy I Love Lucy rather than cover the United States Senate hearings which were exploring the American involvement in Vietnam. Fred had had enough of the broadcasting business. He resigned that day.

The resignation is attributed to the fact that Fred had no direct access to the top brass at CBS and thus couldn’t make his opinion known effect on the hearings’ importance. Fred would go on to become a leading figure on PBS.

Star Trek Boldly Went Where No Man had Gone Before

Star Trek would become one of the world’s best-loved science-fiction franchises over the decades but it had fairly humble beginnings. It first aired in 1966.

Star Trek: The Original Series, as it would become known, was set in the 2260s and starred William Shatner as James T. Kirk. The voiceover on the credits is one of the most widely known TV intros of all time: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Batman Breaks Out

1966 was also the first year that Batman appeared on American television. While the Batman franchise would go on to receive serious treatment in the cinema – the TV series had far more of a comedic bent.

The series, starring Adam West as Batman, also played the role of a public education program. Buried in nearly every episode were serious messages about issues such as the importance of doing homework, wearing a seat belt when driving and consuming vegetables with meals.

The series was canceled not just due to poor ratings (in fact NBC had intended to take it over from ABC) but because someone destroyed all the sets which were valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Corporation For Public Broadcasting Was Formed

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was formed in 1967. Its government-mandated mission was to promote and support public broadcasting in America.

The CPB is designed to ensure that non-commercial but high-quality content can reach American audiences. It works by distributing funding to nearly 1,500 TV and radio stations throughout the country.

In 2014, the CPB spend over $220 million in direct grants for TV stations and gave $74 million in additional television programming grants. Its budget comes from both donations and the federal government.

Stations which wish to take advantage of CPB grants must meet a stringent list of transparency requirements.

The Super Bowl Is Broadcast Live To The Nation

The first Super Bowl was played on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. IT was also broadcast live to the nation.

The NFL champions going into the game were the Green Bay Packers. The AFL champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.

There was a lot riding on the game as both leagues maintained that their’s was the superior form of football. The expectation was that the NFL team, being from the older and more established league, would dominate over the AFL team. It proved to be the case when the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs by 35 to 10.

The Phil Donahue Show

The Phil Donahue Show had humble beginnings for a talk show that would go on to be ranked in the top fifty TV shows of all time by TV Guide. It was locally broadcast in Dayton, Ohio from 1967.

It took three years before the show was picked up for national syndication and became one of the most popular and well-known shows in American history. Among other achievements, Donahue introduced the American public to hip-hop with the first-ever televised performance of breakdancing on national TV during the 1980s.

Donahue would be canceled in the 1990s and the cancellation is often attributed to his expression of doubt over the Gulf War.

Walter Cronkite Admits Vietnam Is Going Badly

In 1968, America found itself bogged down in war that it couldn’t win. Intervention in Vietnam had seemed a trifling matter when President Lyndon B. Johnson had decided that decisive action was needed to drive communists from the South East Asian nation in 1963.

It didn’t turn out that way and by 1968 it was clear that American intervention wasn’t achieving much and “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, said as much when he declared “that a stalemate might be the best America can hope for in its fight against the Vietcong” much to the chagrin of President Johnson.

60 Minutes From The 1960s

The television news magazine 60 Minutes seems like an integral part of American life that has always been with us and the show made its debut in 1968.

It began life as a bi-weekly show which alternated with other news productions every other Tuesday. The original format was to focus on people affected by news events around the world but it bombed and the program was quickly revamped to focus on hard news as it does today.

Since the Nielsen Ratings began 60 Minutes has been in the top 20 shows watched in America every single year except for 2005-2006 when it slipped to 21. It is the most successful program in television history based on those ratings.

Julia Tackled Racial Stereotyping

The series Julia, which first aired in 1968, was one of the very first to show an African-American woman who wasn’t cast in a stereotypical role. In a departure from form, where American shows normally showed black women as servants, Julia featured Diahann Carroll as a nurse. It was a comedy which also, unusually, didn’t rely on a laugh track though when the series went into syndication in the 1980s for rebroadcasting – a laugh track was added.

The series was praised for casting a black woman in a new light and, at the same time, criticized for failing to make that portrayal very accurate.

Just One More Thing – Columbo

In 1968, the screen detective Columbo received his first airing. The series is famous for its unusually long episodes (they are all at least 73 minutes in length and some are as long as 100 minutes) and its eponymous lead character, played by Peter Falk.

The episode “Murder by the Book” was directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and is considered to be one of the top 100 episodes of any series by TV Guide.

The Writers Guild of America also ranked Columbo highly in the 101 Best Written TV Series of all time. Columbo has now aired in over 40 countries worldwide.

Sesame Street Reaches The World’s Children

Sesame Street is possibly the most popular children’s series in history. It first aired on PBS in November of 1969.

It is estimated that 95% of all American children have seen Sesame Street and that nearly 80 million Americans have watched it regularly at some point in their lives. It has won 167 Emmy Awards and a number of Grammy Awards making it the children’s program with the most awards in history.

The 2009 40th-anniversary episode, was watched by over 120 million people when it was broadcast in over 140 countries. There are also over 20 localized “co-productions” of Sesame Street around the world.

We Went To The Moon

There is, perhaps, no other television first from the 1960s which played such an important role internationally as the event of July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong took the first ever walk on the moon, live on television.

It confirmed the importance of television not just at home but also across the world as more than 720 million people tuned in to watch the intrepid American’s first steps on another celestial body.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” in this famous phrase wasn’t heard on the original broadcast – though Armstrong insists that he said it all the same.

The Andy Griffth Show Started Its 11-Year Run

The 1960s were full of comedy series which would stand the test of the time, but few would become as iconic as The Andy Griffith Show. Premiering on October 3, 1960, the show would run for 11 years, total 249 half-hour episodes until they cast said goodbye on September 6, 1971.

The Andy Griffth Show starred Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and showcased his life in the sleepy, slow-paced fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. While Sheriff Taylor may have been level-headed, his partner Barney Fife (Don Knotts) wasn’t exactly the same. Fife may have been inept, but it sure made for a great series!

Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Was Popular But Didn’t Address Social Issues

Speaking of the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was a spin-off that aired September 25, 1964, through May 2, 1969. The show ran 150 half-hour episodes and was an immediate hit. But although Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was the second highest rated television shows of the time, the show avoided addressing any of the social issues of the ’60s.

Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. followed the activities of a Marine Corps private but left out surprising details. For one, the series never mentioned the Vietnam War. The show also never mentioned any racial issues despite taking place in a small North Carolina town. Considering how much social commentary seeps its ways into today’s television, it’s interesting to see how different TV was in the ’60s.

I Dream Of Jeannie Premiered In 1965

Who could forget Jeannie’s pink 1960s-era harem costume? I Dream of Jeannie premiered on September 18, 1965, and five seasons and 139 episodes, called it quits on May 26, 1970, making it a defining television show of the ’60s decade.

Following a 2,000-year-old genie (Barbara Eden) and an astronaut (Larry Hagman), the pair falls in love and gets married. Like many popular sitcoms of the decade, I Dream of Jeannie has been turned into many spin-offs, including I Still Dream of Jeannie which aired in 1991.

Variety Shows Made Their Debut

The Carol Burnett Show – A Reunion, the 1993 CBS television special featuring (from left) Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Carol Burnett, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence. Copyright © 1993 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.
The Carol Burnett Show – A Reunion, the 1993 CBS television special featuring (from left) Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Carol Burnett, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence. Copyright © 1993 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.

The 1960s saw the advent of the variety show and the subsequent rise in their popularity. In fact, there were 18 variety shows airing on three different networks during this time!

The ’60s was undoubtedly variety show crazy for a minute, with the likes of Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and Carol Burnett amongst the roster. While variety shows were dominated by men, Burnett changed the game with her three-wall sketch show. Along with her castmates, they would dance and often broke character, cracking each other up during the process.

America’s New Favorite Witch

Bewitched is one of the most loved television series of all time. Debuting on September 17, 1964, Bewitched had a successful run until its final episode on March 25, 1972. The show followed a witch (played by Elizabeth Montgomery) who marries an ordinary man, with no supernatural powers and vows to be a “normal” housewife. While the show itself lasted eight seasons, Montgomery’s signature nose twitch is still recognizable to this day. Multiple spin-offs have even been made, including a full-on remake starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, but none of the attempts have ever quite captured what the original could.

Martin Luther King Gives His “I Have a Dream” Speech

On August 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” to a crowd of more than 250,000 people in Washington during the Freedom March. His speech called for an end to the racism in the United States and called for civil and economic rights. Not only was this a defining moment in 1960’s television, but King’s speech is considered one of the most important in American history. “I Have a Dream” ultimately helped rally a support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Twilight Zone Tackled Serious Issues

The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Sterling, premiered in late 1959 and ran for five seasons through 1964 on CBS. The American television anthology series had episodes in various genres including fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller, and suspense.

The show was groundbreaking for many reasons, but one of the biggest was that it tackled serious issues of the time. Often telling stories of fascism and racism, Sterling used his platform as a screenwriter and producer to bring attention to serious societal issues. Sterling wasn’t the only one who used this platform either.

Bill Cosby Takes A Stand Against Racism

America fell in love with Bill Cosby in his lead role on the Cosby Show. But long before The Cosby show’s premiere in 1984, Cosby was taking a public stand against racism in the ’60s. After becoming the first African American actor to win an Emmy for his role in I Spy, Cosby gave an intense speech on national television. According to CNN Entertainment, after thanking his team, Cosby added, “We need more people in this industry to … let it be known to the bigots and the racists that they don’t count.”

The 1963 Army-Navy Football Game

You already know that the magic that the instant replay was considered to transform football from a “go and see it in person” to a “made for TV” sport, but what about the first ’60s football game where the feature was used?

In 1963, there was a thrilling football game between the Army and the Navy. The Navy was victorious in a 21-15 win behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. The game was a close one throughout its duration, making it the perfect time to use that instant replay feature. The only problem? Many TV watchers were unaware of the technology and slammed CBS’ switchboard as a result. Luckily, after some brief confusion, instant replay became the norm and millions of Americans were able to watch the game in the comfort of their home homes.