As real-life events shaped this turbulent decade, TV shows encouraged viewers to turn on, tune in, and drop out

By Jamie Malanowski
Updated February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

February 1962: John Glenn was going into space; I was ensconced in third grade. Some perspicacious adult thought we children should witness this historic moment and so arranged to have an obliging mom pull, in a wagon, her heavy, rabbit-eared black-and-white TV to school. We were ecstatic. A holiday mood prevailed, which slowly ebbed in the face of the technical reports and the static image of a rocket sitting on a launch pad. His patience exhausted, one kid rolled his eyes and said, ”Can’t we watch Huckleberry Hound?”

That, in a nutshell, was the choice TV in the ’60s provided: coverage of astounding history-making events or entertainment programs offering little more than featherweight amusements. The news divisions put into our living rooms jarring scenes of police drenching civil rights marchers with fire hoses and of GIs on patrol in the Mekong Delta. And much has been written about how the moving images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral legitimized TV in the eyes of a mourning public. But those four days of coverage had little impact in elevating the overall standards of the industry: The distance between fiction and reality remained immeasurable. The entertainment divisions pushed shows about talking horses and talking cars. News of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination disrupted The Flying Nun and Bewitched. Bobby Kennedy’s burial preempted Petticoat Junction.

The music and movie industries were quickest to react to the thunderous events of the ’60s. TV — run by execs who unswervingly protected their bottom line — showed little interest in taking risks artistic or political. Ed Sullivan hosted the Rolling Stones, then stopped them from singing ”Let’s Spend the Night Together.” CBS’ plan of airing controversial entertainers began and abruptly ended with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. There were courageous exceptions: In 1965, I Spy showed a black man and a white man working together in the national interest, a remarkable statement just one year after the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

In retrospect, the era did offer some splendid programs (The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek). Still, relative to this turbulent decade, the bulk of TV’s offerings were, in the literal sense, timeless. For better or worse, in the ’60s, it was a medium of cowpokes and physicians, serene moms and befuddled dads, square-jawed cops and stranded castaways, all going about the business of ignoring the outside world.

Sept. 26, 1962
In the second season’s opening credits, Van Dyke instantly cemented his rep as TV’s most agile physical comedian by tripping spectacularly over the Petries’ living-room ottoman. Creator Carl Reiner filmed an alternate version with Van Dyke sidestepping the obstacle — and aired them in a random rotation. ”People were placing bets on whether I would or wouldn’t [trip],” recalls Van Dyke. Thirty-three years after CBS’ hit left the air, fans still think of him as a fall guy: ”They say, ‘Would you fall over something for us?’ And I say, ‘I can still do it, but now it hurts.”’ Rank 51

Oct. 1, 1962
As Ed McMahon tells it, right before he and Johnny Carson were to tape their first show, he turned to Carson and asked, “How do you see my role tonight?” To which Johnny replied, “Ed, I don’t even know how I see my own role. Let’s just entertain the hell out of them.” That might sound corny to post Letterman cynics, but what other American entertainer can claim being the most popular in his field for 30 straight years? Previous hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar may have built NBC’s Tonight Show into a growing concern, but once Carson arrived, late night became Johnny time. Unfortunately for the heirs to his throne, many viewers continue to think so. Rank 10

Nov. 22-25, 1963
Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force Base on Nov. 22 a little after 6 p.m., a mere two minutes after technicians had frantically cobbled together a bank of microphones that would enable Lyndon Johnson, the new President, to address the nation. Before he spoke, however, the coffin containing the body of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, was taken off the plane, accompanied by his widow, Jacqueline, her suit and stockings stained with his blood. Though doctors, nurses, and even Lady Bird Johnson had suggested she freshen up, the former First Lady declined, saying: ”Let them see what they’ve done.” And so, within hours of the horrific crime, the two people most immediately affected by Kennedy’s assassination were incorporating television into their response: Johnson, to establish that the democratic order would prevail, and Jackie, to demonstrate the loss.

Television had been good to Kennedy. It appreciated his looks and style; it loved the way his wife showed off the White House. Less clear was whether Kennedy loved TV. On the one hand, he oversaw the start of satellite communications that let signals be sent around the world. At the same time, however, his first FCC chairman, Newton Minow, derided TV as ”a vast wasteland,” and in 1963, his second was readying legislation to limit the amount of commercial time available to the networks. Television on the morning of Nov. 22 was at best an immature medium that produced a disposable product. By nightfall that was no longer true.

In the days following the assassination, network cameras caught nearly everything: the tremor in Walter Cronkite’s visage as he removed his glasses and relayed the official announcement of Kennedy’s demise. The frantic scenes from police headquarters in Dallas. The gray faces of ex-Presidents Truman and Eisenhower as they walked up to the White House in the rain. That long weekend marked the moment we became a TV nation: Not only did television surpass print for primacy as a news source for the first time, it created a focal point for the public’s grief. By the time the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was broadcast live on Nov. 24, TV had not only become legitimate, but necessary. The point was driven home the following day, when the images from the funeral — a riderless horse, a veiled widow, a young son’s salute — were transmitted into our cultural consciousness.

”When the President was assassinated,” says Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes, who has spent his life in TV news, ”people did not go to church or to meetings. They came to their televisions, and everybody who was watching was, in a sense, holding hands. They were saying, ‘Father Walter, tell us everything will be okay.’ And ever since, the real TV clergymen have not been Billy Graham or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw. Because in times of crisis, we now turn to them to hear that everything will be all right.” Rank 1

Sept. 9, 1963
Forget Flintstones vitamins. This was Flintstones Viagra. Ann-Margret (appearing as Ann-Margrock) slinked onto the show to purr a few sexy ditties. Prime-time animation had arrived: Stars yearned to appear as prehistoric caricatures of themselves. Says producer Joe Barbera: ”People say [we] just ripped off The Honeymooners. But did they have Ann-Margrock? Did they have a Stoneway piano?” Rank 99

Dec. 7, 1963
Instant replay changed the way we watch TV. Stop. Rewind. Let’s see that again! Instant replay changed the way we watch TV — as well as what we expect from sports programming. That’s to say, by allowing us to review action, it lets us see the subtext. When CBS director Tony Verna first aired his innovation (showing Army’s Rollie Stichweh scoring on a one-yard run), the announcer had to warn audiences, ”This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army has not scored again!” But viewers caught on fast: Today, our society of immediate-gratification junkies watches as much for the replay as for live action. ”Everything has to be instant: instant e-mail, instant news,” says Verna. ”That’s the legacy of instant replay.” Rank 33

Jan 8, 1964
There was no stunt-casting, no who-shot-Jethro cliff-hanger, just the usual Hillbilly high jinks with Granny mistaking a kangaroo for a huge hare. Yet this unremarkable episode still holds the record for the highest-rated half-hour program ever, a testament to the CBS sitcom’s groundbreaking popularity. ”The critics didn’t care for the show,” says creator Paul Henning. ”But the people liked it, and that’s who we were out to please.” The Hillbillies‘ fish-out-of-backwater formula spread quickly, spawning popular (and critically flogged) follow-ups Green Acres, Gilligan’s Island, and Petticoat Junction. Rank 52

Feb. 9, 1964
The Beatles hit the CBS variety show as the not-quite-Fab Four. TV changed that: By presenting the Whole Package — the music, the hair, the grins (or in Ringo’s case, the deadpan), the electrical energy (the show trained the cameras almost as frequently on the screaming fans as it did the moptops) — Beatlemania was born. ”That first appearance,” says rock historian Robert Christgau (Grown Up All Wrong), ”turned a pop fad into a full-culture craze.” Rank 9

Sept. 16, 1964
”We broke the fourth wall and talked straight to kids and parents,” says Sales about his anarchist kiddie show. Sales had been telling hilariously bad puns since the ’50s, but he hit his stride with this afternoon program. His humor was raucous (like Howdy Doody before him) and conceptual (like Pee-wee Herman after him). In one segment, he talked to faceless animal puppets (only their arms were shown), a weird variation on Shari Lewis’ then-popular Lamb Chop. ”I’d literally fall down laughing at the stuff we were improvising,” says Sales. ”People thought I was nuts, but kids loved the craziness.” Rank 98

Dec. 9, 1965
CBS’ first Peanuts special reigns as the supreme holiday TV tradition for its sophistication and anticommercialism message. ”I said if we’re going to do a Christmas show, we have to use the passage from St. Luke [about the birth of Christ],” says creator Charles Schulz. While he thought the animation, done in four short months, was ”terrible,” the success of the Emmy-winning special (featuring Vince Guaraldi’s classic score) led to more than 30 additional Peanuts shows. Rank 91

Dec. 20, 1965
”Music changed when the Beatles arrived, and game shows changed when Chuck Barris’ shows came on,” says David Schwartz, editor of The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows. With Dating, Barris established what would become his signature theme song: ”All You Need Is Sex.” Next up: The Newlywed Game in 1966. And then: the envelope-pushing madness of The Gong Show in 1976. After Barris’ cheese wizardry, it wasn’t a big leap to Studs, Change of Heart, or David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks. Rank 35

Aug. 29, 1967
Dr. Richard Kimble may have spent four seasons on a solitary quest, but when he finally caught up to his one-armed nemesis, 30 million viewers were there to cheer him on. The series finale set a ratings record that lasted until 1980. Oddly, Lew Wasserman, the powerful head of the studio that owned The Fugitive, opposed the then-novel idea of a finale. ”He said it would kill the syndication value of the series,” says creator Roy Huggins. But producer Quinn Martin created a model of hype that would become an industry standard. Rank 11

Jan. 11, 1968
The generation gap never seemed wider than in this episode of NBC’s cop show, in which serious-as-a-heart-attack LAPD sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb) busts hippies hopped up on acid. ”You’re pretty high and far-out, aren’t you?” Friday derides Blue Boy, a pusher with a painted face. Written and directed by Webb, the episode reflects the last stand of WWII-era morals against the Vietnam counterculture. ”Jack hated anything that culture represented,” recalls Heather Menzies Urich, who played a young user. And that’s just the facts, ma’am. Rank 97

Rowan & Martin’s variety show debuts Jan. 22, 1968
While hippies, yippies, and trippies were butting heads with the Establishment, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin recruited an ensemble of then unknowns (including Ruth Buzzi, Arte John son, Jo Anne Worley, and a ditzy bikini babe named Goldie Hawn) to tweak both sides with an innuendo-laced barrage of skits, sight gags, and one-liners. The first show contained seven pot jokes, says Martin, but the NBC censors ”didn’t get one of them.” A lot of America did, though, prompting a generation to celebrate the show as a model of post-modern comedy. (Saturday Night Live, anyone…?) Rank 54

Feb. 27, 1968
In a special CBS news report, the venerated newsman, who had just toured the front lines, pronounced: ”It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…with each escalation the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.” By lending his voice to the increasingly mainstream opposition to the war, Cronkite’s quasi-editorial carried huge symbolic significance. Says Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A Television History, President Lyndon Johnson responded, ”Walter’s double-crossed me, and he’s changed public opinion” Adds Karnow: ”That is the power of television.” Rank 20

Sept. 24, 1968
When launching its hipster cop drama starring Clarence Williams III, Peggy Lipton, and Michael Cole, ABC touted the ”swinging young people who live the beat scene.” But the real star of the 1968-73 series was producer Aaron Spelling, who would go on to create a three-decade-long string of hits. His delinquents-as-undercover-cops premise thrilled teens, and the show’s high ratings made youth-driven TV a network priority. In the ’90s, Spelling would successfully exploit young-adult angst and cool hairdos again, with Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed. Rank 22

Dec. 3, 1968
It was supposed to be just another special, but NBC producer Steve Binder saw it as an opportunity to permit Elvis Presley to redeem himself after years of making schlocky movies. The artist agreed, and he reached back to his roots in an almost mystical trance — losing ”not just self-consciousness, but consciousness itself,” says biographer Peter Guralnick (Careless Love). The singer lets rip on rock and blues songs, wearing black leather as if it were the only fit raiment for a King. Rank 46

June 3, 1969
Viewers who tuned in to watch ”Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode of the three-season-old Star Trek, thought they were seeing the last of the engaging but low-rated sci-fi drama. Even the series’ star was sure the end had come. ”I was deathly sick with the flu,” says William Shatner. ”The whole thing was symbolic: the dying actor, the dying series.” Of course, Trek went on to pull the mother of all Lazarus acts. Soon after the airing of ”Intruder” — an overwrought psycho-thriller in which a woman takes over Kirk’s body — the series discovered new life in syndication. Flash-forward three spin-off series, nine feature films, and billions in merchandising later, and it’s clear 7:30 p.m., June 3, 1969, didn’t mark Trek‘s last gasp, but rather its time of birth. Rank 26

July 20, 1969
A science experiment witnessed by 94 percent of all Americans with sets, and nearly a billion viewers worldwide, Neil Armstrong’s small step was, says Andy Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, ”the first time a major event in the history of exploration was witnessed by a major section of the world, live.” Chaikin, whose book was the basis for the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, adds: ”Television’s ghostly, dreamlike pictures from the moon were somehow exactly right for this almost unbelievable event.” Rank 8

Sept. 15, 1969
”A funeral was absolutely the worst thing you could have in a commercial — and that’s why it was so right.” So speaks Roy Grace, art director of the historic ad about a miser who motors his VW Bug into a limo-packed cemetery. The deliciously dark spot helped fuel Madison Avenue’s Creative Revolution, when many ads became more interesting than the shows they interrupted. Rank 25

Nov. 13, 1969
The PBS children’s show was in its first season when a soon-to-be-famous amphibian bared his insecurities in a wistful ballad about self-acceptance (”It’s not easy bein’ green/It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things”), written by Street‘s music director, Joe Raposo. ”The show really grew out of idealism, and this is an idealistic song,” says former exec producer Dulcy Singer. ”It has a meaning for everybody.” Even for the Chairman of the Board: Before long, Frank Sinatra recorded Kermit’s theme, proving that the show’s seminal use of music as a teaching tool wasn’t lost on grown-ups. Rank 28

No. 1 Shows
1960 Gunsmoke*
1961 Gunsmoke
1962 Wagon Train
1963 The Beverly Hillbillies
1964 The Beverly Hillbillies

1965 Bonanza
1966 Bonanza
1967 Bonanza
1968 The Andy Griffith Show
1969 Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

*Seasons began the previous year