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Memorable Moments in TV

Television is the most eclectic medium in the world. On its screen, politicians -hehave like actors, actors suddenly become politicians, the tasteful is paired with the tasteless, and the real is seamlessly blended into the unreal, as sitcoms like I Love Lucy play alongside documentaries like "Harvest of Shame. "What stands out in all that diversity? Any opinion, of course, would be purely subjective, but for the record, here is one bleary-eyed watcher's list of 17 memorable moments in the medium, chosen for their significance as events of drama, history, and/or just plain muddleheadedness.





The most famous event of the 1952 presidential campaign was Richard M. Nixon's "Checkers Speech," telecast live on NBC on September 23, 1952. In it, the vicepresidential candidate defended himself against charges of using a secret campaign fund. He described his humble beginnings, his war record, his simple family life (Pat was seated near him), and his triumphs in Congress. He concluded by saying that he had received a campaign gift, a spotted cocker spaniel his children had named Checkers. "You know," Nixon intoned, "the kids, like all kids, love that dog, and I· just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it." This down-home, sentimental appeal was immensely successful-after the broadcast the Republican party was swamped by calls and letters supporting the young senator-and professional politicians all over the country took note of TV's power to sway the voters with a well-staged show.




[[wysiwyg_imageupload:1428:]]Not every political show won the highest ratings. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were inaugurated in the first coast-to-coast live television transmission at noon on January 20, 1953. But that event was overshadowed by another: the birth on the previous day of Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show. For three months, Lucy's producers had built episodes around star Lucille Ball's real-life pregnancy; by January 19, when, by coincidence, the birth of both Lucy's fictional and real babies occurred, the viewers and the press had become hooked. More than 70 percent of all television watchers that evening were tuned to the birth, which crowded the inauguration out of many newspaper headlines and cemented the popularity of the sitcom form in general and I Love Lucy in particular. The viewing audience continued to increase, and by April 1952 Lucy had become the first program in television's history to be seen in 10 million homes. The baby show made it number one in the ratings, a position it held for four out of the next six years. In the future, ailing sitcoms would pump up their ratings with similar special events-births, marriages, deaths-although never to quite the same effect.




3 "THERE IS NOTHING LIKE ... " To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Ford Motor Company bought two hours simultaneously on CBS, NBC, and ABC for June 15, 1953, I and recruited Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and other Broadway luminaries to present the first all-star special on network TV. Although clips were shown from such movies as The Birth of a Nation and of sporting events such as Babe Ruth's 60th homer, most viewers best remember the musical numbers performed by Merman and Martin, including "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "There is Nothing like a Dame." The show's musical-comedy pieces, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, became models for future variety programs.

4 JULIE'S SWAN SONG. Probably the most popular entertainer on early television was Arthur Godfrey, who hosted a series of weekly TV shows between 1948 and 1959-Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Arthur Godfrey and His Ukelele, Arthur Godfrey Time, and The Arthur Godfrey Show--as well as a radio program each week, all (except Talent Scouts) featuring music, conversation, and a "family" of regulars. One member, young singer Julius La Rosa, became a cause celebre on October 19, 1953, when Godfrey, apparently upset that La Rosa was becoming too popular on the show, fired him on the air. Mter La Rosa had sung "I'll Take Manhattan," Godfrey noted that the singer was an Arthur Godfrey discovery and added, "That was Julie's swan song with us; he now goes out on his own, as his own star." The subsequent press furor tarnished Godfrey's Mr. Nice Guy image. His popularityand ratings-were never the same again.



Senator Joseph McCarthy was something of a master manipulator of the media, and he used television as one of his rnost effective forums for accusations. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow was the first to take a public stand against the senator in three memorable See it Now broadcasts, on March 9, March 16, and April 6, 1954. The most severe blow to the senator's prestige, however, came in the spring of 1954. A series of Senate hearings had just begun (on April 22) to examine charges that McCarthy had tried to pressure the Army into giving preferential treatment to a member of his staff who had been drafted. In the televised hearngs McCarthy appeared pushy and insensitive, especially when he crudely tried to besmirch the reputation of a young aide to Special Army Counsel Joseph Welch, who movingly exclaimed, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? Have you no sense of decency at long last?" McCarthy was condemned by the Senate on December 2, 1954, by a vote of 67 to 22.


6 ''A REALLY BIG SHOW." For 23 years, beginning in 1948, Ed Sullivan mixed comedy, music, dance, acrobatics, and anything else he found interesting on his Sunday night variety program, The Toast of the Town (later changed to The Ed Sullivan Show). But his most famous (and most highly rated) guests were probably Elvis Presley and The Beatles. For a fee of $50,000, the 21-year-old Presley appeared on the shows of September 9, 1956,  October 28, 1956, and January 6, 1957. The first show created controversy over his "lascivious posturings"; by his third appearance, when complaints had continued to build, the camera would only show him in close-ups. Years later, on February 9, 1964, Sullivan introduced The Beatles to the American public, helping to boost their popularity here, as well as earning record ratings for his show. For the next decade, rock 'n' roll acts became a staple on the series.  



Before 1here was Johnny Carson there was the emotional Jack Paar, who made the late-night Tonight Show one of NBC’s biggest successes from 1957 to 1%2. Paar was more unpredictable than Carson, and on February 11, 1960, the host, piqued that NBC had censored an off-color joke of his the night before, angrily chastised the network and walked off. His sidekick, Hugh Downs, was left to emcee the show, and Paar Was not coaxed back until March 7, when he attacked the press for criticizing his actions.

8 "HE'S BEEN SHOT!" Within 48 hours of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963, his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself murdered before the stunned eyes of millions watching live coverage on NBC. The Dallas police, trying to oblige the media, had made something of a circus of Oswald's arrest. An officer noted that the case was "cinched," displayed the "murder weapon," and said there were "apparently fifteen witnesses to the killing." To accommodate television, a late-night jail transfer of Oswald was moved to midday. At 12:21 EST on November 24, Oswald appeared between two officers in a crowded basement garage. Suddenly, a man in a hat (Jack Ruby) shot him. TV, noted one critic, was now affecting events simply by being there.


LIVE DEATH. The tide of public opinion was beginning to turn against the Vietnam War in early 1968. In February, the T et Offensive, a major Vietcong victory, made a mockery of U.S. claims that a U.S. victory was near. Viewers were further stunned later that year when NBC News showed a South Vietnamese police chief putting a revolver to the head of a Vietcong prisoner and pulling the trigger; the man collapsed, blood spurting from his head. Such images became a staple of nightly newscasts, dispelling most of the public's heroic notions about the war.

1 0 "THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING." The 1968 Democratic Convention, held in Chicago in late August, was the most tumultuous in years, symbolizing more than anything else the deep ideological split in the United States over the Vietnam War. A public-relations fiasco for the Democrats and Chicago, the television coverage intercut the convention hall speeches with vivid scenes of violence outside: the Chicago police fighting youthful antiwar protesters with nightsticks, tear gas, and Mace. "The whole world is watching," chanted the protesters, and Americans were infuriated by the police, frightened by the protesters, and angry with the television medium itself for forcing them, in one observer's words, "to ch~se sides."

11 “NOW LISTEN, YOU QUEER.”All the excitement of the 1968 Democratic Convention did not take place on the streets. As part of the convention coverage, ABC hired archconservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal to comment on the proceedings. The chemistry was intentionally provocative: Buckely and Vidal had been frequent antagonists, ever since their separate appearances on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show in the early Sixties. At the 1968 Republican Convention –– held first that year –– the two engaged in heated debates that frequently became personal, but nothing matched their last exchange during the later Democratic confab, when the two began arguing about the attitudes and actions of the Chicago police and the antiwar demonstrators. "As far as I'm concerned," said Vidal to Buckley, "the only cryptoNazi I can think of is yourself." Buckley's retort: "Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." Moderator Howard K. Smith stepped in: "Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Let's not call names." Buckley: "Let Myra Breckenridge [an allusion to a book Vidal had written about a person who undergoes a male-to-female sex change] go back to his pornography and stop making allusions to Nazism .... I was in the infantry in the last war." Smith finally ended the proceedings by remarking, "There was a little more heat and a little less light than usual, but it was still very worth hearing."


12-HEIDI AND THE FOOTBALL GAME. The New York Jets-Oakland Raiders football match, carried live by NBC on November 17,1968, had one minute of playing time to go, with the Jets comfortably ahead. NBC cut from the promoted TV version of Heidi on schedule. The decision meant that football fans missed an incredible comeback that won the game for Oakland in the last minute. NBC was punished for this miscalculation with a flood of angry calls and letters.



13 "ONE SMALL STEP." On July 20, 1969, as some 300 million to three quarters of a billion people watched and/or heard, Neil A. Armstrong set foot on the moon, proclaiming, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." That leap was debated: the Apollo program, which culminated in the moon landing, had cost taxpayers $25 billion. Many critics likened it to the building of the Pyramidsprestigious but useless. To others, however, it was a glorious day, proving that nothing was impossible.
















14 "A HUMOROUS SPOTLiGHT." On January 12, 1971, American television was changed forever by the premiere of All in the Family. Based on a British program about a bigoted father and his liberal son, the U.S. series chronicled the adventures of right-wing, blue-collar worker Archie Bunker and his family: "dinghat" wife Edith, "meathead" son-in-law Mike, and liberal daughter Gloria. The series was a groundbreaker for a number of reasons, including its treatment of such controversial subjects as birth control, homosexuality, and abortion and its use of many previously unbroadcastable words. It also dealt openly with politics, sex, and bigotry, which was unusual in television until then. Although network executives were concerned about audience reaction to the show (even preceding it with an announcement that "All in the Family. . : seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, our prejudices, and concerns ... "), the opening episode hardly caused a murmur. By the summer, however, it was the mostwatched program on TV, proving that audiences could accept subjects previously deemed unacceptable-if they were treated in an intelligent fashion. Rather than its shock value, All in the Family (which is still running, now as Archie Bunker's Place) owed its success to its literate scripts. good ensemble acting, and believable situations.



The most compelling –– because it was real –– series since the Army-McCarthy hearings was the Senate's investigation into President Richard M. Nixon's involvement in the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic Committee's Washington offices at the Watergate apartment complex. The 1973 summer hearings, covered live on a rotating basis by the networks and rebroadcast in full by PBS in the evenings, featured a cast of tight-lipped administration officials and probing senators. The hearings' ratings grew steadily, as did the public's respect for PBS, which allowed millions of working men and women to view the hearings. In June, former Nixon counsel John Dean presented dramatic, damaging evidence. But in retrospect the most damning moment came ·on July 16, when former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield admitted that the president had taped many of his own conversations. The tapes became the focal point of more drama in subsequent hearings as the senators tried to obtain them.

16 NIXON EXITS. By July 24, 1974, Watergate had led to formal House impeachment hearings, the first since the Civil War. Three articles of impeachment had been voted when President Nixon released a tape indicating that he had obstructed justice in the Watergate affair. On August 9-in a speech covered live by all three networks-he resigned, refusing to admit any wrongdoing. Then, in a farewell speech to his staff, Nixon asked for forgiveness; three years later, in a TV interview with David Frost, he said he had been wrongbecause he had given his enemies a "sword, which they twisted" with glee.


17 WHO SHOT J.R.? For 13 years, the highest-rated episode from a TV series was the last show of The Fugitive, seen in August 1967 by over 50 percent of the American audience. Then on November 21, 1980, Dallas, a nighttime soap opera depicting the proctivities of Texas wheelerdealers, broke that recordas well as those set by the Super Bowl, the World Series, and Roots. The despicable lead character, J.R. Ewing, had been shot in the last episode of the previous season. Throughout summer reruns an intensive publicity campaign by CBS built up interest in the assailant's identitymagazines featured cover stories, bookies took betsuntil November 21, when CBS staged a "Dallas Week," screening four episodes. The last one revealed that the culprit had been J.R.'s mistress. The episode, and the series, helped propel CBS back into the number-one spot after a two-year reign by ABC. •




A NOTE FROM TS: This article was one of my most popular, appearing first in DIVERSION, and then in newspapers like the Times-Union in Rochester, N.Y., the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the tabloid paper, The Star. I also appeared on radio's Rambling With Gambling, among others. These days, publications like Entertainment Weekly have made such "Top 10" and "Top 20" lists something of a cliche, althouh back in the early 1980s, I guess it was something of a novelty.