Television and the World – A History Lesson

written by Sarah McLean

I’ve talked before about how television and movies often reflect what is happening in the world, and vice versa. I’ve recently been making my way through CNN’s The Sixties, The Seventies and The Eighties – a Tom Hanks’ produced documentary-style program covering each decade in depth – from TV and entertainment to music to current events and political affairs. In other words: the history classes we never got to take in high school or college because they weren’t “history” enough.

The premier episode for each season delves in to the television landscape. I really wish they had covered the fifties, and subsequently, the birth of modern television, but the sixties is a good place to start as far as TV content is concerned.

I won’t ruin each episode, you should really check out all 3 seasons yourself (at the time of this writing The Sixties and The Seventies were available on Netflix, while The Eighties could be found repeating on CNN or OnDemand), but I do want to talk about how each decade’s television content played a role within the decade and how it laid the groundwork for the future.


The Sixties – When Television Came of Age

While the 1950s was the birth of TV, by the time the 1960s came around filling television with programming and substantive content was still a relatively new concept. The ‘60s brought with it the shift of filming everything live, which limited quality, to taping for later airing. Much like when we were young children, a lot really hadn’t been explored, so everything was possible. America was growing up in the real world and so was television. By the mid ‘60s innocence made way for sophistication. As the culture changed the shows changed with it. Our black and white world jumped into blistering color overnight. JFK’s assassination and the subsequent British Invasion not only changed America’s dynamic on a personal level, it also had an impact in the television world. From acid-inspired shows to escapism to protests to trying to hold on to family values TV walked side by side with what was happening in America. Espionage and the space race with Russia were both prominent while the popularity of Westerns from the ‘50s remained. This was the era where today’s modern content was finding its footing.

Notable TV debuts: Adam-12; The Fugitive; Get Smart; The Avengers; I Spy; The Mod Squad; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In; The Carol Burnett Show; The Jetsons; The Flintstones; The Andy Griffith Show; The Brady Bunch; Family Affair; The Dick Van Dyke Show; My Three Sons; The Virginian; Daniel Boone; Star Trek: The Original Series; My Favorite Martian; Lost in Space; Bewitched; I Dream of Jeannie; The Monkees; Gilligan’s Island; The Munsters; The Addams Family; Hogan’s Heroes; F Troop; Mister Ed; Green Acres; Petticoat Junction; The Beverly Hillbillies


The Seventies – Television Gets Real

So if the 1960s were the modern foundation, what were the ‘70s? Well, aside from the well-documented “jiggle TV” of Aaron Spelling-created shows by mid-decade,1970s television upped the ante with its ability to simultaneously be both sophisticated and silly. It was the era of excess and the advent of the spin-off, thanks to comedy genius Norman Lear. America was in a major upheaval. Between Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, disco vs punk, and civil rights, America was in dire straits and wanted this discussion happening publicly. TV was now in the hands of the “TV generation” – those that grew up with it knew how to maximize it for all its worth. Shit. Got. Real. The fantastical shows of the ‘60s made way for real life. No more were there the “new frontiers” of the West and space. People wanted to talk about what was happening now. We saw single females living without husbands by choice, a women’s right to have an abortion, the perils and absurdity of war through satire, racism confronted head on, the creation of the miniseries and HBO – TV was growing up. However, like with anything in life, there needs to be balance. With the heavy, comes the light. The ‘70s also saw nostalgia for the simpler times of the ‘50s, thanks to Garry Marshall, as well as an endless stream of sitcom catchphrases and outlandish, boundary-pushing sketch comedy. Like we do in our turbulent teen years, the ‘70s dared people, and TV, to take a risk and question everything.

Notable TV debuts: Monty Python’s Flying Circus; Saturday Night Live; The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour; The Flip Wilson Show; CHiPS; Charlie’s Angels; Taxi; One Day at a Time; Roots; The Jeffersons; Sanford and Son; Good Times; All in the Family; Maude; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Rhoda; The Bob Newhart Show; M*A*S*H; Three’s Company; Mork & Mindy; Happy Days; Laverne & Shirley; The Partridge Family; Little House on the Prairie; The Waltons; Starsky & Hutch; Chico and the Man; The Bionic Woman; The Six Million Dollar Man; The Love Boat; Fantasy Island; Welcome Back, Kotter; Kojak; Barney Miller; Baretta; The Rockford Files; WKRP in Cincinnati; The Dukes of Hazzard; The Muppet Show; Diff’rent Strokes; The Facts of Life


The Eighties – Raised on Television

To continue the analogy, television is now an adult. As most of us know, being an adult isn’t what we thought it would be. We have our own families, endless bills comprised of mortgages and never-ending student loans and jobs we hopefully tolerate. The 1980s, for all intents and purposes, was the decade of dichotomy – a divide between gut-wrenching events and frothy entertainment, from what we thought life would be like to how it actually ended up. For the first time, it seemed like real life and TV were operating independently from each other. From hostages in Iran, to the Challenger exploding (live on TV no less) to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, America was juxtaposed with Jane Fonda workout videos, Wrestlemania, video games and computers. The 1980s changed the way we consumed television. VCRs allowed us to watch shows when we chose to as well as bring home big screen movies. Remote controls made channel surfing more efficient. Season cliffhangers lead to water cooler moments. Cable introduced us to 24 hours of music videos, news and weather. Daytime talk shows and real-life court room dramas (or comedies, depending how you look at it) were the precursors to the reality shows we watch today. If the ‘70s had an excess of content, the ‘80s took their excess and doubled down. Women lead TV shows and no one cared, older people had content aimed at them, the uber-excess-lifestyle was prominent, and some of the greatest, most influential and longest-running sitcoms started.

Notable TV debuts: Cagney & Lacey; Kate & Allie; The Golden Girls; Matlock; Murder, She Wrote; Highway to Heaven; Miami Vice; MacGyver; Knight Rider; Magnum P.I.; The A Team; Cheers; Newhart; Roseanne; Murphy Brown; ALF; Night Court; Who’s the Boss?; The Cosby Show; The Simpsons; Married… With Children; Seinfeld; The Wonder Years; Family Ties, Growing Pains; L.A. Law; St. Elsewhere; Hill Street Blues; Dallas; Dynasty; Thirtysomething; Simon & Simon; Moonlighting; The Fall Guy; Punky Brewster; Perfect Strangers; Bosom Buddies; Silver Spoons; Mr. Belvedere; My Two Dads; Family Matters; Charles in Charge; Full House; The Greatest American Hero; 21 Jump Street; Quantum Leap; A Current Affair; The Oprah Winfrey Show; The Phil Donahue Show; Sally; The People’s Court


The Future

I could delve into the 1990s and 2000s, but Tom Hanks and CNN haven’t done specials on them (yet), so I won’t. However, I think it’s truly interesting to see how culture shapes, and is shaped by television. For however different shows from each decade seem to be, they are ultimately the same: they either provide us an escape from the tragedies of the world, or tackle them head on. The wheel that is TV is constantly being poked at, prodded, refined and made more effective and reflective. Sometimes in our tinkering we unintentionally poke a hole and need to fix it, but like with all events in history, we learn from our mistakes and keep moving forward.


What are your thoughts about how TV coincides with our history? Did you learn something new about each decade? Did I miss any noteworthy shows? Let me know! Oh yeah, there will be a quiz on this tomorrow!

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