Television wormed its way into homes and families, becoming a focal point by the 1970s. While the primary genre in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to be sitcoms, dramas increased their reach in the 1970s, edging out westerns and anthologies. They became very popular, with six of them showing on the top ten lists of the Nielsen ratings. Nielsen ratings measure the audience demographics for television shows, and the information is compiled and released by the Nielsen Company.
70s Sitcoms Are Popular
Sitcoms tend to be a perpetual favorite, probably because people love to laugh. The shows that stayed on the top ten lists for four or more years within the 1970s decade were all sitcoms. Many of these retain their popularity even today, thanks to classic TV channels, DVD sets, and digital video companies such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.
The most popular TV show in the 1970s according to the Nielsens, with first place on the top ten list five years and two years in lower ranks but still in the top ten, was All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979). This show starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker and Jean Stapleton as his wife Edith. The irreverent lead character touched a chord with viewing audiences, and the show hit the hard issues of life that had previously been “unsuitable for TV” like rape, racism, miscarriage, menopause, war, impotence, and politics.
One of the most notable episodes aired in February 1972. “Sammy’s Visit” included guest star Sammy Davis, Jr., and examines racism and racial stereotypes. Archie gets called on his bigotry, but doesn’t seem to understand that he’s bigoted. The ending scene when Sammy kisses Archie resulted in audience laughter that was sustained longer than any other time in the show’s run.
M*A*S*H Was One of the Most Popular Shows of the 70s
With six years on the top ten list, M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983) could be considered the second most popular TV show in the 1970s, even though it did not reach the number one place. Exploring the ideas of war and medicine in the Korean War, M*A*S*H is based on a 1968 novel called MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker, the series took on something of a life of its own. The series starred Alan Alda as “Hawkeye” Pierce and Loretta Swit as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. Other stars of the show included Jamie Farr as Max Klinger, William Christopher as Father Mulcahy, Harry Morgan as the beloved Colonel Potter, Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicut, David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Winchester, Larry Linville as Major Frank Burns, and Gary Burghoff as Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly.
Its most popular episode, and the only show in U.S. history to be watched by over 100 million viewers in America, was its 150-minute long finale “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”.
African-American Sitcom Ranks in Top 10 TV Shows of the 70s
A close third with five of the ten years on the top ten lists is Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972-1977), which has sometimes been called NBC’s answer to CBS’s All in the Family. Starring Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford and Demond Wilson as his son Lamont Sanford, the show ran for six years. The senior Sanford was much like Archie Bunker – bigoted and cantankerous – while the younger Sanford was his opposite – peaceful and conscientious. The first sitcom starring an African-American that became wildly popular, Sanford and Son is said to have paved the way for The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992).
Many cite episodes with Aunt Esther as their favorites. One such episode is “Wine, Women, and Aunt Esther,” aired December 14, 1973. Lamont’s parentage is in question and Fred calls his sister-in-law Esther over to discuss the situation, only to find that the woman involved was not her sister Elizabeth, after all.
Laverne and Shirley (ABC, 1976-1983) held the top spot of the top ten for two consecutive years, and the second and third spots for two other years. Penny Marshall as Laverne and Cindy Williams as Shirley played the lead roles in this sitcom that spun-off from Happy Days (ABC, 1974-1984). The roommates who work together at Shotz Brewery as bottle cappers get themselves into all kinds of scrapes and hilarity ensues. For example, when they agreed to let their upstairs neighbors (and co-workers at the brewery) find them blind dates. Their expectations were not quite the same as reality, and their experiences were not what they expected, they ended up enjoying themselves and realizing that it isn’t the physical stature of a man that matters.
Happy Days – Gave us “the Fonz”
Happy Days starred Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham and Henry Winkler as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. Happy Days is considered a classic, and the fame of the show lives on. The standard and stereotypes of the 1970s ran rampant through this show, and to this day, “The Fonz” is a synonym for “cool.” Besides Howard and Winkler, the show also starred Tom Bosley, Marion Ross, Donnie Most, Anson Williams, and Erin Moran.
“Fonzie Loves Pinky” is a three-part episode that shows some of Fonzie’s more serious side, and includes a demolition derby and a bit of rivalry, all set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The show spawned a variety of spin-offs, of which some succeeded and some failed. These include Laverne and Shirley, Blansky’s Beauties, Mork & Mindy, Out of the Blue, Joanie Loves Chachi, and the animated shows The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang and Laverne & Shirley with Special Guest Star the Fonz.
Happy Days was also the show that originated the term “jumping the shark,” which refers to a show that has chosen to insert ridiculous or outlandish plot devices in an effort to boost or maintain good ratings. Fonzie, waterskiing in trunks and his iconic leather jacket, literally jumped a confined shark, and the show’s ratings only kept dropping from there.
Other sitcoms that made the list, many of which are still well known, include Maude (CBS, 1972-1978) (which was a spin-off of All in the Family), Three’s Company (ABC, 1977-1984), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Alice (CBS, 1976-1985), The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985) (another spin-off of All in the Family and one of the longest-running sitcoms in America), Rhoda (CBS, 1974-1978), Angie (ABC, 1979-1980), Mork and Mindy (ABC, 1978-1982), The Ropers (ABC, 1979-1980) (a spin-off of Three’s Company), Taxi (ABC, 1978-1983), The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS, 1979-1985), Good Times (CBS, 1974-1979), Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), Phyllis (CBS, 1975-1977), One Day at a Time (CBS, 1975-1984), and Chico and the Man (NBC, 1974-1978).
“Book ‘im, Dano” Became a Popular Phrase in the 70s
The most popular drama in the 1970s was the police drama Hawaii Five-0 (CBS, 1968-1980). Based on a unit that actually existed in the 1940s under martial law, the show starred Jack Lord as Detective Lieutenant Steve McGarrett and James MacArthur as Dan Williams, also known as Dano. Other actors in the show included Kam Fong, Herman Wedemeyer, and Che Fong. The show ran for twelve seasons, and was in the top ten in the Nielsen ratings for four years during the decade. Probably at least partly due to its longevity and popularity, a remake began in 2010 and proves to be a popular choice among today’s viewers.
One of the most famous episodes of the show aired in 1973, and is titled “Hookman“. This episode features a double amputee who desires revenge against police (including McGarrett) for the loss of his hands. Unlike most episodes of Hawaii Five-O, “Hookman” does not end with the often-quoted line, “Book ‘im,” as the perpetrator does not survive the episode.
Another crime drama that aired on ABC from 1976-1981 and has been well known was Charlie’s Angels, which focused on a group of three women who worked as private detectives. These women were originally played by Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and Jaclyn Smith. The show was in the top ten for the first two seasons and ran for five years. It continued to have a following even after it ended, and has spawned remakes and films in recent years.
Because Sony Pictures Home Entertainment controls the show, full episodes are available at YouTube for a fee.
Other police, law, and crime dramas that were on the top ten list throughout the 1970s include Ironside (NBC, 1967-1975), Baretta (ABC, 1975-1978), The F.B.I. (ABC, 1965-1974), Cannon (CBS, 1971-1976), Kojak (CBS, 1973-1978) (the show that made bald beautiful, starring Telly Savalas), Mannix (CBS, 1967-1975), and Adam-12 (1968-1975).
Two medical dramas were also on the lists: Marcus Welby, M.D. (ABC, 1969-1976) and Medical Center (CBS, 1969-1976).
Marcus Welby, M.D. starred Robert Young as Dr. Marcus Welby and James Brolin as Dr. Steven Kiley, partners in a family medical practice. Kiley’s standard methods of treatment contrasted with Welby’s less common methods, often causing conflict. Though his ideas were unconventional, his care and willingness to take time with his patients made him an ideal in many viewers’ minds.
“Save the Last Dance for Me,” was an episode which aired February 18, 1975, dealt with the reality of breast cancer. It turned out to be timely, as shortly after the episode aired, two prominent political women were diagnosed with breast cancer. Another episode, which aired March 5, 1974, titled “I’ve Promised You a Father“, deals with a genetic disease that can result in delusions.
Two family dramas round out the drama section. The very popular shows The Waltons (CBS, 1971-1981) and Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974-1983) continued to be well-loved long after they stopped adding new episodes. In fact, “Walton’s Mountain” has become a tourist location, and, of course, the Little House on the Prairie books, from which the show sprang, are perpetual favorites.
Family Shows Make an Impact – The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie
One of the best-loved episodes of The Waltons is “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” which aired December 19, 1971. The cast of the show included Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton, Richard Thomas as John-Boy, Edgar Bergen as Grandpa Zebb, Ellen Corby as Esther, Andrew Duggan as John Walton, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen, Mary Beth McDonough as Erin, Kami Cotler as Elizabeth, Eric Scott as Ben, and David W. Harper as Jim-Bob. Many of these same actors were also in the television series. However, Michael Learned replaced Patricia Neal, Will Geer played Grandpa Walton, Jon Walmsley played Jason, and Ralph Waite played John Walton.
Little House on the Prairie has so many good episodes that it is difficult to choose one to highlight, but one that does stand out is “Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow” which aired February 22, 1982. Little House on the Prairie featured Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls, Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls, Karen Grassle as Caroline Ingalls, and Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls.
Only two westerns made the top ten lists in the 1970s, down from five in the 1960s. The two that lingered into the new decade were Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-1975) and Bonanza (NBC, 1959-1973). Both of these ranked in the top ten during many seasons in the 1960s.
One soap opera also made the top ten lists: Dallas (CBS, 1978-1991) which became more popular as time went on, and spent most of the 1980s on the top ten lists, though it was only on it one year in the 1970s.
The Flip Wilson Show (NBC, 1970-1974) and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (CBS, 1971-1974) were variety shows that were popular in the 1970s. The Flip Wilson Show was the first variety series starring an African-American that was successful, and one of the first that starred an African-American in the title role. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was hosted by the husband-and-wife team of Sonny Bono and the pop singer Cher. The show was canceled in 1974 when the two divorced, and they returned after a year for one season of The Sonny & Cher Show.
Two other comedy shows that made the lists were Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS, 1972-1973) and Funny Face (CBS, 1971).
Science fiction became more popular during the 1970s, with the top ten including two somewhat related shows: The Six Million Dollar Man (ABC, 1974-1978) and The Bionic Woman (ABC, 1976-1978). The Six Million Dollar Man starred Lee Majors as Steve Austin. Austin was a former astronaut who had a variety of mechanical parts implanted which allowed him to do more than the average person. The Bionic Woman was a spin-off of this show, and starred Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers, a tennis pro whose skydiving accident resulted in bionic implants similar to Austin’s.
One of the best episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man is “The Day of the Robot”, which aired February 8, 1974. In it, one of Steve’s friends is replaced with a robot with the assignment to try to steal a top secret device. Steve has to find the impostor.
The news became more prominent, as well, with the advent of 60 Minutes (CBS, 1969-2015), which is still being aired today. From 1977-1979 (and all through the 1980s), it stayed on the top ten list of Nielsen ratings. People liked that they could learn about what was happening around the nation (and around the world) through a TV show.
At the same time, anthologies became more popular. Both ABC and NBC had shows in the top ten that were anthologies – shows that showed movies, primarily. ABC’s anthology TV shows were ABC Monday Night Movie, ABC Movie of the Week, and ABC Sunday Night Movie. NBC’s schedule included The Big Event, The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, and The Wonderful World of Disney.
The whole style of TV shows changed in the 1970s, as Americans lost interest in some of the family sitcom shows, westerns, and “hillbilly” shows, and gained interest in crime shows, science fiction, and soap operas. Game shows also became more popular, adding The Match Game, Family Feud, The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, The $20,000 Pyramid, The Gong Show, The Newlywed Game, Password, Tattletales, and Tic Tac Dough, among others, to Hollywood Squares, which began in the 1960s. Many of these game shows are currently available today, even though the hosts have changed.