Classic Television

In the present time, televisions can be found in billions of homes in different parts of the world. They are now more high-tech and offer different features, such as Wi-Fi connectivity which enables people to stream their favorite online movies and shows on their television sets. However, when you talk to your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents about their life at home before television, they will tell you that they read books, magazines, and newspapers or listened to the radio to be updated about the things that are happening around them. 

Many years ago, nobody knew what television is. In fact, even in 1947, only a few thousand people in American owned a television. Today, we are all bombarded with many television shows. There are even times when it’s quite challenging to choose what to watch because there are just too many options. However, no matter how many new television shows there are in the present time, a lot of people are always looking back to great TV shows from years ago, which are now referred to as classic TV. 

If you want to learn more about television back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, you’re in the right place. It’s because we are giving you a guide to classic television. 

Television in the United States

person pressing a button on an old television

Even though television was first regarded by a lot of people as “radio with pictures,” the public relation when television arrived was very different from that of radio. It’s because, during the early days of radio, it was perceived as a technological wonder and not a medium of cultural significance. The people were able to adjust to radio broadcasting quickly and were able to enjoy its many programs, or turned them off if they do not like what they hear. Television, on the other hand, prompted a tendency to criticize and evaluate than the simple on-off response. 

One of the things that early television had that can never be recaptured is the combined sense of wonder and charm that greeted the medium during its infancy. In the mid-20th century, people were excited about being able to see and hear events that were happening around them and in different places. Even though only a few people had TV sets at home, popular fascination with television was so pronounced that many would gather on sidewalks in from of stores that displayed working television sets. 

The same thing happened in bars and restaurants where a television set behind the counter can attract a crowd, especially if it shows sports events. By the end of the first decade of television, it was believed to have a greater influence on American culture compared to parents, churches, government, and schools, which are institutions known to be dominant influences on popular conduct. 

The Early Genres of Television

person watching television

Years after the television was introduced, more households began to buy sets. With this, one question arose, which is, “What kind of programming could fill the airtime of the network?” This is because television, like motion pictures, was characterized by moving images and synchronized sound. One natural style to compete with was that of Hollywood films. However, movies were expensive and time-consuming to make, and they also required different sets and locations. 

Back then, when the broadcast networks were not yet turning a profit with their television divisions and are still dominated by their radio components, they could not afford to make little movies for nightly broadcast yet. Also, until the mid-1950s, Hollywood studios do not care that much about this threatening new medium. 

Radio, on the other hand, provided a possible programming model, and many early TV shows were based on radio programs. Some of them were even simulcast for years on both radio and television. But images that could be implied with sound on the radio were quite expensive to produce for cameras. With this, early television broadcasters looked for events that could be shot easily without spending too much. Also, since videotape is not being used until the 1960s, very early programmers utilized live transmissions of musical performances, sermons, sporting events, and educational lectures to fill the limited schedules. 

Here are some of the genres of classic television shows:

Variety Shows

After experimenting for a while, the immediacy of live television made programmers turn to theater, particularly vaudeville. It has been the most popular of the performing arts in the United States before the popularity of radio and sound movies. These are traveling shows that go to different cities and towns to provide live entertainment. They usually consist of various acts, like dancing, singing, comics, jugglers, and even animals. 

The vaudeville format was even more acquiescent to television. Shows that are inspired by vaudeville could be shot live without having to spend too much on sets and locations. Aside from that, there were enough trained performers that are eager to work again, which are all vaudeville-trained. 

From 1949 to 1950, the three highest-rated TV shows were all variety shows, which are “The Texaco Star Theater” which aired on NBC from 1948 to 1953, “Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town,” which aired on CBS from 1948 to 1971 and was renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, and “Arthur Godfrey’s Talen Scouts” which aired on CBS from 1948 to 1958. 

Anthology Series

Aside from vaudeville-themed shows, the traditional stage play was also another genre for early television adaptation. Many televised plays took the form of anthology dramas. These were weekly series that showed original and adapted players under one umbrella title. These shows had a very prominent place in network schedules throughout the 1950s.

The anthology dramas are well-remembered by critics who value the live theater than contemporary television offerings. Aside from that, these shows are also referred to in the discussion of the “Golden Age” of television. It was during this time that primetime network television offered series with supercilious-sounding titles, like “The Pulitzer Playhouse,” which aired on ABC from 1950 to 1952. 

Sitcoms

One of the genres that emerged and became the staple genre of American television is the situation comedy or sitcom. It was a 30-minute format that features a continuing cast of characters that appeared in the same setting week after week. Most of the time, audience laughter, either live or by way of an added laugh track, was usually featured in them. The themes were also mostly built around families. 

Some examples of classic TV sitcoms are “I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and Leave It to Beaver.” Among these examples, “I Love Lucy” was the most-watched series on television for four of its six seasons on the air. In fact, it never fell below third place in the yearly Nielsen ratings. It was the first bona fide blockbuster. 

The Big Three Television Networks

When it comes to television networks, the Big Three are the major traditional commercial broadcast TV networks in the United States. These are the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). These three dominated American television until the 1990s. Up until today, they are still one of the major broadcast companies in the United States. 

Most Talked About Moments from Classic Television

an old TV that is still working

Television shows today are mostly about popular topics but are sometimes controversial, too. But know that classic TV is not very innocent either. To learn more, here are some of the most talked-about moments from classic television.

All In The Family (1972) – Sammy’s Visit

When Sammy Davis Jr. left a briefcase in Archie’s cab, he visits the Bunker home to get it. While there, he hears Archie’s closed-minded takes on different things. When they both posed for a photo, he plants a surprise kiss on Archie as the photo is taken. This particular episode was surely an eyebrow-raiser from beginning to end. If you’d like to learn more about this classic TV show, you can read our list of Interesting Facts About All In The Family.

Seinfeld (1998) – The Puerto Rican Day

In this specific episode, Jerry and his friends are annoyed that they are stuck in traffic as Puerto Rican Day parade was ongoing. At one point, Kramer accidentally sets a Puerto Rican flag on fire and then stomped on it to put out the fire. Due to this episode, NBC had protesters, and they received lots of angry letters because of the flag burning and the stereotypical portrayal of Puerto Ricans. If you want to discover more about this classic television show, you can read our articles about the Actors Who Appeared in Seinfeld and 15 Phrases Seinfeld Spawned.

The Ed Sullivan Show (1956) – The Frist Time Elvis Appeared

When Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, cameramen were careful to show him only from the waist up. However, hiding his circling hips while performing only made it more intriguing. In addition to that, the audience watching the show at home got the message that his dancing was sexy because of the screaming women in the live audience. For more information about the show, you can read the Interesting Facts About The Ed Sullivan Show.

Diff’rent Strokes (1983) – The Bicycle Man

Most people who’ve watched this show would easily call it a wholesome show for the whole family. However, one particular episode was not as family-friendly as the viewers wanted. In that episode, Arnold and Dudley are lured into the back of a bicycle shop where Mr. Horton, the owner, shows them magazines that are best left hidden. In addition to that, he also encouraged the kids to do a photo shoot. 

The most bothering part was that Dudley never seemed to recognize his situation. During the whole runup to the reveal, jokes are still being made, which was unsettling. The episode was surely trying to make a point that it might be the last person you expect to do bad things, but it went in the wrong ways. If you like to discover more stories about this classic TV show, read our list of Facts You Didn’t Know About Diff’rent Strokes.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972) – Just Around the Corner

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a classic TV show that showed a single professional woman who lived alone and supported herself. One specific episode sparked controversy when viewers saw Mary coming home in the morning in the same clothes that she went out the night before. It was never specified in that episode that she went out with a man, but the implication was nevertheless shocking during that time. If you want to learn more about this classic TV show, read our article about the Interesting Facts About the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Married … With Children (1989) – I’ll See You in Court

Married … With Children is a classic comedy series. In one of its episodes, Al and Peg Bundy went to a motel room to have sex, only to discover a sex tape of their neighbors. And on top of all that, the Bundys also secretly taped themselves. All of these are too much for the network. With this, the episode was banned until 2002 after the show had been canceled. If you want to learn more shocking information about this classic TV show, read our list of Facts About Married … With Children That You’ll Find Surprising.

I Love Lucy (1952) – Lucy is Enceinte

Back in the 1950s, the word “pregnant” was considered too vulgar. Therefore, in this particular episode, Lucy was trying to tell her husband that she is “expecting,” all while dancing around the dreaded “P-word.” The network executives were very concerned about the insinuation of sex that Lucy and her husband even slept in separate twin beds on the show. If you want to learn more about the story of this classic TV show, read our article about The History of the, I Love Lucy Show.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (1983) – Conflict

During the Cold War, Mr. Rogers broadcast one week’s worth of shows that were made to help kids deal with the idea of nuclear war. Some liked the show as it talks about an important issue. However, others found the subject matter too intense for children. In one controversial episode, King Friday thinks Southwood is collecting parts to make bombs, but those parts were actually for a bridge. With that, the two neighborhoods ended up having a peace festival. If you’d like to learn more about this classic TV show, read our post about The Fascinating History of Mr. Rogers.

Saturday Night Live (1992) – Sinead O’Connor

In one particular episode of Saturday Night Live, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor took advantage of live TV to protest the Catholic Church. During the dress rehearsal of the show, she held up an image of a refugee child while performing the song War by Bob Marley. However, on her actual performance, she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II while she sang the word “evil” in the song. After that, she yelled, “Fight the real enemy,” and tore up the photo. Due to this incident, NBC got more than 4,000 complaint calls. 

Hawaii Five-O (1970) – Bored, She Hung Herself

This particular episode of Hawaii Five-O covered a topic that is still sensitive up until today, which is suicide. It was about a yoga instructor teaching a new technique that involves suffocating himself to stop his heartbeat. A couple then gets into a fight where she slaps him, and he slapped her back, knocking her to the floor. After the man leaves, she’s found hanging from a noose. This episode only aired once. If you want to learn more about this classic TV show, read our list of Interesting Facts About Hawaii Five-O.

The Twilight Zone (1964) – The Encounter

This classic TV show featured George Takei before he was a household name due to Star Trek. This show was always meant to be creepy and strange. However, one specific episode was a bit too close to home, when a Japanese-American and a Veteran of WWII fight to kill each other in an attic. The scene showed PTSD from a soldier’s perspective, the dehumanization of war, and ethnocentrism toward Japanese people. This episode was pulled by CBS after being aired once. If you’d like more information about this classic television show, read our article, The Twilight Zone – Its Impact on American Television History.

Dallas (1986) – Return to Camelot Part 1

There are times when fans are enraged by the producers and creators of television shows, and this particular episode of Dallas is an example. In addition to being particularly racy, it put off fans as it revealed Bobby Ewing’s death from the previous season to be a dream. This meant that the ending of the previous season and the whole season after was completely invalid. If you’d like more information about this classic TV series, read our list of Interesting Facts About the Dallas TV Series.

Star Trek (1968) – Plato’s Stepchildren

In 1968, an interracial kiss was highly controversial, which sounds really sad. In a specific episode of Star Trek, after a distress call was answered, the Enterprise crew was overpowered by aliens that have telekinetic powers. These aliens made Captain Kirk, who is a white man, kiss Lieutenant Uhura, who is a black woman. Back then, the episode may not have been received well. But in the present time, it is one of the most important parts of the classic TV series. For more information about the show, you can read our Introduction to Star Trek the Original Series.

Happy Days (1974) – The Best Man

This episode from The Best Man might be shocking now, but it was especially so back in 1974 when it aired for the first time. While the writers and producers tried to address racism as a problem, they instead made jokes about them and even included racist overtones that would leave modern viewers slack-jawed. If you’d like to learn more about this classic TV show, read our Introduction to Happy Days.

M*A*S*H (1983) – Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

The finale of this classic television show is probably the most popular TV episode in history during that time. However, many fans were also upset as their beloved character, Hawkeye Pierce, had a nervous breakdown and was in a mental hospital. You can read our Introduction to M*A*S*H article to learn more about the classic TV show. And if you want to know more about the best television series finales, check out our Top Rated TV Finales of All Time.

Conclusion

Even when there are now lots of new and modern television shows and series that can be watched either from local broadcast networks or from online streaming platforms, classic television shows are still not forgotten by many people. They have influenced culture in many ways, and some even inspired the newer television shows that we have today. We hope this helps you learn more about classic television. 

If you are looking for more information about the classic television shows from the ‘60s, ’70s, and ‘80s that you miss, please check the links we have below for the list of informative articles about classic TV. 

Television History