Just like anything else, television had its struggles to become a nationwide mass media in the 1950s. However, it won’t be long until it transformed itself into a major force, cultural or otherwise. By the beginning of the 1960s, there had been about 52 million TV sets in households across the US, making television more ubiquitous. Broadcasts were slowly but surely transitioning from black and white to color. The 1960s truly ushered in a new era of TV programming.
This trend continued throughout the decade – and then some new developments. Television in the 1960s was no longer a source of entertainment. It also became a strong political force, thanks to the first-ever televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
By this time, television had finally overtaken print media as the main source of news and information of the world’s crucial events that unfolded before people’s eyes. The civil rights era, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war, and the first man on the moon – all of these historic events were broadcast on television in real time (or “live”). Indeed, it made people realize that TV news was the complete and extreme opposite of entertainment TV – raw and real. It was at this point that journalism on TV was fast on the rise.
While 1960s television started to present the less-than-idyllic side of the world to the viewers, it continued to provide entertainment to the people as a temporary refuge from reality. Light-hearted family sitcoms and musical variety shows continued on their streak, while sci-fi and fantasy genres were slowly but surely gaining a new generation of fans. Since living rooms were becoming some sort of family home theaters, more networks devoted their primetime slots to airing old movies.
The sci-fi genre in the 1960s was still in its developing stage, but the era produced a pretty number of good series such as The Twilight Zone, The Invaders, The Outer Limits and most notably, Star Trek.
Here are the shows that defined the groovy 1960s television:
1. The Twilight Zone (CBS) (WATCH NOW) – Although it began to air in the late 1950s, many consider The Twilight Zone as one of the quintessential TV shows of the 1960s. Produced and presented by Rod Serling (who also served as the head writer), The Twilight Zone deals with anything strange and paranormal, with surprising climaxes and morals at the end of every episode. Check out the article “The Twilight Zone – Its Impact on American Television History” for more of the show’s history and cultural impact.
2. The Andy Griffith Show (CBS) (WATCH NOW) – This beloved syndicated sitcom stars Andy Griffith, but not as himself (despite the title). Instead, he plays a widowed sheriff in a small, sleepy fictional town called Mayberry. Although the series started slow, it eventually became successful, keeping audiences entertained for eight seasons (1960-1968). Check out the article “Classic TV Sitcoms – The Andy Griffith Show” for more of its history.
3. The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS) (WATCH NOW)– This sitcom portrays the life of a nouveau riche family who still goes on with their rustic ways, much to the consternation of the upper-crust society in Beverly Hills. This popular CBS sitcom ran for nine seasons (1962-1971). Check out “Introduction to The Beverly Hillbillies” for more of the show’s history.
4. Star Trek (NBC) (WATCH NOW) – Creator Gene Roddenberry brought his concept, Star Trek, to the small screen in September 1966. The first production of the Star Trek merchandise, Star Trek follows the adventures and the challenges of the starship USS Enterprise and its crew. Star Trek was a groundbreaking show of the time: the special effects were top-notch, the script was above-average, and the characters are memorable, most notably: James T. Kirk, Commander Spock and Commander McCoy. Check out “The History of Star Trek” and “Star Trek Quotes” for more fun Star Trek trivia.
5. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC) (WATCH NOW)– The original rapid-fire sketch/gag comedy show inspired future shows of this breed, including Saturday Night Live. Premiering in 1968, it ran for six successful seasons. They featured many celebrity guests, the most famous being Richard Nixon (and his tagline “Sock it to me”), who later maintained that his cameo spot on the show was instrumental to his successful presidential campaign.
6. Bonanza (NBC) (WATCH NOW) – Although it was first aired in 1959, Bonanza‘s peak of success reached throughout the whole ’60s decade, making it the longest-running Western show in NBC’s broadcast history. Starring Lorne Greene, Bonanza follows the story of the wealthy Cartwright family and the adventures on their ranch.
7. The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS) (WATCH NOW)– The Dick Van Dyke Show was considered a TV trailblazer at the time – of course, things were way different back then. Despite the title, lead star Dick Van Dyke played the fictional role of a TV writer named Rob Petrie who encounters adventures (and misadventures) in his work and home life. Mary Tyler Moore (who played Rob’s wife) would later star on her own sitcom, the Emmy-award winning The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Check out the article “Interesting Facts about The Dick Van Dyke Show” for more fun trivia about this TV classic.
8. The Lucy Show (CBS) (WATCH NOW) – Lucy was not done yet – at least in bringing lighthearted entertainment to audiences. After the hugely successful sitcom I Love Lucy during the 1950s, Lucille Ball followed it up with The Lucy Show. She was still “Lucy,” but the show had a different premise. Here, Lucy is a widowed schemer who moves with her newly divorced friend into a new home together with their own children, and the wacky misadventures follow. Her I Love Lucy co-star Vivian Vance played her best friend on this sitcom.
9. Bewitched (ABC) (WATCH NOW) – Arguably the first fantasy sitcom, it stars Elizabeth Montgomery in her iconic role as a witch who marries a mortal and commits herself to a normal domestic life. But of course, her magical powers get in the way, and hilarity ensues. It ran for eight successful seasons (1964-1972) and paved the way for other TV sitcoms with this kind of concept, most notably I Dream of Jeannie.
10. Green Acres (CBS) (WATCH NOW) – Green Acres is the flipside of The Beverly Hillbillies; it became popular largely because of its use of surrealism and satire. A New York City attorney decides to move to the country along with his classy and fashionable wife. He wishes to fulfill his old dream of becoming a farmer, but he often finds himself at a loss to adjust to rural life. It premiered in September 1965 and later enjoyed a six-year run. Check out the article “History of Green Acres.”