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Television in the 1960s

Introduction to Classic Television

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.

Additionally, television had a big impact on society. It gave individuals a new method to interact with one another and the rest of the globe while giving them a window into various cultures, ways of life, and viewpoints. Television news programs served to alter public perception by bringing significant events that were occurring across the world into households. Family-friendly entertainment shows have contributed to the formation of popular culture.

The growth of television had a significant impact on the advertising sector as well since it gave companies a new opportunity to connect with captive audiences. The 1960s witnessed the advent of numerous enduring advertising campaigns as well as the development of enduringly popular commercial jingles and slogans.

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:
The Twilight Zone CBS

1. The Twilight Zone (CBS) – 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.

It introduced many Americans to typical science fiction and fantasy themes and was a critical and commercial success. The first television show – which was produced in only black and white, aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964 for five seasons.

The success of the show spawned numerous spin-offs over the course of five decades, including three revival television series, a feature film (1983), a radio series (2002–12), a TV film (1994), amusement park attractions, and various works of literature.

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) – 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). The show finished its last season at number one and never dropped below seventh place in the Nielsen ratings.

Following Griffith’s departure from the show after the eighth season, it was renamed Mayberry, R.F.D., with Ken Berry and Buddy Foster taking on new roles for Griffith and Howard. It ran for three seasons in the new format, 78 episodes total, and ended in 1971. MeTV, TV Land,  The CW, and SundanceTV frequently air repeats of The Andy Griffith Show.

The episodes are chopped on such stations to accommodate advertisements, but SundanceTV occasionally airs the full uncut versions. On DVD and Blu-ray, the entire series is accessible, and there are intermittent episodes available on these streaming video platforms.

Check out the article “Classic TV Sitcoms – The Andy Griffith Show” for more of its history.

3. The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS) – 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).

Paul Henning created the program, which Filmways produced. It was followed by two additional Henning-inspired “country cousin” series on CBS: Petticoat Junction and its spin-off Green Acres, which overturned The Beverly Hillbillies’ rags-to-riches, rural-to-urban concept.

The Beverly Hillbillies was in the top 20 most-watched television shows for eight of its nine seasons, ranking as the top series of the year for its first two seasons and having 16 episodes that are currently among the top 100 most-watched television episodes in American history.

During its run, it received seven Emmy nominations. It continues to air in syndicated repeats, and 20th Century Fox produced an adaptation as a 1993 movie as a result of its continued popularity.

Check out “Introduction to The Beverly Hillbillies” for more of the show’s history.

4. Star Trek  (NBC) – 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.

The series was produced between September 1966 and December 1967 by Norway Productions and Desilu Productions. Paramount Television later produced the show between January 1968 and June 1969. From September 8, 1966, through June 3, 1969, NBC broadcasted Star Trek. It debuted on Canada’s CTV network on September 6, 1966. After three seasons and 79 episodes, NBC cancelled Star Trek due to the show’s poor Nielsen ratings.

After some time, the show found success in broadcast reruns and remained popular throughout the 1970s, earning “cult favorite” status and beginning to have an impact on popular culture. One of the most well-known and influential television programs of all time, Star Trek eventually gave rise to a media empire that included 11 television series, 13 feature films, and numerous books, games, and toys.

Check out “Star Trek Quotes” for more fun Star Trek trivia.

5. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC) – 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.

It premiered on September 9, 1967, as a one-time special, but due to its popularity, it was renewed as a series. It rose to the top of the television ratings in the US quite soon.

The primary format of Laugh-In was brief comic sketches, and the show was intended to be very lightly structured. Some of them included recurring characters made up by the cast who would show up repeatedly during an episode with variations on a theme. 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.

A rapid-fire stream of jokes and sketches, many of which were political in nature or had sexual references, typified the show. The irritated straight man (Rowan) and “stupid guy” (Martin) act that the co-hosts had developed as nightclub comics was maintained.

6. Bonanza (NBC)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, until the year 1973. Starring Lorne Greene, Bonanza follows the story of the wealthy Cartwright family and the adventures on their ranch. In addition to the main casts, the show later included (at multiple moments) Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts, and Michael Landon. The program is renowned for presenting difficult moral choices.

For its time, Bonanza was regarded as an unusual western because its primary plots focused more on Ben and his three boys than on the range, their relationships with one another, with their neighborhood, and with morally righteous causes.

The television series takes place between roughly 1861 (Season 1) and 1867 (Season 13), during and immediately after the American Civil War and around the time Nevada Territory became a state of the United States.

7. The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS)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.

The show focused on the everyday, humorous situations that the endearing, silly Rob Petrie encountered while spending time with his family, his coworkers Sally Rogers, Buddy Sorrell, and Mel Cooley, as well as his neighbors Millie and Jerry Helper and their friends.

The show took home 15 Emmy Awards. The 1997 TV Guide list of the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time included the episodes “It May Look Like a Walnut” and “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth” at positions 15 and 8, respectively. The show was ranked 20 in 2013 on TV Guide’s list of the 60 Best Series, up from 13 on 2002’s list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

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)  – 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.

Bob Carroll Jr.,  Bob Schiller, Madelyn Martin, and Bob Weiskopf (four of the five original writers of I Love Lucy) contributed to all thirty episodes of The Lucy Show’s first season, with Desi Arnaz serving as executive producer for fifteen of those programs. The Lucy Show finished its debut season with raving reviews from reviewers and a placed #5 in the Nielsen ratings. 

Ball was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Series, but Shirley Booth won the award for the NBC comedy hit Hazel. The sitcom was renewed for a second season, although several changes had been made, aided along by strong ratings.

9. Bewitched (ABC) – 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.

Even though he only contributed to the pilot episode of Bewitched, Sol Saks is acknowledged as the show’s originator. On November 22, 1963, writer Saks, director William Asher, and executive producer Harry Ackerman began its pilot rehearsals.

The show was broadcasted on ABC Saturday Morning and ABC Daytime, after its initial run was over until 1973. Bewitched has since been distributed on numerous local US television stations from 1973 to 1982 and since 1993. Columbia TriStar Television was a part of the Screen Gems Network production package from 1999 to 2001, which featured supplementary wraparound content during episode airings in 1999.

10. Green Acres (CBS)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.

The majority of Green Acres episodes remained adhered to the norms of 1960s sitcoms, but the program also frequently featured surrealism and satire. Characters repeatedly broke the cold barrier, such as by glancing around to try and locate the source of the fife music when Oliver embarks into one of his regular “American dream” talks. The writers quickly established a variety of running jokes and visual gags.

The sixth season of the television show Green Acres in 1970–1971 ranked 34th out of 96 programs. The network cancelled the program in the spring of 1971 after 170 episodes, despite the show receiving good ratings and dominating its hour.

Check out the article “History of Green Acres.”

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