Ever since television first became something owned by nearly every household, there have been TV shows that became immensely popular and TV shows that flopped completely, and the whole range in between. In some cases, TV shows that flopped initially were re-aired or remade and became popular later. In some cases, people look at TV shows that were popular and wonder why. Of course, we know that different people prefer different genres, so even shows that did not make it into the “top ten” of the time still may have been popular in other circles.
The Nielsen Company began rating radio programs in December 1947. By 1950, they moved to rating television programs. According to the ratings for the 1960s, there are 46 shows that ranked in the top ten during that time period. These range from family shows to westerns, from game shows and variety shows to drama. The genre that had the most shows in the top ten during that decade was sitcom, with 16 shows, followed by comedy.
The sitcoms, in particular, showed the stereotypes of the day. Some, such as Julia, made an effort to change the stereotypes, though opinions on the effectiveness of their attempt were mixed. Others, such as Star Trek, showed what could be possible (and, indeed, many of the “future” items shown in that show have become reality in subsequent years).
60s Westerns Were Popular
In the ten years including 1960-1969, only one show was in the top ten list for nine years: the first American all-color classic western Bonanza, which was aired on NBC from 1959-1973. The show was about Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his sons and their adventures on their ranch. It stayed in the top six the entire nine years. It spent three years (1964-1966) in the top spot, two years in the second spot, two years in the third spot, one in fourth and one in sixth. The only year in this decade missing Bonanza on that year’s top ten list is 1960, when it was number 17 on the list.
Many consider the second season’s first episode, “Showdown“, to be the best episode of the long-running show. In this episode, a gang of outlaws robs the bank of Virginia City. Their youngest member hires on at the Ponderosa, intending to use his job as a way to find out when a posse might be close to finding the gang’s hideout. Little Joe (Michael Landon, Jr.) is suspicious of the newcomer. Over the course of the episode, Joe is kidnapped but the youngest member of the gang helps him.
Other westerns that made the lists included Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-1975), Wagon Train (NBC, 1957-1965), Rawhide (CBS, 1959-1965), and Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS, 1957-1963).
Comedies of the 60s Showed Family Life
The show that graced the top ten for nearly as many years as Bonanza was The Andy Griffith Show, which aired on CBS from 1960-1968. This tops the list of the sitcom genre for the decade. Andy Griffith played the widower Sheriff who lived with his aunt and his son in Mayberry. The small town has little or no actual crime, so the show tends more toward philosophy and humor than crime. The show became the stereotype for small-town America and friendship. The Andy Griffith Show began in black and white and converted to color in its sixth season.
One of the best episodes of The Andy Griffith Show is “Ellie Comes to Town”. Ellie’s uncle runs the store in Mayberry and she comes to town to help him, but is not used to small town life. This is one of the shows that make a viewer wish that it was possible to actually move to Mayberry.
Many people say that the color episodes – those in the 6th through 8th seasons – were not as good as the black and white ones. This may be due to the change in writers. When Don Knotts (Barney) left the show, this also contributed to the slip in ratings and subsequent cancellation.
The two spin-offs of The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (CBS, 1964-1969) and Mayberry R.F.D. (CBS, 1968-1971) also had a place in the top ten.
The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968)starring Lucille Ball was created by the actress as a follow-up for I Love Lucy which ended in 1960. Lucille Carmichael, a secretary and schemer, gets into all kinds of tight scrapes with her boss and best friend.
One of the best episodes was aired in February of 1966, “Lucy Dates Dean Martin” in which Lucy expects to be dating Dean Martin’s stunt double Eddie Feldman, but due to a conflict, ended up dating Dean Martin himself.
Another notably popular sitcom was The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS, 1962-1971), which spent five years on the top ten lists. A hillbilly family struck oil on their land, became rich, and moved to Beverly Hills – where they continued to be hillbillies in the big city. “Clampett A Go-Go” is highly acclaimed as the best episode ever made. Originally airing in February 1965, the episode follows the misadventures of Sheldon Epps who wrecks his car after seeing Ellie Mae in a swimsuit. They think Sheldon is sick due to his jargon and Jethro helps him improve his artwork – unintentionally.
A similar “out of their element” premise was used in Petticoat Junction (CBS, 1963-1970). This was used in the opposite manner (city to country) in Green Acres (CBS, 1965-1971).
Other sitcoms that were popular during these years included The Real McCoys (ABC/CBS, 1957-1963), Hogan’s Heroes (CBS, 1965-1971), Julia (20th Century Fox, 1968-1971), The Doris Day Show (CBS, 1968-1973), Hazel (NBC/CBS, 1961-1966), Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1966), The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966), and Family Affair (CBS, 1966-1971).
“Smile, You’re On Candid Camera” and Other Comedies
The most popular comedy shows were topped by Candid Camera (CBS, 1960-1967). Hosted by Allen Funt, the show was black and white until 1966, when it switched over to color. Candid Camera brought laughter to millions by recording the reactions of people who were placed into situations from confusing and embarrassing to ridiculous and impossible, all of which were hilarious. Their motto, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” was so well known that it is still used in many situations. It would be difficult to select a single episode as its best, as all of them contained pranks and situations that would top the list. However, Candid Camera has released DVDs highlighting their best episodes from each decade of the show. A sample from the 1960s can be found on YouTube.
Following in the rankings is The Danny Thomas Show, which starred Danny Thomas and aired on CBS from 1957-1964. A previous ABC version of the show was titled Make Room for Daddy and aired from 1953-1957. Thomas’ character was Danny Williams, who was a successful entertainer and comedian at a nightclub. It also showed the struggles of a household where the father had little time to spend at home.
One of the show’s guest stars was Wyatt Earp, in “Too Good for Words,” in the fifth season, after Danny had remarried following the loss of his first wife (at the beginning of the fourth season).
One of the more iconic comedy shows of the 1960s was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC, 1967-1973). Hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the show took some ideas from vaudeville to create a free-form comedy show. We have many phrases that came from the show, such as, “You bet your sweet bippy” and “what you see is what you get.” An example of the show can be seen in this clip from March 1968.
Other popular comedy shows of the decade include Batman, which was animated and shown on ABC Wednesdays and Thursdays (the ratings for each day are separate) 1966-1968, The Dean Martin Show (NBC, 1965-1974), and The Jack Benny Show (CBS/NBC, 1950-1965). One of Jack Benny’s classic gags is when he was being held up by a robber, who demanded, “Your money or your life!” Jack Benny, who was well known for his thrift, was silent. When the robber repeated the demand, Benny replied testily, “I’m thinking it over!”
Similar shows are the variety shows, of which The Red Skelton Show (CBS, 1951-1971) was the most popular, and was in the top ten for seven years. While some of the bits were amusing, Skelton also included some serious items in his lineup. One that has gotten some attention in recent years has been his bit on the Pledge of Allegiance.
These 60s Dramas Kept Viewers Guessing
Several dramas also garnered a place on the top ten lists, though each only held a top ten place for one season. The most well-known of these is probably Perry Mason (CBS, 1957-1966). Perry Mason, played by Raymond Burr, was a criminal defense lawyer. Many of the shows were based on stories written by Erle Stanley Gardner. One that stands out is the first season’s 17th episode, “The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary“. In this episode, you see the relationship between Mason and his colleagues, as well as the tricky side of being a criminal defense lawyer.
Other popular dramas of the time include the medical dramas Ben Casey (ABC, 1961-1966), Daktari (CBS, 1966-1969), Dr. Kildare (NBC, 1961-1966), the military drama Combat (ABC, 1962-1967), and soap opera Peyton Place II (ABC, 1964-1969).
Rounding out the top ten lists are the family show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Disney, 1954-1992), game show The Price is Right (NBC/ABC, 1956-1965), science fiction’s My Favorite Martian (CBS, 1963-1966) and the NBC Saturday Night Movie, which aired feature films weekly beginning in September 1961 and continuing until 2006.
Very Popular Shows that Didn’t Make the Top Ten
Many popular shows did not show up in the top ten during this decade, but are still well known. These include the science fiction classics Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969), and Doctor Who (1963-1989). Also missing from the top ten lists are children’s shows The Flintstones (1960-1966), The Jetsons (1962-1987), Rocky & Bullwinkle (1959-1964), The Bugs Bunny Show (1960-2000), and Captain Kangaroo (1955-1992). You also will not see family fare like The Addams Family (1964-1966), I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970), Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963), Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), The Munsters (1964-1966), and Mister Ed (1958-1966). Nor will you see game shows The Hollywood Squares (1964-1968) and What’s My Line (1950-1975). These dramas are also missing from the top ten lists even though they were very popular – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), and Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). Soap opera fans will also see these shows missing from the top ten lists – Days of Our Lives (1965-), General Hospital (1963-), and As the World Turns (1956-2010).
One thing TV shows did, in the 1960s, was to make news more accessible more quickly. Though not listed on the top ten lists of the day, it still remains true that the newscasts were some of the most-watched shows on television. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite resulted in its title newscaster being viewed as one of the most trustworthy people in the country. The name Walter Cronkite has persisted as a name synonymous with news. It also allowed people to see major events shortly after they happened (or even as it happened) as with the Apollo 11 moon landing.
While television may not be a necessity, in general, it is the primary amusement and entertainment for many people, and has been for decades. Look for articles on the top ten television shows for the 1970s and 1980s.