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The 25 Most Memorable Moments in TV History

It’s not an oft-celebrated anniversary, but 62 years ago today, television as we know it was launched. It was 1951, and President Harry Truman was speaking before a conference in San Francisco about the treaty that officially ended the country’s post-WWII occupation of Japan. That’s not what was noteworthy — it was how he did it. The speech was broadcast across the nation, with 87 stations in 47 cities picking up Truman’s remarks via microwave technology. So for the first time, people all over the country could watch the same thing, at the same time. And thus was born television’s greatest purpose: as a uniting force, on which we all saw the same things, and came together to react to them with laughter, shock, joy, and tears. In honor of the occasion, we’ve selected the 25 most memorable television moments from the ensuing years.

25. The Wedding of Charles and Diana (1981)

Granted, we may laugh at their silly monarchy, but we sure do love a good royal wedding. The modern phenomenon of these affairs as Must-See TV began on July 29, 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles at St. Paul’s Cathedral in an opulent spectacle of a ceremony, viewed by nearly three-quarters of a billion people. It was a lavish introduction for “the People’s Princess”; 16 years later, people around the world would again turn to their televisions, this time to mourn her untimely death in an automobile accident.

24. “Do You Believe in Miracles?” (1980)

Few types of programming captured the magic and energy of live television like sports, which found fans across the world glued to their sets, yelling at their screens, and shaking their friends in excitement. And one of the greatest TV sports moments ever came on February 22, 1980, when the ragtag underdog US Olympic hockey team faced the heavily favored Soviet team at Lake Placid, New York. The Soviets had dominated Olympic play from 1956 to 1976, but the never-say-die spirit of the American squad led to a surprise 4-3 win, a victory confirmed, as the clock ran down, by commentator Al Michaels’ cry, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

23. The End of The Fugitive (1967)

For four years and 120 episodes, audiences were riveted by The Fugitive, one of television’s first serialized dramas. Each episode had its own self-contained story, but all were part of the overarching narrative of wrongfully convicted Dr. Richard Kimble’s hunt for the “one-armed man” who had murdered his wife. And on August 29, 1967, in an episode titled “The Judgment,” Dr. Kimble — and Lt. Philip Gerard, the man tracking him — came face to face with Fred Johnson, the one-armed man, in a dramatic fight to the death atop an observation tower. Seventy-two percent of those watching television that night were watching “The Judgment,” making it the highest-rated episodic television installment in TV history… until 1980.

22. J.R. Gets Shot on Dallas (1980)

The primetime CBS soap Dallas was chugging along, taking up a nice perch in the Nielsen Top 10 — doing so well, in fact, that the suits at CBS asked the show’s producers to come up with two more episodes beyond the “Jock’s Trial” two-parter that was to close its third season. Desperate, the show’s writers decided to have patriarch J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) shot in the new season finale, by an unknown assailant to be revealed when the show returned for the fall. By the time the show finally came back — its premiere delayed until November by an actors’ strike — the entire country was asking, “Who shot J.R.?” The show was on magazine covers; Vegas bookies took bets; even presidential candidate Jimmy Carter joked about the phenomenon from the stump. It was one of television’s biggest cliffhangers, and the show’s fourth season premiere became television’s most-watched program (until M*A*S*H’s farewell three years later).

21. Lucy Goes to the Candy Factory (1952)

I Love Lucy was, in many ways, one of television’s most innovative shows: fronted by an interracial couple, shot on film rather than kinescope (which is why it’s so well preserved), done in a “three-camera” setup that became the sitcom norm. But it was easy to hide all that innovation behind the show’s naked entertainment value. Fans will fight forevermore over Lucy’s finest hour, but this one leans towards the second-season premiere, “Job Switching” (airing September 14, 1952), in which Lucy and neighbor Ethel Mertz get jobs at a candy factory and fight a losing battle against a very fast conveyor belt of chocolate.

20. The “Checkers” Speech (1952)

No president would find his undoing as painstakingly documented by television as Richard Nixon, but early in his national political career, the “idiot box” saved his skin. He was campaigning as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 when word of a secret fund (sound familiar?) began circulating, with allegations that the donations of rich donors — presumably contributed with the understanding that they would be repaid in White House favors down the line — were allowing Nixon to live beyond his salary. Pressure was on the 39-year-old politician to resign. Instead, he went to a studio in Hollywood with his wife Pat in tow, and spoke to the American people on television. Over the course of the 30-minute program, he laid out his finances in detail, noting that (contrary to reports) Pat didn’t have a mink coat, but “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” But there was one donation he wouldn’t be giving back, he insisted: their black-and-white-spotted Cocker Spaniel, Checkers. “I just want to say this right now,” Nixon said, “that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.” Sixty million sets — roughly half those in the United States at the time — tuned in to the speech, sending wires to Eisenhower and the Republican National Committee, urging them to keep Nixon on the ticket.

19. Sammy Davis Jr. Visits All in the Family (1972)

It’s hard to fully grasp exactly how combustible Norman Lear’s All in the Family was when it first aired, starting in 1971. Never before had a popular sitcom addressed the issues of the day with such unblinking nerve and wit — and with the country in the midst of upheavals and controversies regarding feminism, religion, civil rights, homosexuality, and war, there was plenty for the show to tackle. Nobody was a bigger fan than Sammy Davis Jr., who badgered Lear for months to give him a guest shot on the show. Lear finally figured one out that made sense: he had Davis play himself, trucking out to the Bunker house in Queens after leaving his briefcase in Archie’s cab. The episode was, typically, funny and thoughtful, but its best moment and biggest laugh landed when Davis insisted on a photo with “my friend Archie,” and on three, Davis planted the funniest kiss in TV history.

18. Johnny Carson’s Final Tonight Show (1992)

In the pre-cable days, when all three of the networks went to test patterns after the evening news, The Tonight Show was quite literally the only game in town, and though others would attempt to challenge him, Johnny Carson remained the undisputed king of late night. But in 1992, after 30 years on the job, Johnny decided it was time to step down. The months-long run-up to his final program was a parade of stars, with everyone in Hollywood stopping in for one more chat with Johnny. But his classy final show, airing on May 22, 1992, was a more personal affair: Carson, alone on a stool in front of an audience of staff, family, and friends, introducing his favorite clips from the show. At the end of the hour, in a lovely farewell that he wrote himself, Carson told his audience, “It has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something I want to do and I think you will like, you’ll be as gracious in inviting me to your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”

17. The Rescue of Baby Jessica (1987)

Every once in a while, a single story captivates the entire television audience, and becomes a shared experience. Such was the story of Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old playing in the back yard of her aunt’s home in Midland, Texas, who took a tumble down a 22-foot well on October 14 and became the center of the most riveting program on television. Within hours, the still-young 24-hour news network CNN was broadcasting “Baby Jessica’s” plight to the nation. Her eventual emergence from the well two days later, three pounds lighter and injured but alive, became one of the medium’s most inspiring moments.

16. Muhammad Ali Lights the Olympic Torch (1996)

Muhammad Ali’s personal charisma, challenging politics, and unmatched athletic skill had rendered him one of television’s most prolific and, ultimately, beloved figures. From his victory at the 1960 Olympics through his celebrated verbal sparring with Howard Cosell to his 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” bout (which helped establish the upstart cable company HBO), Ali always meant ratings. But his appearance at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was kept a secret until the moment he appeared to take the Olympic torch from swimming champ Janet Evans and light the cauldron. The Champ shook slightly, an effect of his Parkinson’s disease, but his quiet dignity — and the crowd’s enthusiastic response — were enough to give any viewer goosebumps.

15. M*A*S*H: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (1983)

“Goodbye, Farwell, and Amen,” the final episode of the long-running Korean War series (11 years — eight more than the war itself) was an epic: It ran 135 minutes, considerably longer than not only an average episode (30 minutes) but most feature films. It was appropriate, though, as “Goodbye” had the depth, nuance, and pathos of a very good movie; it dealt, as the show’s best episodes had, with the genuine psychological horrors of war, but with grace, wit, and emotion. And viewership was astonishing: the show was watched by 125 million viewers, with 77% of all sets tuned to CBS that night. It remains the highest-rated series finale ever, and was the highest-rated television program of any kind until the 2010 Super Bowl.

14. Election Night (2000)

For all the months of anticipation, opinonating, and polling, election nights had tended to be pretty mundane affairs, with calls often made early in the night, leaving pundits and anchors to fill time and announce forgone conclusions. But that wasn’t the case on November 7, 2000, when the bitter campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore came to a close. With various networks and exit polling service calling, then recanting, both the state of Florida and the entire election for both Bush and Gore, election night ended without a clear winner. The ultimate outcome was, to say the least, controversial, but you’ve gotta say this: with grease boards waving, tightening results flying, and Dan Rather in full-on folksy weirdo mode, it was truly gripping television.

13. Salute at the Mexico City Olympic Games (1968)

Sports and politics intertwined — and the results were electrifying — at the conclusion of the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic Games on October 16. It had been an especially contentious year for race relations and civil unrest, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the demonstrations and police brutality at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the 200-meter, Tommie Smith won the gold medal and John Carlos won the bronze. Both men were African American, and as they stood on the victory platform while the national anthem played, each runner raised a black-gloved fist. The televised image of the two men raising their arms in a salute to Black Power infuriated some viewers (and the International Olympic Committee), but it was a powerful reminder that there was a world in turmoil outside of the Olympic stadium.

12. Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan (1956)

From 1948 to 1971, nearly every television set in America was tuned to The Ed Sullivan Show, the CBS variety program where the gossip-columnist-turned-TV-personality presented a famously eclectic mixture of performers. But in summer of 1956, there was one act Sullivan wasn’t going to book. “I don’t think Elvis Presley is fit for family viewing,” he told a reporter after the hip-swinging rock act appeared on Sullivan’s competition, The Steve Allen Show. But Presley’s appearance marked a rare ratings win for Allen, and Sullivan rethought his opposition. Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, and 60 million viewers tuned in — the largest audience to that point in television history. By his third appearance the following January, objections over Presley’s “lewd” performing style led to the controversial edict that he only appear from the waist up. But by that point, the damage was done; rock and roll had gone legitimate, with Presley as its poster boy.

11. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (1964)

Eight years later, a congratulatory telegram from Presley was part of Sullivan’s presentation of another revolutionary rock act, a quartet of “youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.” It was the group’s first live performance on American television, and viewership shattered even the record Presley numbers: 73 million viewers, over 45% of American households with televisions (not just those that were watching television, but that owned one). Overnight, the Beatles had gone from a European sensation to an American one.

10. The O.J. Simpson Chase (1994)

On a June night in 1995, nearly 95 million viewers tuned in to watch the weirdest goddamn car chase in history. It wasn’t really a chase: a fleet of LAPD cruisers followed a white Bronco ever-so-slowly down Interstate 5. Inside was former football star O.J. Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman had been killed three days earlier; charged with the double murder, Simpson was to turn himself in earlier that day. He didn’t. Instead, he left a bizarre note with his friend Robert Kardashian (yes, of those Kardashians), insisting that he “had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder” but warning the public, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great life.” Convinced it was a suicide note, with word that Simpson had a gun in the car, the police merely followed him back to his Brentwood home — as did seven news choppers and an increasingly curious public. The case would captivate the nation for the next year, well after Simpson was found not guilty of the crimes in October 1995. (The clip above is from June 17th, 1994, the tremendous documentary on that day in sports, which you can watch on Netflix.)

9. Roots (1977)

The power of the medium to both educate and entertain has seldom been as well employed as in 1977, when Alex Haley’s book-length exploration of slavery and his own family tree was adapted into the 12-hour TV movie Roots. Aired over consecutive nights and giving birth to the “mini-series,” Roots was a gamble for ABC, which aired it in the week before “sweeps” to prevent their experiment from damaging ratings. Quite the contrary; Roots sparked a national debate on this less-inspiring portion of American history (in the bicentennial year, no less) and attracted, over the course of its run, 85% of all television viewers.

8. The Kennedy/Nixon Debate (1960)

If anyone should’ve known the political power of television, it was Nixon. Yet he didn’t fully grasp the importance of his mere appearance when he met rival John F. Kennedy on September 16, 1960, in the first televised presidential debate. Those who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won. But on television, the poised, handsome, and well-rested Kennedy was the clear winner; Nixon, tired from a long day of campaigning and wearing a suit that blended badly with the background, looked nervous and sweaty. In one night, Kennedy became a superstar — and the political process was changed forever.

7. Richard Nixon Resigns (1974)

But Nixon would suffer one more defeat in the glare of the television lens. The cover-up following a break-in at the Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate hotel was such a small story that it didn’t even jeopardize Nixon’s re-election in November of 1972. But by the following year, the Watergate hearings — broadcast daily on by the networks — made it clear that the conspiracy extended all the way to the Oval Office. Advisers were dismissed, prosecutors were fired, and Congress prepared for impeachment. Rather than face that humiliation, Nixon went on television on August 8, 1974 and gave a 16-minute speech in which he resigned the presidency. The following afternoon, he bid farewell to his staff and departed via the presidential helicopter, posing one more time for photographers and TV cameras, a smile on his face, his arms raised with his hands in a V-for-victory pose. It was an appropriately surreal farewell, and an apt conclusion to a political soap opera that riveted the nation for over a year.

6. The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” commanded Ronald Reagan in June of 1987, and two years later, the job was done. Gorbachev’s radical notions of perestroika and glasnost changed thinking in the Eastern Bloc, and in 1989, after months of protests, the East German government unexpectedly opened up the lines of free travel between East and West Germany. Citizens flooded, creating such a rampage that police stopped bothering to check documents. On the night of November 10, the first concrete slab was removed; while this official removal took place, people all along the wall chipped away at this concrete symbol of separation and tyranny. And television cameras captured it all.

5. Walter Cronkite Denounces the Vietnam War (1968)

Vietnam was the first “television war,” 16mm news cameras bringing back footage of troops on the ground and bloodshed in the field. And early on, CBS Evening News anchor and “most trusted man in America” Walter Cronkite had been a supporter, going to Saigon and visiting both high-ranking generals and troops on the front line. But as the network began airing reports critical of operations there, Cronkite felt his opinion shifting. He didn’t make a practice of voicing political opinion, but after the 1968 Tet offensive, he chose to speak out. At the conclusion of a February 27 special on Tet, Cronkite gave an editorial in which he stated, “I’m more certain that ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly turned off his set at the conclusion of the broadcast and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” http://youtu.be/2K8Q3cqGs7I

4. Walter Cronkite Announces the Death of JFK (1963)

Cronkite was also at the anchor desk on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. CBS interrupted As the World Turns for Cronkite’s announcement, taken from a UPI report, that three shots had been fired at the Kennedy motorcade. A little over an hour later, at 2:38 p.m., Cronkite appeared to deliver the news: “From Dallas, Texas, a flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at one p.m., central standard time, two o’clock eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago.” Tears welled in the distinguished newsman’s eyes; his voice cracked slightly as he read the news. Reporters didn’t usually show their emotion on air, but in that moment, Cronkite was not a reporter — he was an American, and his emotions matched those on the other side of the screen.

3. Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Severe weather coverage has, by now, become a series of visual cues: breaking waves, heavy rains, on-the-scene reporters braving the forces in network windbreakers. But Katrina became more than just a weather story, as New Orleans’ levees broke, thousands of residents pleaded for help from news cameras, and reporters on the ground relayed stories of heartbreak and fear from the streets, the roofs, and the New Orleans Superdome — sometimes telling those stories to politicians on their air. In the frustrations of those reporters, Katrina became another story where mere “objectivity” wouldn’t do; the story was a shared experience, and an infuriating one.

2. The September 11th Attacks (2001)

The morning news shows were winding down on that Tuesday morning in September when reports came in to their control rooms: a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Initial word was that it was a small passenger plane, but it was soon revealed as a commercial airliner, and when another smashed into the second tower, it was clear that a coordinated attack was underway. Those revelations, those of an attack on the Pentagon, and the crumbling of each tower all happened on live television, with not only cable news channels but broadcast networks going to continuous coverage and viewers across the nation riveted to their televisions for hours, days, and weeks.

1. The Apollo 11 Moon Landing (1969)

Television often unites us in moments of tragedy, and the space program is no exception — it’s easy to remember where one was when first learning of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, or of the Columbia in 2003. But television also captured the astonishing beauty of space travel, and the tremendous achievements of those who dedicated their lives to it. John Glenn’s first orbit in 1962 was televised in its entirety, and when the crew of the Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, the networks covered the event for 30 straight hours. On the CBS desk was Walter Cronkite, rubbing his hands with glee and able to say little more than “Oh, boy.” Cameras on board the Apollo 11 captured this highlight of human achievements — and beamed it to a spellbound world’s televisions.

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