Now, I don’t really put much stock in lists like this, especially when you consider the audience who did the voting. After all, we’re now almost 50 years out from the JFK assassination, and the number of people alive today who actually witnessed those events live on TV (and over 90% of the public did, back then) continues to diminish. Certainly the number is less than those who saw 9/11 live. Therefore, regardless of the importance of a given event, a list like this is going to be heavily slanted toward more recent events – events the voters saw for hemselves.* That’s probably why we have the arbitrary 50-year timeframe – which I think is wrong for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
*I mean, come on – the death of Whitney Houston (#11)?
I’m also not quite sure what the criteria should be for this kind of list. According to Sony and Nielsen, the survey ranked TV moments “for their impact, not just by asking people if they remembered watching them, but if they recalled where they watched it, who they were with and whether they talked to other people about what they had seen.” But what does this really mean? Are we talking about the most memorable moments ever seen on TV? Those with the biggest impact on the medium? Those that resonated most with viewers, or those that were most newsworthy? Those with the biggest cultural impact? Because these are very different things we’re discussing.* "What we were trying to measure was perception," Paul Lindstrom, a senior vice president at Nielsen told Reuters. And I understand that. But under these circumstances, what you’re bound to miss is perspective, while winding up with a list top-heavy in terms of feelings**
*Not to harp on Whitney Houston, but if Elvis had died during the age of CNN we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
**See Princess Diana, (#10).
|From left: 9/11, the JFK funeral, the O.J. verdict, the Oklahoma City bombing|
Television historians have their own bias, of course, which means a list drawn up by them might not be any better. I suspect we’d see more “culturally significant” events (the Beatles on Sullivan, for example) and “important” entertainment programs (Roots), but it might miss out entirely on the “emotional memories” that Lindstrom talks about. And then there’s the timeframe – the last 50 years, mind you, goes back only to 1962. A lot happened on television prior to 1962 – the Kennedy-Nixon debates, for example, or the Army-McCarthy hearings, each of which had a profound importance that carried far beyond their immediate times. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater had an extraordinary impact on our culture – movie theaters and stores were practically empty as what seemed to be the entire nation sat around the TV watching this landmark show. Talk to someone from that era, and you’ll see how important it was – and countless other TV moments that occurred before ’62. Problem is, there just aren’t as many viewers left who can tell you what it was really like. And watching Berle today, on DVD, is a significantly different experience, shaded by our shifting mores, our tastes, and our historical awareness of what we’re seeing.
No, TV is a medium that is so highly dependent on individual tastes, and our culture today is so fragmented into minute subgroups, that it’s probably impossible to come up with a comprehensive list that takes all these factors into consideration and makes a significant contribution to television history. And I’m sure Sony and Nielsen were only looking for headlines, a chance to generate a story or two, and in that they succeeded. Maybe if you did it like the Book of Lists, where you ask a bunch of people – actors, historians, famous viewers – to list their moments, and then include the Sony/Nielsen survey to represent the public at large, you’d come up with something that was more significant, or at least entertaining. It would also be more worth arguing about. Speaking of arguments, for what it’s worth I’ll offer my own top 10 list, using all of those things I talked about above as a basis for my choices. They’re in no order other than chronological –feel free to show me how I’m all wet and your list is the one that really counts.
- Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (1948)
- Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)
- The JFK assassination and funeral (1963)
- The final episode of The Fugitive (1967)
- The premiere of Laugh-In (1968)
- Man walks on the moon (1969)
- The final episode of Roots (1977)
- The "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas (1980)
- The O.J. Simpson verdict (1995)
- September 11, 2001