July 23, 2012

TV's top moments?

Dsn’t know if you saw this item the other day – a list of the most significant moments in TV over the last 50 years, as voted on by television viewers in a survey conducted by Sony and Nielsen TV research. Not surprisingly, 9/11 was chosen as the top moment. (You can see the entire list here.)

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
However, Lindstrom does have it right when he refers to events that “brought emotional memories together.” Television is, or at least was intended to be, a shared experience – a communal event that people could watch together, discuss together, share memories of together. In this sense, it should come as no surprise that all 20 on the list were news events; in today’s culture, news and sports are just about the only events that we all watch together. Everything else is just something we watch at our convenience, when and where and how we we want. (At this point I should be talking about what a shame this is, but I think regular readers of the blog have probably heard that from me enough times already.)

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.
  1. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (1948)
  2. Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)
  3. The JFK assassination and funeral (1963)
  4. The final episode of The Fugitive (1967)
  5. The premiere of Laugh-In (1968)
  6. Man walks on the moon (1969)
  7. The final episode of Roots (1977)
  8. The "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas (1980)
  9. The O.J. Simpson verdict (1995)
  10. September 11, 2001

1 comment:

  1. Oh the irony of this clearly biased one from the wires.

    Who Shot J. R. still affects television with cliffhangers today. And when Cynthia Cidre, along with Warner Bros (successor to Lorimar) and its TNT cable channel conceived a "Dallas: The Next Generation," (you could call it The Ewing Kids Grow Up) the protagonist Christopher Ewing dates back to Who Shot J. R. in that he isn't a Ewing at all. His mother was the woman who shot J. R., and died in the Southfork pool, later adopted by Bobby, and we never heard from him much until the Cidre concept for The Next Generation, down to him trying to invest in the complete opposite of the Ewing empire, considering his mother tried to kill John Ross Ewing, Jr. Ironically, Christopher's rival is the pro-oil John Ross Ewing III.

    I agreen on Amahl, even though I never saw it on television. Once opera hooks you, it's always burned in your brain.

    But pop culture stars? Barack Obama's win as a celebration of the demise of the nation as the CCCP is reborn should not be such a big moment. Nor should the death of high-profile pop culture figures because of drugs. It's not The Imtimidator's death in any shape or form (which even included messages from the White House) where the news channels broadcast the funeral live for a commoner.

    My moments (no specific order) from television all from my lifetime?

    1. Black Sunday at Imola.
    2. Ten for the gold at UCLA, 1984.
    3. Usama's Henchmen Strike the US.
    4. Big Trouble. Big Wreck Behind Them!
    5. One minute fifteen seconds. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink.
    6. A House Divided.
    7. End of an era, September 2010.
    8. The Modern Dynasty.
    9. Acquittal of LAPD Officers.
    10. Tyree's Catch and the End of Perfection.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!