July 1, 2017

This week in TV Guide: June 29, 1996

We now come to another in our series of special TV Guide issues, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Steve Harris, whom you may recall was also responsible for the 40th Anniversary and 45th Anniversary issues. This week, it's the 100 most memorable moments in TV history - according to TV Guide, that is.

Lists like this are always hard to critique objectively. We have moments that are personal favorites, or made an indelible impression on us for one reason or another, and so it's understandable that we might attach a greater importance to such moments than others would. We also have to realize that different generations view things in different ways; we tend to have short attention spans nowadays, and very little historical perspective, with the result that we tend to regard anything that happened more than, say, five years ago to be ancient history never to be revisited again. We also live in a culture that has been heavily Oprahfized, with the result that we attach a far greater sense of import to moments that appeal to emotions and feelings. Unfortunate, but also a reality given the world in which we live.

There's also the question as to whether or not memorable moments are also timeless moments - in other words, does a story that makes an impression at a certain place and time need to remain vital twenty years later, or is it enough that people were impacted once, without it having to carry the same weight to succeeding generations? In this case, I'd suggest that it's enough for a moment to have been memorable once; even if something similar to it were to happen again, you can't expect succeeding occurrences to have the same impact as the original. We'll see an example of that very early on - at #8, in fact.

You may recall that we looked at a similar list a few years ago, written from the perspective of 2012, and while I wasn't terribly impressed with that list either, I think it can be useful to consider not only for those events that happened since 1996, but also as a way of measuring how things have changed in our culture in the 21 years since this issue came out. We'll get to that in due time, but first let's examine the list we already have in front of us.

Removing all suspense at the very outset, I'll clue you in that the single most memorable moment in television history, according to this TV Guide, is the first manned moon landing in 1969, and quite frankly I'd find that very hard to disagree with. It's hard to find a moment that more accurately represents the culmination of a centuries-held dream than Neil Armstrong's first step onto the surface of the moon (on live television!). The rest of the top ten: Lucy in the candy factory (#2), John-John's salute (#3), the Beatles' first appearance on the Sullivan show (#4), the final episodes of Newhart (#5) and The Fugitive (#6), the O.J. Simpson verdict (#7), the wedding of Charles and Diana (#8), Bette Midler on the penultimate Carson show (#9), and the 1968 Elvis comeback show (#10). Some of these are perceptive choices, others come across today as little more than the flavor of the month but were special once.

Charles and Diana, for instance, were big stuff once, before their fairy tale went south. In our 2012 list, it's been replaced by two events: the funeral of Diana, and the marriage of her son William and Kate Middleton. Had the list been made years before, the event on the list might have been the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. A few years from now, it might be the coronation of William. Times change, and there's no question that the impact made by that 1981 wedding was substantial. That doesn't mean it should appear on any other list, but I suppose it does validate its appearance on this one. And so on - considering that the younger generation doesn't even know who Johnny Carson is (or so we're told), it's not likely that Bette Midler singing to him is going to remain on future lists . But it was good enough to happen once.

Now, while no list is perfect, and I've already given this one some breaks, there are things that I simply can't overlook - events that just don't belong on this or any other list. For example, there's Muhammad Ali's knockout of George Foreman to regain the heavyweight championship in 1974 (#54). This frankly baffles, since the fight wasn't even on live home television - the live broadcast was on closed-circuit in movie theaters around the country. It wasn't until later that the bout made it to Wide World of Sports, by which time you'd have had to have been completely out of it to not know how the fight had turned out. I don't question its place in sporting history, but to call it one of television's most memorable moments is simply nonsense.

The #3 event on the list, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s salute to his father, is similar. There's no question it's a touching moment, but I don't think its fame derives from the live television coverage. No, what gave this moment its iconic status are the pictures taken by UPI photographer Stan Sterns and New York Daily News photographer John Farrell. As Sterns says, it was a moment that most missed. "As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. Everyone I talked to had been concentrating on Jackie and the caisson." Farrell was nominated for a Pulitzer for his photo*, which appeared on the front page of the Daily News the next day, and it's that exposure, not the original moment as captured on television, that people probably remember. Look at the original television coverage of the funeral; as this still taken from the CBS coverage shows, the salute is not the focal point of the shot; John Jr. can only be seen in the lower left-hand of the screen, a small boy on a small black-and-white picture tube being watched by millions of people who were literally shell-shocked. The picture in the paper the next day is what people would never forget.

*Farrell lost to Bob Jackson's photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. That image, which was seen live on NBC, was - as Guinness certifies - "the first known human killing seen live on TV ." TV Guide rated it #73, but I think that's the memorable moment of those four dark days.

For the same reason, I object strongly to including the premiere episodes of programs that go on to a long and successful lifespan, such as the debuts of Roseanne (#40), The Cosby Show (#31), and Bonanza (#29). While it's true that each of these series may have, to one extent or another, redefined an aspect of television, nobody knew or appreciated that at the time. To be included as a memorable moment, it seems to me, one has to have an immediate, "did you just see that? kind of reaction. To their credit, the inclusion of Hill Street Blues' premiere (#65) does have that moment, when the camera reveals that the lover of defense attorney Joyce Davenport is, in fact, her nemesis Detective Frank Furillo. Maybe it wasn't the most groundbreaking moment of all time (which is probably why it ranked relatively low), and I don't know that I would necessarily call it the scene that tipped everyone off that here was something special, but at least it was something of a sit-up-straight moment.

Now, it's true that a list like this isn't going to satisfy everyone - in fact, it might not satisfy most people. And I don't want to dismiss it out-of-hand, because I think it does reflect some very perceptive choices. The writers were wise to rank The Fugitive's final episode (#6) ahead of the M*A*S*H finale (#78) and the "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas (#13), despite those two shows garnering more viewers. Clarence Thomas' comments on being the victim of a "high-tech lynching" (#30) showed many people for the first time the extent of the political divisions within the black community. Ed Ames and his tomahawk on The Tonight Show make the list at #35, even though they botch the money quote; they offer Johnny Carson's comment "I can't hurt him any more than you did" when asked by Ames if he wanted a throw, whereas I think most people remember Carson's riposte (thought up while the audience was in hysterics) that "I didn't even know you were Jewish." Maybe that wasn't P.C. enough for this crowd. And even though I'm no fan of Lucille Ball, I think the choice of her famous candy on the conveyor belt scene as #2 indicates an appreciation of television history that's too often missing from lists like this.

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This week's list is now over 20 years old and there's a lot that's happened since then, which is why we look at the 2012 list. It's interesting to note that 13 of the 20 items on that list occurred in the 16 years between 1996 and 2012. Think about that for a moment: while television has been around since before World War II, it's really only been since the late 1940s that it's entered into the realm of pop culture. And while it took nearly 50 years to produce this week's TV Guide list of 100, it took only 16 years to accumulate 65% of the events on this (admittedly shorter) list.*

*Of those seven that happened prior to 1996, three happened within five years of our TV Guide issue. Only two occurred prior to 1986, and they were actually part of the same event (JFK's assassination and funeral). None were from the broadcast of an episode of series television or a sporting event. Let me repeat that for you - none. 

Does this mean the world moves more quickly, or that we have shorter attention spans? Is series television not as memorable as it used to be, or is it just less important? (I would say, for instance, that the final episode of The Sopranos certainly deserves a spot on the list, and some would compare the whimsical conclusion of Mad Men to the absurdist finale of Newhart.) Are we more attuned to separating the important from the frivolous, or are we just more ignorant when it comes to television's history and heritage? I suppose there's some truth to each of these, and we'll probably never know the exact reason why.

In the meantime, it should come as no surprise that the top TV moment in that 2012 list is the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and in some ways I think contrasting the top choice from each of these lists is the most interesting thing of all.

By 1969, public sentiment was turning against the space program. Now, I don't mean to suggest that a majority were opposed to it, but those who were comprised a vocal minority. Their argument centered around the enormous financial cost to put a man on the moon, and how that money might be better put to use funding social programs in this country. (Eventually, the Nixon Administration did put the kibosh on the moon landings, but there's a school of thought that suggests this was due to Nixon's animus toward the Kennedy legacy as anything. But, we digress.) Despite this, the flight of Apollo 11 was one of the most highly anticipated events in world history, the culmination of one of mankind's greatest achievements. I say this partly for the benefit of you youngsters out there who've never lived a day in your lives without the reality of man having set foot on the moon - it's difficult to overestimate just what a spectacular event this was. It was the ultimate in human scientific triumph - we had conquered the moon, and the stars lay ahead!

The contrast with the World Trade Center couldn't be more stark. In the Twin Towers, we had another of mankind's great technological feats. Although the towers had since been displaced as the world's tallest, and even though the aesthetic charms of the buildings were sometimes difficult to appreciate, think about it: the concurrent construction, side-by-side, of two 100+ story towers. And over the course of two or three hours, they were both gone - destroyed by another of man's great achievements, the jet aircraft. Whereas the moon landing represented technology's success, the WTC was a stunning downfall.

In some ways, this reminds me of the Titanic sinking. As you probably know, I've long been interested in the Titanic, and the story of the world's largest and most luxurious ship - virtually unsinkable - going down the very first time she sailed is one of history's great parables, speaking to man's hubris. (As a man of the time had said upon completion of the Titanic, "God Himself could not sink this ship.") I don't mean to suggest that the destruction of the Twin Towers is a similar case; the fact that it was a man-created disaster makes it all the more shocking, as if it had been man and not God who had brought down the Tower of Babel. What it is, ultimately, is a reminder to put not your complete faith in technology, no matter how great an achievement it might be.

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And ultimately, isn't this what television is, a great technological achievement? Beaming a moving picture into the home, covering events live (as they happen!), covering them in color, covering them in HD, covering them (for a time) in 3D, covering them in 4K. When does it end?

Despite this, television's star begins to fade. Cord-cutting is on the rise, even as the number of stations continues to increase. Networks pay more for the rights to sporting events, which look magnificent on the newest 4K televisions - while at the same time viewers move away from traditional broadcasts in favor of streaming tiny pictures on their mobile devices. I don't understand why anyone would want to watch a small picture when a large one could be had, just as I don't understand why anyone feels it necessary to be constantly on the move instead of actually concentrating on one thing at a time. But then, that's just me - maybe they think they're fish, and that if they stop moving, they're dead.

Ultimately, this list (and lists like it) tell us far more about ourselves and our times than they do about television, for while we learn very little about the shows themselves, we find out a great deal about the times that produced them. We replace the "unreality" of scripted TV shows with the "reality" of news, the emotion from comedy and drama shows with the emotion from celebrity deaths, the optimism of television's youth with the pessimism and cynicism of television's present.

And the future? Television continues to evolve, from over-the-air to cable and now to streaming. In this sense, a list like this represents (as all such issues do) a kind of autopsy, for a way of life as much as for television itself. When that next list comes along, will we see even less evidence of institutional memory, less knowledge and respect for television's history? Will another raft of news events, significant or trivial, come to dominate the list? Will our viewing be dominated by some type of virtual reality, making us more a participant in what we watch? The only appropriate response seems to be: stay tuned. TV  

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