The medium of television expands and evolves year after year, with technological advances and changing societal norms affecting the overall utility of the format. In the earliest days of television broadcasting, companies used the medium to provide entertainment to households while also disseminating information through news programs. While this purpose holds to this day, the scope and scale of television has exponentially grown.
What started with just a handful of television channels turned into hundreds of television channels and thousands of shows covering a multitude of fields, cultures, and other aspects of society. And with streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu alongside internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube, viewing audiences have never been wired in more to television.
With the advent of live television and 24-hour news cycles, people from home have witnessed historical moments on their screens as they’ve happened. These include coverage of international wars, royal weddings, political assassinations, record-breaking sports events, scientific breakthroughs, and celebrity mishaps. Because these events are caught on camera for the world to see, certain moments and images have forever been stuck in the public consciousness.
At the same time, entertainment shows have also provided their own noteworthy milestones. Some television shows have introduced new formats and ideas that have changed the landscape of the industry. Scripted shows have put out episodes that challenged societal standards, or shook up preconceptions of what dramas or sitcoms could portray. Examples include the depiction of a societal taboo or an unusual creative decision, like the killing off of a main character.
These moments, both scripted and unscripted, have spurred on conversations and discourse among viewers. Television dramas still inspire watercooler discussions, reality shows pique interest and create gossip, and some of the real-life events shown on screen are celebrated or scrutinized in controversy.
Several news and entertainment websites and publications have reported on a number of television moments significant to popular culture over the years; Stacker has compiled 100 of these events in rough chronological order, spanning a wide range of television feats. Click on to see which moments in television history still stick with viewers today.
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The 1939 World’s Fair
The inception of the NBC broadcast network involved the 1939 World’s Fair, which was captured on camera to be transmitted around the country. Using state-of-the-art television broadcasting technology for its time, NBC sent signals from mobile broadcasting trucks to a tower on top of the Empire State Building in New York City, sending the image to the earliest television adopters at home.
Television is nationwide by 1951
NBC began the process of linking its stations of different geographic locations together, doing so with the East Coast and the Midwest at the beginning of 1949. When the West Coast was also connected to the rest of the nation in September 1951, nationwide TV was essentially created with shared programming across the country.
First televised NFL championships
In late December 1951, television viewers were first able to watch an NFL championship game on their screens, with the DuMont Network paying $470,000 for the television rights. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns for the title, and viewers from coast-to-coast were able to watch the victory from their homes.
‘I Love Lucy’ candy factory episode
The 1952 episode of I Love Lucy titled “Job Switching” is thought to be one of the most classic episodes in the entire series. The episode has Lucy and her best friend Ethel switching jobs with their significant others, with the women working in a candy factory and comically struggling to keep up with a conveyor belt, all while the men have similar difficulties with housekeeping. It is an episode full of memorable comedy and also tackled gender roles early on in the medium’s life span.
Jerry Lewis holds his first telethon
The very first Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon occurred on March 14, 1952, with filmmaker Jerry Lewis raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The telethon would go on to be held annually until 2014, raising billions of dollars for the research and treatment against muscular dystrophy.
Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech
While running for the office of vice president, Sen. Richard Nixon gave a 1952 televised speech in which he defended his use of certain funds for personal expenses. The 30-minute speech had Nixon describing his upbringing and justifying his recent actions; the speech is named such because in it, he mentioned his dog named Checkers. It resulted in an outpour of support for Nixon and his candidacy, and it is one of the earliest examples of American politicians utilizing the airwaves to reach out to the voting public.
RCA tests color television
The RCA Corporation made television history in November 1953 by testing its new color system on the air during an episode of NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour. A year later, NBC’s sitcom titled The Marriage would be the first color series to air on television.
Miss America becomes a television hallmark
The Miss America pageant of 1954 was the 27th to occur, but it was the first one to be televised. The host of the first telecast was presenter Bob Russell, and ever since Miss America landed on television, the emcee has been seen by organizers to be even more essential. The pageantry would continue on the air every year since then, and Miss America has remained a staple of American television.
Elvis Presley on ‘Ed Sullivan’
The titular host of The Ed Sullivan Show was initially wary about the prospect of having Elvis Presley on his program, expressing doubts that the rock-and-roll king was “fit for family viewing.” After Presley drew in ratings for Steve Allen’s competing show, Sullivan reconsidered and brought Presley on, despite his “lewd” performing style. When the star appeared in September 1956, 60 million viewers tuned in.
CBS replaces kinescope with videotape
Kinescope used to be the standard format for recording television programs, using motion picture film against a lens focused on the screen of a video monitor. The format eventually became replaced by the videotape in 1956, which was easier and more accessible to record with and cheaper to produce.
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Nixon and Kennedy debate
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the two major candidates for president of the United States, met face to face in the first debate aired on live television Sept. 26, 1960. With the Cold War hovering over the election, these televised debates set a precedent for the importance of media image and appearance in American politics. Accounts recall that during the debate, Nixon appeared sweaty and tired on screen, despite sounding authoritative on radio, while Kennedy displayed a youthful and confident appearance.
‘The Flintstones’ changes prime-time television
Animated show The Flintstones premiered on Sept. 30, 1960, becoming the first cartoon to air during prime time. Not only did this show, starring a “modern day Stone Age family,” pave the way for future shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, but it also broke ground by being the first animated show to depict a husband and wife sharing a bed, along with the first animated show to depict infertility issues with the inclusion of an adopted child.
Jacqueline Kennedy gives a White House tour
In 1962, First lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy opened the doors to the American people for an innovative, televised tour of the White House. Kennedy showed television cameras, and by extension the entire country, a look into the renovated and refurbished rooms and set pieces of the president’s place of residence. Kennedy’s initiative of restoration and the broadcast that showcased it brought back a lost pride for the sense of history behind the executive mansion.
George Wallace attempts to block school integration
In an attempt to stop the desegregation of schools in his state, Gov. George Wallace made a scene on June 11, 1963, and physically stood in front of a door to prevent a couple of prospective Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The effort was for naught, as the Kennedy administration ordered Alabama’s National Guard to enforce racial integration. Still, the image of Wallace at the school door was televised for all to see, and cemented Wallace’s pro-segregation legacy.
News coverage of the JFK assassination
When President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on Nov. 22, 1963, the first many Americans heard of the story was from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. The tragedy and the resulting investigations and reporting was said to have set a standard in breaking news. The coverage was compared to a gripping television drama, with news networks devoting more hours than ever to a single news story.
Jack Ruby kills Lee Harvey Oswald
The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was already shocking and monumental, but viewers got to see a dramatic and violent development on television. Lee Harvey Oswald was suspected to have been the assassin of JFK, and while being transferred to a more secure county jail, nightclub owner Jack Ruby came out of the crowd and shot Oswald to death. News cameras captured the shooting for viewers around the country to see.
The Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’
One of the definitive television moments for children and young adults in the 1960s was when The Beatles held their famous musical performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. The British rock band grew in popularity in 1964, and this “Beatlemania” culminated in a show viewed by 73 million Americans, marking the beginning of a musical “British Invasion” in the United States.
The first Super Bowl hits airwaves
Then called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” the Super Bowl was the first time the newly merged American Football League and National Football League held a title match. It remains the only Super Bowl that was simultaneously broadcast on two different television networks—CBS and NBC—with both networks utilizing their own different announcers and camera equipment. Footage of the 1967 football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Greenbay Packers was long-lost, until the NFL stitched footage from various disparate sources together.
The series finale of ‘The Fugitive’
The series finale of The Fugitive wrapped up what audiences thought to be a compelling and thrilling show, with the character of Richard Kimble, played by David Janssen, getting closer to finding the actual killer of his wife. When the two-part episode aired in August 1967, it was the highest-viewed television episode at the time with 30 million viewers, an early example of must-see TV.
News coverage of the Vietnam War
Known as a “television war,” the Vietnam War was the first American armed conflict that viewers could follow through news programs every night of the week. “CBS Evening News” anchor Walter Cronkite was a visible media figure during the war, visiting the frontlines. During one particular broadcast covering the 1968 Tet Offensive, Cronkite editorialized and shared his opinion on the war, referring to it as a “stalemate.”
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The moon landing
Fulfilling the late John F. Kennedy’s promise to send a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, Apollo 11 did the unimaginable on July 20, 1969. Called one of the greatest broadcasts in television history, an estimated 650 million viewers watched as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface and uttered “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” a phrase that has stuck in American pop culture lexicon.
Terrorism strikes the Munich Olympics
Viewers from around the world usually tune into the Olympics for their fix of sports and competition, but the 1972 Summer Games were victim to malice and violence. Palestinian terrorists had infiltrated the Olympic village, entering the Israeli quarters and killing two of the athletes while holding the remaining athletes hostage. News networks covered the developing story, with German police having to adjust their plans due to their actions being broadcast to more than a billion people around the world; police failed to rescue the hostages.
Newswoman Christine Chubbuck dies by suicide
Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year old newscaster suffering from depression, fatally shot herself in the head during a live newscast in 1974. Although it was just a local newscast, the footage would have a lasting legacy, being spread around the internet two decades later on sites such as LiveLeak, which contained a number of similarly grisly videos. Two different films based on the incident premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Christine and Kate Plays Christine.
Richard Nixon resigns
After a long saga marred by the Watergate scandal, then-President Richard Nixon addressed Americans through the airwaves on Aug. 8, 1974, and stated his intention to resign. Nixon was and still remains the first president to do so, and he cited the need for national healing. The speech itself was 16-minutes long, and was estimated to have been viewed by 110 million viewers.
The country watches ‘Roots’
The original Roots miniseries remains a landmark television show to this day, airing over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. It unfolded a long-spanning tale of slavery in America. The series was a massive ratings success, attracting 51.1 percent of all American TV homes for its finale. The move to air all episodes on consecutive nights inadvertently created momentum for the series, which was already gripping enough with its subject matter.
The Frost/Nixon interviews
Despite never receiving a proper impeachment trial, observers and historians say that Richard Nixon’s 1977 television interviews with British broadcaster David Frost was the closest the public came to receiving any apology and accountability from the disgraced former president. The choice of interviewer was initially thought to be unusual, with Frost known for being an entertainment producer at the time, but Frost was able to push Nixon to saying memorable phrases such as “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” This famous television event was eventually adapted into a play and an Oscar-nominated film called Frost/Nixon.
Who Shot J.R.?
An early and significant example of stunt television occurred in 1980 for the prime-time soap opera Dallas, with a whodunit plotline. Villain J.R. Ewing was mysteriously shot by an unknown assailant, and a cliffhanger that was unresolved until eight months later invited millions across the country to speculate on who shot J.R. More people than voters in that year’s election—83 million people in the United States, 76 percent of viewing audiences —tuned in to break ratings records.
USA vs. Russia: Olympic miracle on ice
Known as the “Miracle on Ice,” the young and underdog hockey team representing the United States defeated the Soviet Union team in the medal round during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The U.S. team, led by coach Herb Brooks, was full of college players and only a few professionals. The television broadcast is memorable for its commentary by Al Michaels, who in the game’s final moments declared “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The Iranian hostages are freed
Americans were attentive to television news networks during the Iranian hostage crisis, which took place from late 1979 to the beginning of 1981. News stations would give daily updates, and President Jimmy Carter would address the country, explaining and apologizing for failed rescue attempts. It was on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration after defeating Carter in an election, that the hostages were released.
Andy Kaufman pulls a stunt on Fridays
Andy Kaufman had already become infamous for his stunts and hijinx on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and the performer was able to do the same on a February 1981 episode of ABC‘s competing show Fridays. Kaufman participated in a sketch that involved marijuana use in a restaurant, and was supposedly not happy with the script and stopped performing. Cast member Michael Richards tossed cue cards on Kaufman’s lap and the two had a physical altercation in front of a live audience. In classic Kaufman fashion, the incident was eventually revealed as a set-up in which Kaufman, Richards, and others were involved.
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Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s royal wedding
Viewers around the world were heavily invested in the royal love story between Prince Charles and Princess Diana—750 million viewers, to be exact. Every aspect of the 1981 royal wedding was closely examined, from the ring, to the cake, to the vows, to the guest list. It was a tabloid event like no other, one that eventually ended in tragedy, with the couple’s divorce and then Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry Lawler on ‘Letterman’
Funnyman and performer Andy Kaufman was already infamous for his eccentric behavior, love of elaborate pranks, and his various stunts, so the weird and wacky Late Night with David Letterman was already a good fit for another one of his schemes. Kaufman staged a feud with wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, with the latter throwing the former around in a 1982 guest appearance on Late Night, although the nature of the prank was not evident until a decade after Kaufman’s 1984 death; until then, viewers found themselves once again tricked by Kaufman.
The record-breaking ‘M.A.S.H.’ finale
For decades, the record holder for the most-viewed television program was the 1983 series finale of the American television show M.A.S.H. Directed by and starring Alan Alda, the episode titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” depicted the end of the Korean War and featured the main characters saying their tear-filled goodbyes. Advertising for the initial broadcast was costly, and the show was viewed by about 106 million viewers.
Nancy Reagan guest stars in ‘Diff’rent Strokes’
First lady of the United States Nancy Reagan made an appearance in an episode of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes that aired on March 19, 1983. This particular episode focused on a drug epidemic, and Reagan used the platform to promote her “Just Say No” antidrug campaign. Her message reached viewers around the country, and even co-star Todd Bridges, who himself battled addiction.
‘Sesame Street’ addresses Mr. Hooper’s death
By design, Sesame Street has for a long time imparted important lessons for children to learn at an early age. After actor Will Lee passed away, so too did his character of Mr. Hooper. A 1983 episode would have the characters mourn Mr. Hooper, while also teaching Big Bird about the concept of death and grieving, helping younger viewers to also cope with the topic.
Apple’s 1984 advertisement
One of the most iconic television commercials of all time came from Apple with its “1984” ad promoting its Macintosh computer. Airing nationally in January 1984, the ad featured a woman representing the Macintosh destroying a screen featuring a Big Brother-like figure, a very overt reference to the dystopian George Orwell novel “1984.” The commercial is still famous to this day and established Apple’s penchant for producing memorable marketing.
The charity concert known as “Live Aid” was the idea of singer Bob Geldof, who conceptualized the rock concert as a form of relief aid for victims of famine in Africa. Princess Diana and Prince Charles opened the concert, which took place at Wembley Stadium on July 13, 1985, with performers including Queen, Madonna, David Bowie, Elton John, and more. The effort ended up raising $127 million for relief, and “Live Aid” became a shining example for other forms of relief in the years that followed.
The Challenger Space Shuttle explodes
What was originally intended to be a triumphant and monumental moment in television history instead ended up a tragedy—on Jan. 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart only 73 seconds into its launch. All seven crew members on board were killed, including Sharon Christa McAuliffe who would have been the first teacher in space. Approximately 17 percent of the United States population witnessed the disaster on live television, and the media coverage that resulted was extensive.
Al Capone’s vault
Television newsman Geraldo Rivera hosted a television special on April 21, 1986, titled The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. As the name implies, the special centers around an unopened vault owned by notorious criminal Al Capone, and news networks would hype the program and speculate on the contents of the vault. Unfortunately for Rivera, despite drawing 30 million viewers, the vault was mostly empty save for dust and empty bottles, leading to discussions on news focused on speculation and hypotheticals rather than cold, hard facts.
TV cameras enter the United States Senate
The United States Senate had hoped that television would play an important role in what appeared to be an inevitable impeachment trial for Richard Nixon; when the president resigned, these plans were halted. While the House of Representatives introduced television cameras in its chambers in 1979, it took the Senate until June of 1986 to do the same, as there were fears within the legislative body that the Senate would appear to be the less visible and significant chamber of Congress. Since then, Senate sessions and hearings are on C-SPAN, and many Senate speeches are lengthier and prone to grandstanding as a result of their accessibility.
The premiere of ‘Cops’
Formulated in 1988, reality show Cops felt like a novelty when it first premiered—the show was unscripted, and using handheld cameras, followed the daily lives of police officers and the disputes and crimes that they encounter. The format was gritty and seemingly authentic to viewers and inspired a number of reality shows that followed. But with the media glorification of police put into question in the wake of mass protests against police brutality and violence, Cops was canceled in 2020.
‘You’re no Jack Kennedy.’
While vice presidential debates are often no more than a footnote in the larger scheme of national elections, the 1988 vice presidential debate had an iconic line that is still quoted and repeated in American politics. Republican U.S. senator and nominee Dan Quayle compared his youth and general lack of experience to that of John F. Kennedy when he sought the presidency; Quayle’s Democratic counterpart, the elderly and experienced Lloyd Bentsen incredulously responded with the famous line to thunderous applause: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
1989 San Francisco earthquake
California’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused 63 deaths and thousands of injuries, and one single moment of the earthquake was inadvertently captured on live television. During the third game of the 1989 World Series between San Francisco and Oakland, commentary from announcers Bob Costas and Tim McCarver was suddenly cut out and the feed was interrupted as a result of the earthquake. The announcers and spectators were unharmed due to the stadium’s structure, leading many to believe that the World Series had saved lives.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
One of the most iconic images from the Cold War is both practical and symbolic: the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, which began in 1989. Long seen as a symbol of division, both geographically and ideologically, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall represented the impending German reunification. Television broadcasters showed video and images of citizens on both sides of the wall celebrating the event, marking a new era for Europe.
Tiananmen Square protest
The 1989 student-led protests at Tiananmen Square in China remain an influential example of civil disobedience and pro-democracy movements. However, with state-run media limiting the amount of information, many depended on foreign television organizations for news coverage. News networks that covered the protests included the BBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN.
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The premiere of ‘The Simpsons’
Initially beginning as a series of shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons premiered in December 1989 on the Fox network and quickly became a landmark television show. The prime-time ratings success of the show led to a boom of animated shows for adults, and it set standards with its use of sight gags and the lack of a laugh track. Having just completed its 31st season on air, it is the longest-running sitcom on American television.
‘Twin Peaks’ changes event television
The “wonderful and strange” show Twin Peaks by David Lynch and Mark Frost premiered in 1990, and it became a highly influential series that set a precedent for cult classics and event television. Following a murder investigation of a young woman, “Twin Peaks” drew public interest and impressive ratings, creating a “watercooler effect” where people nationwide were collectively discussing the show, the same way shows such as Lost and Game of Thrones would in the future.
The Gulf War news coverage
As brief as it may have been, the 1991 Gulf War set new precedents with covering armed conflicts on television. With CNN innovating the concept of a 24-hour news cycle, newscasters were able to utilize satellite technology to bring viewers in the United States live feed of the events.
The Rodney King riots
A 1991 video of African American Rodney King beaten by police officers for a traffic violation circulated across the airwaves, first on local television and then on nationwide news networks. A year later in 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with the beating were acquitted, and numerous protests and riots began in Los Angeles as a result. News networks captured many of the events, and viewers around the country watched the uprising unfold live.
Johnny Carson says farewell on ‘The Tonight Show’
After 30 years on the air as the host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson bid farewell to his audiences in May 1992. With final guests including an emotional Bette Midler and a manic and energetic Robin Williams, Carson’s final shows were full of sentiment and tears. Carson’s final show had no guests; it had an audience of friends, family, and crew, and was viewed by more than 50 million people.
Sinead O’Connor tears up a picture of the Pope on SNL
In a 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, singer Sinead O’Connor pulled a controversial stunt. While singing the lyric “evil,” O’Connor pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II; at the end of the performance to a shocked silence from the audience, she declared “fight the real enemy,” and tore the photo into pieces. The move affected the remainder of her career and led to thousands of angry phone calls to NBC.
The Olympic Basketball Dream Team
The United States sent what is known as the Dream Team to the 1992 Summer Olympics, with the men’s basketball team consisting of players including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and others. The team is thought to be one of the most iconic sports teams ever assembled, and basketball fans who were able to watch this squad win the gold medal live on television will likely never forget it.
Bill Clinton plays the sax on ‘Arsenio Hall’
As the younger candidate in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton made an effort to reach out to young voters with an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. After a brief chat, Clinton broke out his saxophone and played renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “God Bless the Child.” Clinton would end up winning the election against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.
The Waco siege
Viewers from home witnessed the fiery end of a compound in Waco, Texas, in early 1993. After a 51-day standoff, FBI agents led an assault on the compound of cult leader David Koresh and his religious group of Branch Davidians, with the siege going awry and the compound catching on fire. The images were shocking to those watching on their televisions, and 76 cult members, including Koresh, lost their lives.
O.J. Simpson and the white Ford Bronco car chase
In June 17, 1994, television networks took attention away from the NBA finals to report on another sports figure: former NFL player O.J. Simpson. Charged with the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, an armed Simpson rode in the back of a white Ford Bronco SUV driven by his friend in a two-hour long low-speed car chase with police. Television helicopters swooped in to capture the action, and up to 95 million viewers at home followed.
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Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic torch
Boxer Muhammad Ali was one of the most beloved and celebrated athletes in the United States, so it only made sense for him to light the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics. As the ceremony took place in Atlanta, organizers believed that Ali was the best choice to represent the country to the entire world. More than 3.5 billion viewers around the world were able to view this iconic moment.
Ellen’s coming-out episode
Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom held a moment that was monumental not only for storytelling in television, but for the personal life of the show’s star. The 1997, the Ellen episode titled “The Puppy Episode” received a significant amount of publicity, from the anticipation from gay rights groups to threats from religious organizations. The episode had Ellen come out as a lesbian, functionally also coming out as a lesbian in real life; the episode received high ratings and accolades.
Princess Diana’s funeral
The funeral for Princess Diana, who died at 36 in a car crash in 1997, was viewed and listened to by an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world. What was originally meant to be a private affair turned into a very public event, with Diana’s coffin taken through a route in London.
The ‘Seinfeld’ finale disappoints
One of the earliest examples of a fan base being dissatisfied by a series finale was Seinfeld, which ended in May 1998. The final episode of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s “show about nothing” received immense media hype, and 76 million people ended up tuning in to see what the main quartet of characters would do. The finale had the main characters headed to jail for failing to help stop a carjacker, with cameos from several supporting characters during the trial; not only were fans disappointed, but the cast and crew members expressed dissatisfaction as well.
Bob Barker’s 5,000th ‘The Price is Right’
After 26 years of hosting The Price is Right, longtime host Bob Barker celebrated his 5,000th episode in 1998. In honor of the host, the studio in which the show is taped was named the Bob Barker Studio. The episode itself, despite the monumental celebration, was mostly a standard episode that audiences expected, topped off with a special cake at the end.
American reality competition show Survivor first premiered in May 2000 and became an impactful show for the genre and popular culture in general. Hosted by Jeff Probst, the general premise of Survivor has contestants, all strangers to each other, isolated somewhere in the world to provide food and shelter for themselves, all while competing in challenges and games. The contestants are gradually eliminated and voted off the island, with one winner remaining at the end. The show has continued to be a ratings success for the following two decades and is currently in its 40th season.
The 2000 presidential election
The 2000 presidential matchup between George W. Bush and Al Gore has gone down as one of the most dramatic, controversial, and confusing events for Americans to witness. News networks initially reported Gore as the victor in Florida, before about-facing and declaring Bush as the winner of the state and the entire contest. The resulting recount and media coverage would last until December, with Bush ultimately winning.
Dale Earnhardt’s death
In February 2001, racing fans in the United States were shocked to witness the death of one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. In the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt crashed into a wall after colliding with other racers, killing him. More than 17 million viewers were watching the event on live television, and the accident led to newer inspections and regulations in NASCAR racing.
Buffy starts the musical episode trend
The sixth season of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer contained what might have first been considered to be a gimmick episode. Titled “Once More, with Feeling,” the 2001 episode was a full musical written and directed by Whedon, and it would become one of the most famous and popular episodes of the entire series. Since then, a number of television dramas and sitcoms have featured their own special musical episode.
Sept. 11, 2001
The biggest terrorist attack on American soil took place on Sept. 11, 2001, and it forever changed culture, policy, and society. Television programs were interrupted by news organizations to feed viewers with live images of the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center leading many to believe that an accidental plane crash had occurred. Not even an hour later, another plane, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the South Tower; viewers were watching a terrorist attack before their eyes on their screens.
‘The Shield’ premiere shocks audiences
The 2002 series premiere of The Shield made a compelling argument for the show: The protagonist of Vic Mackey was a morally gray police officer, and the twist ending of the first episode provided viewers with a thesis statement for the character. Mackey’s partner, a new detective named Terry Crowley, was introduced as a main character of the show, but the shocking ending had Mackey shoot and kill Crowley as part of a cover-up, highlighting the unusual and unpredictable nature of the show.
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Janet Jackson has a wardrobe malfunction
What was supposed to be a standard Super Bowl halftime show turned into a moral and censorship controversy in 2004, with a performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake garnering attention and criticism for a brief wardrobe malfunction. The duo performed the song “Rock Your Body,” and while singing the last lyric, Timberlake pulled off a part of Jackson’s outfit, which inadvertently revealed her breast. The moment was ridiculed around the country and led to a fine toward broadcaster CBS, as well as impacting Jackson’s career.
The 2004 Indonesia tsunami
The December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia was a call to action for the entire world. Television stations aired footage of the horrific aftermath, and as a response, a number of charities and aid groups began efforts to collect donations, and several charity telethons and fundraisers aired on television to support the cause. Thanks to the international effort and the fast spread of information thanks to television, more than $14 billion was raised for tsunami relief.
Kanye West’s comments on Hurricane Katrina
The damage and loss of life that Hurricane Katrina left in New Orleans led to a number of fundraisers and charity telethons to support relief in the area. In the 2005 “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” Kayne West presented a segment with Mike Myers, and the former began deviating from the script, discussing the media portrayal of Black people in New Orleans. At the end of the segment, West ad-libbed “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” on live television, next to a flummoxed Myers.
Tom Cruise on ‘Oprah’
An iconic 2005 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show had Hollywood actor Tom Cruise pull what would be a memorable and often-parodied stunt. Promoting the film War of the Worlds, Cruise instead glowed about his then-girlfriend Katie Holmes, leaping on the studio couch while declaring his love for her. The incident came about the same time celebrity gossip websites and paparazzi were on the rise.
‘Six Feet Under’ delivers an acclaimed finale
Television drama Six Feet Under depicted a family that ran a funeral home, and naturally held grim overtones. While many television shows have struggled to find a perfect ending, the August 2005 series finale of this HBO show was not only highly acclaimed, but thought to be one of the best television finales of all time due to the closure it gave all of its characters.
Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift
Musician Kanye West is known for outbursts and controversies, but one that is still litigated to this day is his interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. After Swift won an award, West walked onto the stage, took the microphone, and used the opportunity to praise Beyonce’s competing music video. The moment created discussions on civility, drew a comment from President Barack Obama calling West a “jackass,” and is still referenced in West’s and Taylor’s music, with the two still considered to be in a feud.
Stephen Colbert performs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is generally an event for laughs and entertainment among the White House press corps and government officials, but the laughter was more awkward in April 2006 when comedian Stephen Colbert was the featured entertainer. In-character as his fictional right-wing pundit from The Colbert Report, Colbert delivered a scathing and sarcastic monologue toward President George W. Bush, who was sitting mere feet away. While the live audience didn’t take well to the performance, videos of it spread widely online.
Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the World Cup
A Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup final is nothing without drama, but the 2006 match contained a particularly egregious moment for all of the world to see. As a result of trash talk between the two, France’s Zinedine Zidane headbutted Italy’s Marco Materazzi, with the former receiving a red card and both players being reprimanded. It was a stunning moment to view on television, not to mention the moment that Zidane will be remembered for, with the match being his final one.
The Sopranos finale confuses viewers
One of the most hotly anticipated series finales in television resulted in intense debate and discussion when it aired in 2007. The Sopranos left viewers in the dark, literally, with the fate of Tony Soprano left ambiguous as the episode abruptly cut to black in its final moments. A number of the 11.9 million viewers believed that their television feed had cut out, though the blackout was an intentional artistic decision that Sopranos creator David Chase refuses to elaborate on.
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2008 Olympics opening ceremony
Several artistic and elaborately choreographed feats were featured in the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which took place in Beijing, China. The ceremony demonstrated aspects of Chinese culture, featured 2,008 drummers on LED Fou drums, a giant scroll painting, 2,008 Tai Chi masters, and Chinese gymnast Li Ning suspended with wires and running on the walls of the stadium to light the Olympic torch. Billions of viewers watched the stunning displays on television, although there are no agreed upon viewing numbers.
The Balloon Boy hoax
In October of 2009, television channels interrupted their programming to display the live image of a flying saucer-like balloon flying in the sky. News reports claimed that a 6-year-old boy was trapped in the balloon, and both police and National Guard pursued the flying object; it was found that the child was never in the balloon and instead had been in the family’s attic. Days later, the incident was revealed to be a planned stunt by the family to create publicity and a reality show, leading to wider discussions about vetting in the reporting process and the blur between news and reality television.
Conan O’Brien exits The Tonight Show
Conan O’Brien’s tenure as the host of The Tonight Show was pulled down by ratings struggles, which were not helped by his predecessor Jay Leno’s failed prime-time show that came before O’Brien’s program. Network NBC proposed a plan to have The Jay Leno Show in the traditional Tonight Show slot, which would be moved to midnight. As O’Brien rejected the plan, he decided to leave The Tonight Show and NBC, with his final shows in January 2010 achieving his highest rating and an outpour of fan and celebrity support.
The Lost finale polarizes fans
The controversial series finale of supernatural show Lost is still debated to this day. As a show based around mysteries, many fans were hoping for answers to their long-running questions and were looking to have their theories validated or disproven. As some plotlines were not addressed and the nature of the final scenes were thought to be confusing by some viewers, many fans criticized the finale, while others applauded it for its emotional value. While not record-breaking, the May 2010 final episode had an impressive viewership of 15 million people.
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Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden
Americans began receiving word late night on May 1, 2011, that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had been killed. While pro-American demonstrations broke out in public, everyone at home waited to hear the official word from President Barack Obama. In a live, televised speech, Obama confirmed the killing of bin Laden by the military and stated that “justice has been done.”
Rick Perry’s debate mishap
One of the most public blunders in national politics occurred during a 2011 Republican primary debate, with then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the center. After struggling in a number of previous debates, Perry stated in a later one that he would eliminate three federal departments, listing the Department of Commerce, Department of Education, and then failing to name the third one, following up with a simple: “Oops.” The moment was mocked nationwide and shuttered Perry’s chances in seeking the Republican nomination.
Ned Stark dies in ‘Game of Thrones’
In the June 2011 Game of Thrones episode titled “Baelor,” HBO did what was unthinkable in scripted television dramas. The fantasy show, based on George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, was heavily marketed with Sean Bean as the show’s leading man. In the penultimate episode of the first season, Bean’s character Ned Stark was dramatically killed off, challenging viewers’ perceptions of what television shows could do with their supposed main characters.
2012 Olympics opening
The 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was seen to be a difficult show to top, but the London games in the summer of 2012 tried their best. Titled “Isles of Wonder,” film director Danny Boyle put together a show that included references to Shakespeare, the Industrial Revolution, James Bond, Mr. Bean, and the National Health Service. The ceremony was highly viewed and praised, although in the United States, viewers complained that broadcaster NBC did not air it live.
‘Downton Abbey’ loses Matthew Crawley
When Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens left the show, his popular character Matthew Crawley had to meet an unfortunate end. The immensely popular show had a 2012 Christmas special, which featured Crawley, who survived World War I and a flu epidemic, killed abruptly in a car crash. Stevens would move on to other productions like Beauty and the Beast and Legion and gave an apology to upset fans for the nature of his exit.
Netflix streams its first original show ‘House of Cards’
Initially a rental service for physical discs, Netflix gradually evolved into a massive film and television streaming enterprise. It was 2013 when the streaming company put out its first original television show, an American adaptation of the BBC program House of Cards, produced by film director David Fincher and starring now-disgraced Kevin Spacey. The show would break new ground and put Netflix on the level of prestigious television networks like HBO, AMC, and FX.
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The Red Wedding traumatizes viewers
Readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were essentially immune to the major plot twists of Game of Thrones, knowing many of the story beats well in advance. With that knowledge, book readers were able to keep the secret of the infamous Red Wedding from “A Storm of Swords,” which was adapted into the June 2013 episode “The Rains of Castamere.” Reaction videos of unknowing television viewers watching the brutal deaths of the Stark family quickly went viral.
‘The Breaking Bad’ finale
While many series finales to popular television shows are often thought to be disappointing by fans and critics, Breaking Bad was the rare one that met expectations. The finale, titled “Felina,” aired in September 2013 and wrapped up the story of Walter White, played by the Emmy-winning Bryan Cranston. Watched by 10.28 million viewers, the finale is thought to be one of the greatest in television history.
The lambasted ‘How I Met Your Mother’ finale
The final season of long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother was unusual to fans, taking place within a matter of days, and it promised to fulfill the basic premise of the entire show. While the protagonist Ted finally met the eponymous mother of the show, the 2014 series finale’s plot twist was highly controversial to fans for killing the mother off in a flash-forward and pairing Ted with the character of Robin.
Steve Harvey announces the wrong Miss Universe
The Miss Universe 2015 pageant ended with drama and confusion, as host and presenter Steve Harvey initially announced the incorrect winner. Harvey read the card for the first runner-up, Miss Colombia, mistakenly believing her to be the winner. Minutes later, an embarrassed Harvey would correct himself, stating that Miss Philippines was instead the true victor. The snafu was viewed by 6.2 million viewers, and even more people mocked and referenced the incident on social media.
The record-breaking ‘Better Call Saul’ premiere
The AMC crime drama Breaking Bad ended with critical and fan acclaim, so when a prequel spinoff show was announced, expectations were extremely high. Upon its February 2015 premiere, Better Call Saul, which follows the transformation of lawyer Jimmy McGill to Breaking Bad criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, broke cable records with a viewership of 6.9 million people.
Murder of newswoman Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward
An August 2015 newscast in Roanoke, Virginia, abruptly turned violent, with viewers witnessing a murder live on television. Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot while conducting a live television interview by a disgruntled former co-worker, who also filmed the shooting from his own phone camera and uploaded the footage on social media. The tragedy caused a number of television networks to delay or postpone television episodes depicting gun violence, and led to a larger discussion about graphic content on the internet.
Beyonce performs at Super Bowl halftime
Beyonce Knowles attracted praise and controversy for her performance at the halftime show for the 50th Super Bowl in February 2016. The show featured imagery that invoked Black figures and Black Panther symbolism, garnering criticism from conservative figures but applause from Black Lives Matter activists.
The wrong best picture winner: ‘La La Land’ vs. ‘Moonlight’
A mishap backstage of the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 turned into a massive blunder for millions of viewers to see. For the best picture award, the accountant in charge of handing envelopes to presenters handed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope, leading the two to announce the winner as La La Land. The mistake was corrected live and in real-time on stage to questioning audiences in the auditorium and at home, with Moonlight announced as the rightful winner in a confusing night.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ wins an outstanding drama series Emmy
While Netflix was long in the running to win major awards for its original programming, it was rival Hulu that actually shattered the glass ceiling for streaming platforms. In 2017, dystopian show The Handmaid’s Tale won the coveted Prime-time Emmy award for outstanding drama series—the first streaming series to do so—and beat out competition from Netflix and HBO and established the platform as another major player in television.
NBC fires Matt Lauer from ‘Today’
In the wake of the accusations and charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault, harassment, and rape, the #MeToo movement arose, and workplaces of highly prolific companies began clearing out any accused offenders. One such was Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of The Today Show. Co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb would make the televised announcement of his firing in November 2017, not giving any sympathy to their former coworker.
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Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
The 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner created a war of words between the political left and right in the United States, with comedian Michelle Wolf delivering an incendiary monologue toward members of the Donald Trump administration. The right viewed attacks such as some toward then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as offensive, while the left defended the material. A large discussion over the role of the televised dinner began as a result, especially since President Trump opted to not participate in the festivities.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get married
The romance between Prince Harry and American television star Meghan Markle was very closely followed by tabloids and paparazzi, with everything leading to their televised May 2018 wedding. Hundreds of millions of viewers around the world followed the wedding from home, with attention drawn toward the attire and the star-heavy guest list. The ceremony garnered some attention for the inclusion of elements of African American culture.
Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings
After Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States was accused of sexual assault decades ago, the country’s attention was drawn to the televised Senate hearings regarding the matter. September 2018 brought hearings that included Kavanaugh’s primary accuser, professor Christine Blasey Ford, who gave emotional and credible testimony. On the other hand, Kavanaugh’s testimony was filled with anger; he was narrowly confirmed by the Senate and joined the Supreme Court.
‘The Game of Thrones’ finale is lambasted
Few modern television shows have reached the cultural phenomenon status of Game of Thrones, with social media discussions playing a large part in amplifying the discourse about the eighth and final season of the fantasy show. Unfortunately for HBO, the critical reviews and public response for the writing in the final season grew progressively worse, and the 2019 series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” was particularly lambasted. Regardless, the finale was still the most watched episode of the series with 13.61 million viewers on linear television, with streaming bumping the number up to 19.3 million viewers.
George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests
After a Black American named George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, protests and riots supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and fighting against racial injustice and police brutality rose across the country and the entire world. For those who had to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what was viewed on television was how they could experience those protests, which police responded to with brutality, live and on camera, even assaulting television journalists. The images and videos displayed on screen were unprecedented, and call into question methods of accountability against police when their actions are recorded and televised.
If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.
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