You may have heard this already, but we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of two famously important events in television history: the JFK assassination and the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
It doesn’t take much Googling to find references to the significance of the assassination for television. The Associated Press maintains that, “in life and especially in death, John F. Kennedy changed television forever” because his murder showed that this then-youthful technology could hold the country together in a moment of crisis. Similarly, there is near-universal agreement that the first televised strains of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” launched a youth culture that has yet to abate.
For five decades now, whenever two Baby Boomers meet, the topics that could always bridge any conversational divide have been: “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” and “did you see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan?” I’ve played this game myself so many times I can no longer keep straight whether I’m remembering what actually happened or what I’ve been told I should be remembering.
In some respects, television achieved its apotheosis during those crucial two-and-a-half months of 1963-64. The popularity and influence of television had been building rapidly during the previous 15 years, with Little Rickie’s birth on “I Love Lucy” attracting massive audiences and the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 swinging the election to JFK. The events of November 1963 merely cemented television’s already dominant role as the nation’s cultural glue.
Television has had a long run as the preeminent communications medium, and 50 years after the assassination is as good a time as any to ask whether it still holds that position.
“Television,” of course is a technology or a medium that does not itself exert influence. What we are really asking is whether it is still possible for a handful of news and entertainment executives to set the national agenda as they did 50 years ago.
The irony is that, although more people spend more time watching television than ever before, the television medium itself will never again be as dominant as it was in 1963. In the early ‘60s there were only three networks, and the share of the audience would approach 100% when every network broadcast the same thing – like a presidential funeral. Moreover, although virtually every home had a television 1963, the vast majority of them had just one set. This meant that everybody in the family had to watch the same program, creating a forced uniformity across the TV-watching landscape.
To state the obvious, at a time when there are hundreds of channels and more televisions than people, it’s impossible for any single event to attract universal attention. In 2008, journalists refused to believe that President Obama’s inauguration wasn’t the most-watched swearing-in in history, forgetting, for example, that when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1980, the telecast was essentially the only show in town. And if the TV audience was fractured in 2008, it’s even more so in 2013 with Netflix, VOD and other time-shifted options.
Then there’s the impact of social media. For 50 years, whenever we wanted to know what was going on in the world, we would race to the television. But an increasingly large number of people now are getting their news and cultural influences through Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
But the ironic thing is that social media is helping to restore the cultural relevance of television at the very time that fragmentation is diluting its importance. First, social media can create the much sought-after “buzz” that drives TV viewing. Case in point, the tremendous increase in viewing for the final season of “Breaking Bad.” It might have been old-fashioned word of mouth that inspired millions of people to pick up “Breaking Bad” just as it was coming to an end, but I’m inclined to think that social media contributed mightily to the phenomenon.
Social media can also create buzz retroactively. The Miley Cyrus “twerking” scandal was the 2013 equivalent of The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan, even though her VMA performance was seen live by only small fraction of the people who watched The Beatles. But even though Miley had a smallish live TV audience, the subsequent social media meltdown made the VMAs one of the most significant cultural events of the year.
No, TV might not dominate the landscape as it did 50 years ago, but it’s pretty darn important. If (or when) there’s another calamitous event to compare with the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion or the September 11 attacks, it’s almost certain that people will convene around the TV once again. They might be watching events unfold on a tablet or a smartphone; they might be supplementing their information-gathering via Twitter or Reddit; but almost certainly, they’ll be watching the first draft of history unfold as they’ve done for the last 50 years: on television.