1960s: TV and Radio

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1960s: TV and Radio

Television cemented its grip on American attention spans during the 1960s. The industry added channels and improved the quality of its color pictures. However, some Americans became increasingly critical of television programming in the decade. They worried that TV would, in the words of many a concerned parent, "rot their children's minds."

Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow (1926–) summed up the concerns about television in his address to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961. "When television is good," said Minow, "nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse." He challenged broadcasters to watch their TV shows for an entire day. Minow assured them, in words that became his most famous, that they would observe "a vast wasteland."

Minow was right—TV in the 1960s was both good and bad. Sports programming improved dramatically during the decade, as broadcasters and camera crews learned how to make the games dramatic. Television news proved its merits with five days of nearly continuous coverage of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). Later in the decade, coverage of the Vietnam War (1954–75) and the Apollo moon landings helped make TV the primary way that Americans got their news. A new format of news program called 60 Minutes premiered in 1968.

Americans enjoyed watching the Westerns, situation comedies (sitcoms), and action-adventure shows that made up the majority of network programming, but few could claim that these shows were of great quality. The decade was characterized by silly shows like Gilligan's Island (1964–67), Bewitched (1964–72), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71), and Hawaii Five-O (1968–80). The most innovative programs—The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–70) and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968–73)—were variety shows with political and satirical content. In fact, The Smothers Brothers show was so controversial that it was canceled.

Those concerned about the quality of television, especially of the quality of programming for children, were cheered by the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. This led to the founding of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1969 and to the airing of such quality children's TV shows as Sesame Street (1969–) and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1966–2001).

With TV as Americans' first choice for news, as well as drama, comedy, and adventure stories, radio was forced to take on a different role in American entertainment. The spread of portable transistor radios and of car radios made radio a portable form of entertainment, and radios provided music and news for those on the go. By 1967, it was estimated that 90 percent of all radio programming was music. Stations diversified to carry different types of music, from rock to classical, folk to country. One of the most popular radio formats was the Top 40 station, which played only the most popular hits in America.

Whether Americans got their entertainment from radio or TV, they had to submit to the ever-increasing tide of advertising that interrupted broadcasts—but also made them possible. People complained about all the ads, but the truth was that most of the costs of airing programs were carried by advertisers, who were willing to pay top dollar to be able to tell huge audiences about the latest and greatest new product.

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1960s: TV and Radio