That Was The Year That Was

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The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964 remains one of the most watched television moments in history. Those who saw it remember it almost as clearly as they remember the near-continuous coverage of the Kennedy assassination and aftermath the previous November. It was a watershed moment for millions of baby boomers, who, like television itself, were coming of age in 1964. Prophecies about the medium’s potential were fulfilled. Unexpected powers were revealed.

The Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964 remains one of the most watched television moments in history. Those who saw it remember it almost as clearly as they remember the near-continuous coverage of the Kennedy assassination and aftermath the previous November. It was a watershed moment for millions of baby boomers, who, like television itself, were coming of age in 1964. Prophecies about the medium’s potential were fulfilled. Unexpected powers were revealed.

Maybe we hadn’t said we wanted a revolution, but we were getting one. By the beginning of 1964, all talk of a network that could rival the top three—NBC, CBS, and ABC—had stopped, and few communities in the country were beyond their reach. By the end of the year, television looked the way it would look well into the 1990s.

The year saw the triumph of spot advertising, whereby sponsors purchase minutes or less within a program rather than under-writing an entire show. The profits were huge because networks could make more money by selling many short time blocks.

Another development with vast long-term consequences was the introduction of pay TV. In July Subscription Television began supplying programming via coaxial cables to 6,000 charter subscribers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Despite skeptics (wondering who would pay for what was already free), pay TV would eventually catch on and evolve into the cable programming of today. “Those opposed to pay TV will be disturbed,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “to read that color fidelity is vastly superior to normal reception because it is transmitted by cable instead of from Mt. Wilson by air waves.”

For many critics, these technological innovations served a dubious purpose; in 1964 they still saw the same “vast wasteland” that the Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow had surveyed in 1961. What looked like junk then, of course, today looks like classic television, and 1964 was particularly rich in it. Five of the 10 most highly rated shows were situation comedies: “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Munsters,” and “The Lucy Show.” Three shows introduced that year were “Gilligan’s Island,” which retains a weirdly vigorous afterlife in reruns and popular memory; “Peyton Place,” which set a standard for the nighttime soap not realized again until the 1980s; and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Sassy and stylish, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” found an audience that saw itself too hip for such shows as “Petticoat Junction.”

By the end of the year, television looked the way it would look well into the 1990s.

Throughout 1964 live coverage of major events in the civil rights movement was immediate and constant, and the search for the missing activists Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman instigated a type of “crisis television” coverage that continues to characterize TV news. The cool, crisp way in which news stories got told is on a continuum with the style of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and the satirical review that followed it on Tuesday nights, “That Was the Week That Was.” The style was more urbane than rustic, more cool than warm, more Rob Petrie than Sheriff Taylor. Its greatest avatar on TV may have been Darrin Stephens of “Bewitched,” the Madison Avenue executive whose competence was threatened only by his wife Samantha’s ultracool but witchy powers. The style’s practitioners included the likes of Bill Moyers, who at the age of 30 was running Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater.

Moyers made the decision to air what was to become the most famous political commercial of all time. In this ad a very young child plucks petals from a daisy while attempting to count, with naturalistic incompetence (“five, seven, six, six, eight, nine, nine”). Eventually her voice is obliterated by that of a man conducting a missile-launch countdown. The camera zooms in on the girl’s iris, then cuts to a nuclear mushroom cloud. Johnson himself speaks: “We must either love each other or we must die.” Finally, we are told: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The “daisy” ad aired exactly once, on September 7. It didn’t necessarily change the course of the election, but discussion of it in the media brought it to the attention of millions who hadn’t seen it, and even those appalled by the tactic came away from the debate with the idea that Goldwater advocated reckless nuclear testing.

For advertisers, the lesson was clear. Running a spot was more effective and cheaper than buying a whole show. Marshall McLuhan, the popular media savant of the day, seemed to be right: Television, the “cool medium,” doesn’t require or expect focused attention. It can have an impact without conveying much information. The spot worked with Samantha-like magic, and forever after political advertisements display its traces.

If you had to choose the most important television event of 1964, in other words, you wouldn’t be far wrong to pick an ad that relatively few people got to see.

—Karen Hornick teaches literature and popular culture at the Gallatin School of New York University.