10 TV Moments That Changed the World

The world was watching on TV in 1969 when the Apollo 11 moon landing became one of the biggest moments in history.
The world was watching on TV in 1969 when the Apollo 11 moon landing became one of the biggest moments in history.
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Television. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that TV is one of the most powerful forms of mass media in the Western world. Not everyone sees billboards, and readers can turn the page to avoid newspaper or magazine ads. And while the Internet may be a pervasive force in modern culture, it's so vast and diverse that online messages can get lost in the ocean of content.

But TV, even seven decades after its first appearance in the consumer marketplace, is still a phenomenally powerful communication tool. Millions upon millions of viewers tune in every week to their favorite shows -- and absorb the associated ads that break into the programming every 15 minutes. Hundreds of millions of people from around the world tune in at the same moment to capture live broadcasts of world-changing events. And the news that broadcasters transmit every night influences the next day's actions for countless people around the globe.

The debate over the positive and negative effects of television programming continues to swing back and forth, but it would be very hard to deny that TV has produced world-changing events. Read on, and learn more about some of the most significant moments in TV history, when the images on our glowing screens changed our views of the world.

Disney's Wonderful World of Color

The advent of color TV in the 1950s was striking to viewers. Families used to imagining color as they watched black-and-white images suddenly found themselves transported into the vibrant, living worlds on their home screens. Color technology was beginning to develop as early as the 1920s, but it took the standardization of the National Television System Committee in the early 1940s to make widespread, affordable color TV a reality [source: National Television System Committee].

The technology was only half the equation, though. Without quality, easily available color broadcasts, home viewers wouldn't have a reason to spend the extra money for color sets to replace their trusty black-and-white models.

Enter Walt Disney. The media mogul embraced color TV and committed to programming for the new technology. Launched in October 1954, Disney's "Wonderful World of Color" was a family-friendly variety program that mixed iconic cartoons, drama and documentary programming with promotional updates on the then-under-construction Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif. Viewers welcomed the famous host into their homes, and serial dramas, such as the program's Davy Crockett trilogy, became nationwide marketing successes [source: CBS Entertainment].

Disney's "Wonderful World of Color" ran for 34 seasons, a long-standing record in television history. And along with providing programming that became a trusted institution in American family life, it helped make color the established, accepted standard in TV technology [source: The Internet Movie Database].

The First Televised Presidential Debate
Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy take part in the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy take part in the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

Political historians and media experts alike agree that the televised presidential debate between Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and his relatively unknown challenger, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, on Sept. 26, 1960, changed the face of presidential elections.

For the first time, American voters didn't just hear candidates speak about their policies, platforms and competitors' weaknesses; viewers could now see the candidates present their arguments. The change made for an opinion landslide in Kennedy's favor: The young, handsome politician appeared with a level of suave confidence that overshadowed the pale, unhealthy-looking Nixon [source: Barnhart].

The debate marked a shift in how Americans consumed news. Radio listeners spoke highly of Nixon, estimating that he came out ahead in the debate. But TV viewers -- a growing majority of the media public at that point -- pointed to Kennedy as the winner. The TV majority proved to reflect public sentiment: Kennedy won the election [source: Webley].

The debate marked a turning point in the race for the White House. Candidates could no longer rely solely on their speaking abilities or the strengths of their platforms. Political campaigning became an image game -- confident posture, demeanor and an attractive, authoritative appearance all became major factors in public perception of candidates.

Bulova Watch Commercial

The American TV audience that tuned in to see the Brooklyn Dodgers take on the Philadelphia Phillies on July 1, 1941, likely didn't realize they were about to witness TV history. But when a 20-second scene of a Bulova clock face appeared on their screens, overdubbed with the phrase, "The world runs on Bulova time," the estimated 4,000 viewers witnessed a milestone: the first paid TV commercial [source: TV Acres].

As anyone who watches modern TV knows, commercials are an integral part of television broadcasting. The advertisements have not only changed the way we shop, but they've also changed the way TV broadcasts are produced. TV dramas often break for commercials at high-tension moments, compelling viewers to sit through the commercials to see what happens next. And the production of TV commercials has become a high-stakes business that commands as much influence as the broadcast programming itself.

New York-based Bulova Watch Company reportedly paid $9 for that 1941 commercial, an infinitely small sum compared to the millions of dollars spent on commercials that run during modern events like the Super Bowl. The small ad was just the tip of a broadcasting iceberg, and one has to wonder if the Bulova advertising representatives -- or the broadcaster who sold the ad -- had any idea what would evolve from that brief broadcasting moment [source: The Most Expensive Journal].

Response to the 2004 Indonesia Tsunami
Television news coverage of the devastation in Indonesia following the January 2004 tsunami led to an outpouring of donations and help from viewers.
Television news coverage of the devastation in Indonesia following the January 2004 tsunami led to an outpouring of donations and help from viewers.
Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

On Dec. 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake with an estimated 9.0 magnitude sparked a massive tidal wave, or tsunami, in the Pacific. The wave hit Indonesia with little advance warning, wiping out entire communities and killing an estimated 280,000 people. Television news stations broadcast jaw-dropping images of the disaster and its aftermath, interspersed with graphics and commentary that explained the "how" of the disaster to viewers across the globe [source: Bolton Council of Mosques].

And those viewers responded. Within days, scores of charities and aid groups were flooded with donations and offers of help. Highly advertised fundraisers and celebrity telethon events made people aware of both the disaster and the generous donations to its victims. While the diversity of the international response makes it impossible to know exactly how much was raised, estimates put the amount of financial and material aid somewhere near $14 billion [source: BBC].

Without live international broadcasts and widespread viewership of cable news programming, it's possible that word of the tsunami's devastating effects would have taken much longer to reach across the world, slowing the aid response. Television may receive a bad rap for promoting a sedentary lifestyle and exposing people to violent or misleading images, but it can also be a powerful instigator for positive change [source: DoSomething.org].

Vietnam War Coverage

Many Americans kept up on news from the front lines of World War II through government-mediated film-reel news updates that played in movie theaters during the war. Two decades later, when America went to war in Vietnam, the new technologies of color TV and mobile news broadcasting painted a very different picture -- one that had a major influence on the nation's sentiment about the war.

TV news crews in Vietnam were equipped with relatively portable TV cameras that allowed them to go to war with the troops. For the first time, reporters could "embed" with American soldiers and quickly share their front-line experiences with the rest of the world. American viewers saw firsthand the frustration, danger and destruction their loved ones had to face in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

As a result, American attitudes toward the war shifted. Many protested, and the unflinching broadcasts fanned a massive antiwar movement across the country.

After Vietnam, the U.S. military began instituting a more controlled, and in some ways more media-savvy, relationship with news media. While broadcasters lost the ability to send their news crews into the field with the freedom they had had in Vietnam, military media officials understood that American viewers would not allow a return to the propaganda and limited news of earlier wars. The striking of this balance continues today, as reporters embed with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan [sources: Kahn and Mair].

The Apollo 11 Lunar Landing
Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of the Apollo 11 mission, walks on the moon. This photo was taken by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of the Apollo 11 mission, walks on the moon. This photo was taken by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be few -- if any -- TV moments that fired the world's imagination like the televised broadcast the night of July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Ed "Buzz" Aldrin landed on the moon. For the first time in history, humans set foot on another celestial body.

And the world was there with them.

NASA pilots and astronauts, and their counterparts in the USSR, had already accomplished a number of feats: breaking the sound barrier, flying into space and performing work in orbit. But the lunar landing was one of the most significant undertakings in the space race, and NASA wanted to make sure that the event was broadcast to as wide an audience as possible.

The effect was striking. An entire generation of Americans -- the Baby Boomers -- marked the late-night broadcast as a pivotal moment in their childhoods. If America could put a man on the moon, they reasoned, anything would be possible. That optimism has marked that generation for decades, and it stands as living proof of the power of the live broadcast.


Reality TV programs are an extremely popular segment of modern TV broadcasting. But in the late 1980s, the concept of TV with no scripts, no "real" actors and no plot beyond a general theme was a foreign idea.

Barbour-Langley Productions, a TV production company that focused on nonfiction programming, was looking for an opportunity to expand off its successful series of crime- and police-themed documentaries. In 1988, Fox Broadcasting bought into the production company's concept for a new kind of show: one that would follow real police as they patrolled their communities and fought crime. The show, simply titled "COPS," would go on to change the face of TV broadcasting and help launch FOX as a major TV network [source: Langley Productions].

The "COPS" formula laid the groundwork for modern reality TV: Instead of actors playing out a script, the characters were real people. The show focused on the more dramatic aspects of police work, like car chases, violent arrests and offbeat characters.

Shaky, handheld camera work, intense situations and impromptu interviews in which the subjects reflected on the incidents made "COPS" an addictive hit that, as of April 2011, has filmed more than 2,000 episodes. More significantly, the reality formula inspired a new genre of television, and critics and supporters alike admit that reality programming has changed the face of modern TV.

The Rise of the Sitcom
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the set of their hit show "I Love Lucy," one of the first sitcoms to be beloved by generations of viewers.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the set of their hit show "I Love Lucy," one of the first sitcoms to be beloved by generations of viewers.
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

One of the most powerful trends in the development of television has been the evolution of the situation comedy, or sitcom. These popular serial shows have captivated viewers since before the advent of color TV.

Early sitcoms shared some of the features that still mark modern ones. A recurring cast of characters -- often a family, group of friends or coworkers -- encounter different situations each week, with their relationships providing fodder for either comedic or dramatic moments.

From early sitcoms like "The Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy" to modern, long-running sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld," the shows have connected with viewers on a deep level. Over time, viewers form emotional relationships with the characters that mimic real-life friendships. Consequently, viewers of popular sitcoms begin to fit their schedules around the shows, much as they might do for regular get-togethers with friends.

When a popular sitcom ends, the grand finale of the series can draw record-breaking numbers of viewers. The 1983 finale of the sitcom "M.A.S.H." drew 105.9 million viewers, a record that has yet to be broken by any TV show. That level of dedication to sitcoms makes them a darling of advertisers, who continue to support the genre more than 50 years after its origination [source: TV Squad].

USA vs. Russia, Olympic Men's Hockey Finals

The Cold War, waged by the United States and Soviet Union from the late 1940s until the early 1990s, was fought not on the battlefield, but on multiple ideological and social fronts -- including TV. And at the height of the tension between the nuclear superpowers, one sporting event took center stage in the winter of 1980.

In the late 1970s, Russia had dominated men's hockey in the Winter Olympics. Many sports analysts predicted that, as the 1980 Games got underway in Lake Placid, N.Y., hockey fans would see a repeat of the Soviet Union's 1976 sweep of the men's hockey tournament. Sure enough, the squad of experienced Olympians cruised their way into the tournament's medal round.

By a twist of fate and tournament brackets, the Soviets entered medal contention in a bronze-round face-off with an American team that many described as underdogs at best. Through a series of comeback wins and close victories, the Americans squeaked their way into the medal round. The next challenge? The Soviet juggernaut.

American viewers tuned in to watch a sport that, for many, was only an afterthought. And when the Americans came from behind in the third period to win 4-3, an entire nation went wild with chants of, "USA! USA!"

The U.S. went on to win the gold, but the scene most Americans remember -- thanks to the magic of TV -- is a group of young athletes celebrating with unabandoned joy as their Soviet rivals left the ice in disbelief.

The Opening Ceremonies of the 1939 World's Fair
RCA Chairman of the Board David Sarnoff dedicates the RCA Building at the World's Fair in New York in 1939.
RCA Chairman of the Board David Sarnoff dedicates the RCA Building at the World's Fair in New York in 1939.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

In terms of broadcast TV history, this is where the story begins.

In the late 1920s, manufacturers such as Radio Corporation of America (RCA) were producing consumer-grade TVs that, while expensive and considered luxuries, began appearing in more and more households in America and Europe. But the other half of the TV equation -- regular broadcasts -- hadn't yet caught up with television set technology. If there was nothing worth watching, the manufacturers would have a hard time selling televisions.

RCA moved to remedy this situation in the late 1930s with the development of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), its TV broadcast initiative. NBC developed and acquired broadcasting and transmission technology, and in 1939 was ready to make the leap into regular TV broadcasting.

NBC launched in grand style. On April 30, 1939, its TV crews arrived at the World's Fair in New York City with broadcast vans packed with the latest TV technology. NBC's cameras were rolling as President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the fair; the signals moved from the mobile broadcasting trucks to a tower atop the Empire State Building for aerial transmission, and early technology adopters in the region watched the first live TV broadcast.

Other manufacturers launched TV sets and receivers at the World's Fair, and the market grew rapidly; by the 1940 World's Fair, space delegated for TV technology displays had doubled, and television was on its way to becoming a world-changing medium.

For more great TV articles, check out the links on the next page.


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