Beginning in 1948, television revolutionized popular culture, eclipsing radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and magazines. At first, most TVs were purchased by taverns and wealthy families, but by the early 1950’s, prices declined and television ownership became common. Parents and young children were especially eager to acquire the new technology either as a form of in-house babysitting for the kids or evening relaxation for the exhausted adults. Airwaves were soon filled with visual versions of radio shows. Comedy varieties, situational comedies, westerns, soap operas, quiz shows, and sporting events.
The fifties saw the decade that saw television overtake other forms of media, especially radio, but the sixties was the decade that saw TV transform society. Television and society both grew up in the sixties; events forced them to. The difference between television in the sixties and in previous decades is that in the sixties the public sphere entered the private, a place it remains to this day. Other forms of media are more susceptible to manipulation by those presenting the news. TV, on the other hand provides the public first hand access to current and controversial events.
The picture of numerous events that were shown on TV put a face to the controversial happenings of the times and forced the public to do something about it. Take Martin Luther King for example. He could not have been able to make the changes in civil rights that he did without the help of the TV. His message of passive resistance was one that eventually changed all the entire face of the civil rights movement, but not without its doubters. Many African Americans believed that his stance was naive. Like Robert Williams, their notion of creating change was defending themselves, with guns if necessary.
But King was not naive at all. He understood how to use passivity to his advantage and he used the medium of television to do it. His speeches, rallies, and marches were televised as was the brutality of whites on blacks. For example, the Freedom Riders rode on buses from state to state attempting to get blacks the freedom of inter-state travel and when they would get off these buses they would be beaten by whites. These events were chronicled on TV which resulted priceless pr for King and the Freedom Fighters . The sixties were brimming with monumentous occasions that were shown in their raw, real, and present forms.
TV showed the violent clashes between demonstrators and the police that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements produced (like the one at the Chicago National Convention in ’68). It also showed coverage of the March on Washington and of civil rights demonstrations in Mississippi and Alabama with their police dogs and water hoses which helped change people’s minds about race and eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There was also the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s assassination was seen live on national TV and the effects were catastrophic.
The nation was in a state of tragic disbelief for a long time to come. Not only was Kennedy a loved President who died tragically in his prime, the shock of him being killed in front of the entire nation sent ripples through society that caused it to unglue, at least in people’s minds. There was also the Manson “family” butchering of seven people in their homes, but there was some good news. At the end of the decade the nation had the opportunity to see the heroic episode of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on live TV. These nation-changing events were all seen by the nation in the privacy of their own homes.
The Sixties was a times filled with different men, women, and organizations fighting for change, but perhaps the most important character actor in the Sixties was the television. The TV grew up in the Sixties. It brought the controversy that was taking place around the nation and gave Americans no choice but to notice. Martin Luther King would not have been able accomplish what he did without TV, nor would have the assassination of JFK have been as painful as it was. The TV was used for the political, current, shocking, and world changing events and its growth changed the world forever.