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Fall TV by the Decades: What Was America Watching?

by Linnea Crowther

It’s fall TV time, when networks roll out their best new shows and launch new seasons of returning favorites. While networks do release some shows in spring or summer, there’s a special magic to September and October television. Autumn is the prime season for grabbing a bowl of popcorn and a seat on the couch.

As we eagerly anticipate the season premieres of Benders, Wicked City, and other great shows, we’re looking back at what Americans were tuning into in fall television of decades past.  

TV wasn’t brand-new in 1955—the first regularly-scheduled broadcasts took place in 1939. But it took a few years for TV to hit its stride with popular nationwide series. By the mid-’50s, though, the age of television was flourishing, and some of the best-loved shows of all time were on the lineup for fall 1955. Father Knows Best was in its second season; The Ed Sullivan Show had been around since 1948. Lassie kept viewers riveted, while The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet showed them the perfect family. Gunsmoke, The Honeymooners and Alfred Hitchcock Presents all debuted in fall 1955. But there was one show returning that fall that was the pinnacle of 1955 TV:


I Love Lucy debuted in 1951, breaking down TV boundaries from day one as it focused on an interethnic couple, famously played by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. At the same time that I Love Lucy embodied traditional 1950s values—the women largely kept house while the men worked; Lucy’s pregnancy came with a host of taboos, including the word “pregnant” being prohibited—it moved TV forward, gently helping viewers get used to things like an ethnically mixed marriage and a televised pregnancy. No matter what Lucy did, viewers loved it—and they still do today.

By 1965, most U.S. households had TVs, and the prime-time schedule was as important to many lives as their school or work schedule was. Though color TV was first demonstrated in 1950, it was slow to take hold, and it was only in 1965 that the vast majority of shows were broadcast in color. Some old favorites were still around in 1965—The Ed Sullivan Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Lassie and Gunsmoke were going strong. We loved sitcoms with a supernatural element, like The Addams Family, The Munsters, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Shows both silly and serious made their debuts: Green Acres and Batman, The Big Valley and Lost in Space. And returning for its sixth season was an all-time favorite:

The Andy Griffith Show debuted in 1960 and ran through 1968, summing up the loves of ’60s TV viewers in its eight-season run. Starring Andy Griffith as a wise, kind small-town sheriff and single dad, and Don Knotts as his hilariously bumbling deputy, The Andy Griffith Show rated in the top ten shows every year it was on the air. As the outside world grew more confusing, with war and assassinations leading the evening news each night, viewers appreciated the chance to escape to Mayberry each week, temporarily living where the folks were as friendly as they were funny.

Monday Night Football was new to TV in the 1970s, placing high in the ratings each week as we watched gridiron greats battle for glory. We loved dramatic programs in 1975: Little House on the Prairie sparked a trend for long gingham dresses, while The Six Million Dollar Man spawned the debut spinoff, The Bionic Woman. Several enduring favorites debuted, including Laverne and Shirley, One Day at a Time and Welcome Back, Kotter. And some of the top comedies revolved around Black lives, in a new victory for diversity: Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons. The last was a spin-off, showcasing a successful minority family in contrast to the bigotry of the main character of the show they came from:

All in the Family was often as likely to make us a little uncomfortable as it was to crack us up. Carroll O’Connor perfectly portrayed its racist, sexist lead, Archie Bunker, with Jean Stapleton as his dim but kind wife, Edith. As Archie railed against the progress made by the civil rights and women’s movements, he helped viewers understand the growing need for tolerance in an increasingly diverse country. Some embraced Bunker’s bigotry, sporting “Archie Bunker for President” buttons during the 1972 election season, but more and more identified with his liberal daughter or his former neighbor, George Jefferson, who “moved on up” in All in the Family‘s fifth season.

The 1980s were all about excess, and the 1985 fall TV lineup reflected that with big-hair favorites like Dynasty and the white-jacket cool of Miami Vice. Crime shows in general were popular, with Moonlighting and Spenser: For Hire making successful debuts. Amidst the lavish lifestyles and dastardly deeds, sometimes we preferred to think about happy families, and gentle sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties topped the ratings, as did the hot debut The Golden Girls. But while we were watching heartwarming family fare, we made sure to set our Betamax players to tape our favorite ode to greed:

Dallas ruled the ratings for much of the ’80s, creating a massive cliffhanger phenomenon in 1980 when we waited an entire summer to find out who shot J.R. Plenty of characters had reason to try to off the scheming oil baron, played to perfection by Larry Hagman and representing the pinnacle of ’80s excess as he lied, cheated and stole his way to ever greater wealth. Some saw him as a cautionary tale, while others thought J.R. was simply a fantastic role model.

The 1995 fall TV schedule saw a proliferation of sitcoms trying to capture some of the momentum of Friends, which had debuted the previous season to adulation by viewers (and launched millions of “Rachel” haircuts). Grabbing for sitcom glory in 1995 were debut shows The Drew Carey Show, Caroline in the City, Third Rock from the Sun and The Single Guy. ER ruled the drama world in its second wildly popular season, while The X-Files made us wonder if the truth really was out there. Reality TV was starting to find its feet, though it hadn’t made it quite to the mainstream yet: MTV was still reality king with The Real World and the ’95 debut of Road Rules. But the biggest show of the ’90s was not too realistic… or too dramatic:

Seinfeld was famously known as “the show about nothing,” a meandering visit to the lives of comedian Jerry and his three best friends, George, Elaine and Kramer. TV Guide has called it the greatest TV show of all time; Entertainment Weekly ranked it third… why did we love this “show about nothing” so much? In the ’90s, irony was paramount, far superior to earnestness. The family-friendly sitcoms we cherished in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were starting to look hokey in retrospect—we were far too cool and detached for the huggable moments of Family Ties and its peers. Seinfeld was the perfect outlet for a trendy new nihilism.

TV in the new millennium has been accused of being disposable, with networks barely giving shows a chance to succeed (or fail, as the case may be) before yanking them from the schedule. Maybe it’s a reflection of the internet age that was in full swing by 2005, when content is consumed more and more quickly every year (and often forgotten just as quickly). But in 2005, three shows debuted that are anything but disposable, given that they’re about to see the premieres of their 11th seasons: Bones, Criminal Minds and Supernatural. On the other hand, there were the flash-in-the-pan debuts of Night Stalker, Surface and Invasion… But what had really taken hold on the TV landscape by 2005 was reality programming. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Apprentice were hot; Dancing with the Stars was hotter, but one show airing in the 2005 fall lineup was a true internet-age phenomenon:

Survivor was a natural extension of the YouTube-fueled belief that anybody can be a star—and a millionaire. All you needed to do was “Outwit, outplay and outlast” your opponents through a series of challenges in a forbidding wilderness location. It might help if you were good at sharing your feelings with an audience of millions, talking directly into the camera about the day’s wins, losses and feuds. It’s the formula that has made reality TV the ratings juggernaut it has become—and that same formula has propelled Survivor to a 31st season (several seasons can air in a year), debuting this September.

What were you watching in fall 1955, ’65, ’75, ’85, ’95 and 2005? Tell us in the comments.

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