vol. 2, #18, October, 1996
UNIFYING VISIONOne of the things magazines do in this country to tempt people into buying them is to create lists. You have Time Magazine's cover story about the 25 most influential people, and Money Magazine's list of the 300 best American cities (my town tends to rank right around 296), Emerge's dirty 50 ( the colleges that graduate none of their black athletes), Rolling Stone's Top 100 albums of all time, etc. This summer, TV Guide entered the lists with "The 100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History."
To give you a flavor of their selection, the top 10 are:
- Armstrong walks on the moon
- the candy factory episode of I Love Lucy
- John-John's salute at the funeral of his father, JFK
- The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show
- the Newhart final episode
- the final episode of The Fugitive
- The O.J. Simpson verdict
- the wedding of Charles and Diana
- Johnny Carson's last Tonight show
- Elvis's 1968 comeback special
Does this list seem a bit perverse to you?
For starters, we need to define what makes a television moment memorable. Would you not include those moments that bring you unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with history? Of course Neil Armstrong on the moon makes sense--it did so much to erase the embarrassment and fear Americans had felt ten years earlier when Russia launched Sputnik, while we didn't even have a rocket program. Of course John-John saluting should be there, but surely as part of a whole complex of events (TV Guide did include, at #73, the on-camera shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, as he was being guarded by police, but not a bloodstained Jacqueline Kennedy watching Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office). Nor did it include the film of the assassination itself (presumably because it was much later that we saw the amateur 8mm film taken by a bystander --one of the reasons the president now can make no move without being followed by TV cameras is that when Kennedy was assassinated, no TV cameras were present).
Astonishingly, TV Guide left out the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rock music paid more attention to it than TV Guide did--Pink Floyd staged a concert at the Wall, and there were two hit songs about the wall coming down ("Right Here, Right Now," by Jesus Jones, and "The Winds of Change" by the Scorpions). At least Jesus Jones understood that we were "watching the world wake up from history."
It seems equally strange how few of our scarring memories of VietNam are on this list. We have Johnson's announcement that he would not run again, and the return of the POW's. But how can the fall of Saigon not be there?--talk about pictures that are both dramatic and symbolic!
The list did not include Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It did include police brutality in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights struggle, though distinctly undervaluing its importance by ranking it 96th. It has been compellingly argued that, without the omnipresent television cameras focused on white brutality, the Civil Rights bill of 1964 could never have been passed; white Americans preferred not to know that other white Americans behaved despicably toward blacks, and the TV cameras forced us to watch it happening in all its ugliness.
In fact, the TV Guide editors in general seem to have a tin ear for racial disharmony. They place the beating of (white) Reginald Denny by (black) rioters during the Los Angeles riots 11th, while the beating of (black) Rodney King by (white) police officers, which led to the riots, did not make the list at all. The announcement of the O.J. Simpson verdict was on the list, as was the famous black power salute during the 1968 Olympics. Both were events which shocked white Americans by revealing that--no, not really!--black Americans did not share their cheerful view of the rightness of our social arrangements.Roots, to be sure, was on the list, but virtually all the other references to blacks on the list are about great moments in sports, like Hank Aaron's 715th home run.
Television has a unique ability to show us and teach us about our social problems, to arouse our indignation, to change our laws and change our lives. To its credit, it has on a very occasional basis done that, as on the great documentary programs in the early years of television. Edward R. Murrow looms large here, with his famous program about the migrant workers, Harvest of Shame, which did not make the list, and his famous program attacking Senator Joe McCarthy, which did.
But the Army-McCarthy hearings are not on the list, not even the defining moment, when a lawyer turned to McCarthy, who had just done his level best to smear and destroy a young attorney, and said to him, "Have you, at last, no sense of shame?" This was a television moment that ruined McCarthy by showing him for the reckless, dangerous man he was.
Tiannenmann Square was on the list, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the Watergate hearings, and Nixon's farewell (the man does keep cropping up).
But Live Aid wasn't there. How could it not be? This event linked the people of two countries, and the major rock stars of the world, for ten hours straight, raising money to save Africans from starvation--good music for an even better cause. And, because of the conscientious work of Bob Geldof long after the event, the money raised was put to excellent use. It is safe to say that before Live Aid, Americans paid next to no attention to Africa and its problems; Live Aid raised our consciousness and conscience.
A list like this should also acknowledge the moments that draw us together, in shared mourning. It is entirely appropriate that the explosion of the Challenger is there, and the fire at Waco. But the memorial service for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing is not, nor are the ceremonies for the assassinated Bobby Kennedy.
And if we are brought together by our sadness, we are also brought together by the shows we all loved. Lucy on the assembly line at the candy factory indeed belongs on that list. The final episodes of The Fugitive, M.A.S.H. and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were also rightly on the list. But nothing from Monty Python?!! Come on!! And nothing from MTV's Unplugged? No Muppets?!! No Dr. Who, not even the Douglas Adams ones? Who put this list together? Charter members of the Over-the-Hill-Gang?
The editors are right to include great moments in tackiness, because this, too, is an important element of American culture. They include Phyllis George suggesting that a woman who admitted to a lie that sent an innocent man to jail, and her victim, now free, should give each other a hug. They include the naked man who streaked across the stage during the Oscar ceremonies. And, of course, the PBS series, An American Family, which followed the day to day life of a family while it became increasingly dysfunctional--but so used to the presence of the camera that they didn't mind us watching as the son anounced he was gay, and the parents decided they wanted a divorce. (Thus was a trend born--nothing is too personal, too intimate, or too embarrassing to tell all about it on television.)
Great moments in sports are there--the American hockey team defeating the Russians at the Olympics, Tonya Harding crying at the ice skating judges, Mohammed Ali defeating George Foreman. But the most interesting moment in televised football--the moment that was famous for NOT being broadcast, was not on the list: the famous Heidi game.
In a critical playoff game, the Raiders were ahead of the Jets by 10 points with two minutes left to go. The game was running well past the time allotted for it in the network schedule, and a highly touted movie was scheduled to start. Some network executive, figuring it unlikely that the Jets could score two touchdowns in two minutes, switched to the movie, Heidi. Millions of calls from enraged men flooded the network switchboard, as Heidi inexorably rolled on. Unknown to the television audience, the Jets scored two unbroadcast touchdowns, winning the game. Since this is probably as close as Americans ever got to storming the Bastille, I do feel it should be on this list.
All in all, TV Guide's list makes for really strange reading, but probably quite revealing for anyone who wants to understand us Americans. There we are, in all our mixed up glory, juxtaposing the momentous with the trivial, the noble with the tacky, the serious with the comic. That's us, all right.
I don't know what great moments in television you in Britain would select. But I hope it would include the resumption of television broadcasting after V-E day. As I understand it, British television was broadcasting a cartoon in 1939 when word came of the declaration of war against Germany; television immediately ceased broadcasting for the duration. And when it resumed, it started up the cartoon exactly where it had left off five years earlier. It's kind of like saying, "As we were saying, before we were so rudely interrupted..."
I've spent a lot of time trying to define an American national character for you, but this moment, to me, says a lot about the British national character--about your gift for unflappability, for understatement, for automatically doing what has to be done, no matter how unpleasant, and not making a big deal about it. It's one of those great moments in TV that show you to the world as a pretty admirable lot.
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