Have you ever been watching television and thought, “Wow, this soap opera is so good it could cause the downfall of a corrupt communist regime,” or even, “I bet one day this show is going to send the first woman into space”? Well, maybe you’re not giving the boob tube enough credit. While others are busy blaming television for all of society’s downfalls, we think it’s time someone stood up for ye olde idiot box. After all, these 10 television shows didn’t just entertain, they helped convince the world to get with the program.
The show that overthrew a dictator (Well, kind of.)
Dallas was one of the most popular TV shows in history—and nowhere was it more talked about than in Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist Romania. How did the soap opera get past Romanian censors? With help from Dallas leading man, J.R. Ewing, of course. Because J.R. was portrayed as a despicable oil baron, Ceausescu’s government presumably decided the show must be anti-capitalist. Whatever the reasoning, Dallas became a runaway hit when it arrived in Romania in 1979. A series about wealthy, beautiful people (evil or not) was an inspiration to Romania’s poor and dejected masses. Eventually, the government decided such Western television was a bad influence, and Dallas was taken off the air in 1981. But by then, it was too late. The fantasies of Western life lived on in the imaginations of Romanians, and in 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown during a public uprising. Not incidentally, the actor who played J.R., Larry Hagman, visited Romania some years later and was treated as a hero. In an interview following the experience, Hagman said, “People from Bucharest came up to me in the street with tears in their eyes saying, ‘J.R. saved our country.’ ”
2. General Electric Theater
The show that turned Ronald Reagan into a Republican.
In the early 1950s, film actor Ronald Reagan was at a low point in his career. So when Taft Schreiber, of the Music Corporation of America, got him a gig as the host of the anthology series General Electric Theater, Reagan jumped at the opportunity. For $125,000 a year and part-ownership of the program, he not only hosted the show, but also toured America as a “goodwill ambassador” for the electricity giant, giving speeches to plant employees and acting as its public spokesperson.
By the time General Electric Theater, was cancelled in 1962, Reagan was a new man. Turns out, all those years defending free enterprise for one of the nation’s biggest multinational companies had transformed Reagan into one of America’s leading conservative speakers. Although the actor had long been a Democrat, the Republican Schreiber convinced Reagan to change political parties. Four years later, the newly Republican Reagan was elected governor of California, and the rest is presidential history.
3. Out of This World
The show that gave birth to satellite TV.
On April 6, 1965, NASA launched one of the world’s first commercially sponsored satellites into space. Dubbed Early Bird (but later renamed Intelsat 1), the stationary satellite was backed by the newly formed International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (Intelsat), which comprised agencies from 17 countries. The goal: double the capacity of transatlantic satellite communications and make it possible to send live television signals across an ocean. Sounds great, but at the time, it was an enormous risk. Prior to Early Bird, space technology had been reserved for government projects, and there was no guarantee Americans were going to get excited about using satellites for their TV reception.
In order to win over TV viewers worldwide, Intelsat had to show off what Early Bird could do. Enter Out of This World. Just one month after the satellite’s launch, as many as 300 million viewers across nine countries were united by this television special. The program featured live scenes from across the globe, including footage of a heart operation in Houston, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in Philadelphia, Pope Paul VI making an address from the Vatican, a bullfight in Barcelona, and (perhaps most intriguingly) Russian sailors singing and dancing aboard the HMS Victory in England.
The plan worked. Out of This World made the average person excited about satellites. It was a huge win for big businesses interested in making high-tech advances. Two weeks after the special aired, the first color TV show was transmitted from England to America. Three years after that, the first live satellite coverage of the Olympics was sent from Mexico to Britain. And one year after that, satellites broadcast the first astronauts landing on the moon.
4. Cathy Come Home
The drama that transformed the welfare state.
Directed by Ken Loach (who later became one of Britain’s most respected filmmakers), the drama Cathy Come Home was a poignant episode of the BBC-1 anthology series The Wednesday Play. It told the tragic story of Cathy Ward, a young wife and mother who becomes the victim of Britain’s welfare state. Going from working-class struggle to dire poverty, Cathy’s journey begins when her husband loses his job following an accident and becomes unable to support the family. In a painful spiral toward destitution, Cathy suffers through various states of homelessness, separates from her husband, and eventually, has her children forcibly taken away from her by government council workers.
A truly horrifying story, its impact was compounded by the fact that Cathy Come Home was filmed in such a realistic style that some viewers thought it was a documentary. And although the Conservative Party government claimed the movie was “full of blunders,” Labour Party politician Anthony Greenwood said the show should be “compulsory viewing once a month for the next five years.” British audiences agreed, and Cathy Come Home was aired again shortly after. The ensuing public outrage helped bring major changes to British welfare law. Other nations followed suit, with similar reforms and charities.
5. Star Trek
The show that designed the future (of society).
Avid Spock fans might tell you that Star Trek is directly responsible for the invention of everything from cell phones to microwave ovens, but that’s slightly exaggerated. While engineers at companies ranging from Nokia to General Electric have admitted to being inspired by the show’s futuristic designs, most real life scientists and manufacturers don’t credit the show for their inventions.
Star Trek did, however, help shape the future in another, and arguably more significant, way. Defying all stereotypes, the heroic crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was comprised of a mix of races—and among them were some high-ranking women. Here again, Star Trek became an inspiration—only this time, to minorities and women, rather than tech junkies. Lieutenant Uhura, played by African-American jazz singer Nichelle Nichols, showed audiences that black women could be senior officers and hold positions of power. In fact, when Nichols contemplated quitting the series during its first year, she was persuaded to keep the role by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, who said. “Don’t you realize how important your character is?” Years later, women ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, cited Lieutenant Uhura as a major inspiration in their careers. Nichols even spent time working for NASA on an astronaut-recruitment program—an initiative that roped in such people as Sally Ride and Guy Bluford, the first American woman and African-American man in space, respectively.
6. See It Now
The show that ended McCarthyism.
If you know your 1950s history (or if you saw the movie Good Night, and Good Luck), you know the impact crusading journalist Edward R. Murrow had on American politics. His vehicle for galvanizing change? The current affairs show, See It Now, which premiered in 1951.
Well known as a World War II radio correspondent, Murrow wasn’t a fan of television initially. He wanted to go beyond the talking-head discussions and newsreels that filled most nightly news shows at the time. So when he finally decided to move forward with See It Now, he did so on his own terms. The show’s debut episode featured television’s first live coast-to-coast transmission, which included a split-screen of the Brooklyn Bridge on one side and the Golden Gate on the other. Murrow also broke new ground by airing a day in the lives of Korean War soldiers. Of course, the show’s most influential role was in exposing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist fear campaign and opening Americans’ eyes to the many lives and careers it was ruining. Thanks in part to fallout from Murrow’s broadcast on March 9, 1954, the U.S. Senate reprimanded McCarthy for abusing his power, and McCarthyism came to an abrupt end.
Murrow wasn’t afraid to take on rogue senators, and later, he proved he wasn’t scared to take on Big Tobacco, either. Two episodes of See It Now explored the link between cigarettes and cancer—a brave move, considering television depended heavily on tobacco sponsorships at the time. But perhaps Murrow had a personal interest in the story. A three-pack-a-day smoker who regularly appeared on camera with a cigarette in hand, Murrow died of lung cancer in 1965.
7. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
The show that swung an election.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was many things. It was the first network TV show to make fun of the Establishment, support America’s counterculture, and have enough nerve to put blacklisted singers (such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger) back on the air. Ironically, however, the show’s major achievement might have been making Richard Nixon president.
As a gag, show star Pat Paulsen ran for office during the 1968 presidential election. “I’m consistently vague on the issues,” announced Paulsen on national television, “and I’m continuing to make promises that I’ll be unable to fulfill.” Regardless of his humorous motives, Paulsen seemed to have a “Ralph Nader Effect,” stealing 200,000 votes from the Democrats and helping to swing one of the closest elections in history. Thanks to Paulsen’s efforts, Nixon narrowly defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. “Hubert Humphrey told me I cost him the election,” recalled Paulsen, “and he wasn’t smiling when he said it.”
8. The Inventors
The show that stocked store shelves.
Turns out, ABC’s American Inventor was about 36 years late to the game. That’s right; in 1970, The Inventors was already becoming the American Idol for hyper-intelligent geeks south of the equator. In fact, the Australian program is responsible for popularizing several notable gizmos, including some you may have used (the self-wringing mop and the rotary brush), as well as at least one you hopefully haven’t (the colostomy bag). Contestants also introduced useful industrial wares, such as a solar energy tracker and the Super Sopper (a giant roller that soaks up water and has been used to save countless major sporting events from turning into mud fights).
The judges were primarily science and business know-it-alls who were almost as scary as Simon Cowell, but the panel was balanced out with housewife Diana Fisher, who would ask the important questions. (Her most common query: “Does it come in other colors?”) And while the contestants weren’t always as cute as Carrie Underwood, the show did create its own superstars. Perhaps the biggest winner was Ralph Sarich, whose many inventions included the orbital engine, a rotary-style internal combustion engine that seemed set to change the world with its powerful and unique fuel-injection system (pictured). By the time Sarich was named the show’s Inventor of the Year in 1972, he’d already signed a multimillion-dollar marketing deal with a major manufacturing company. The original orbital engine didn’t work out in the end (due to its high fuel consumption), but later versions hit paydirt, and Sarich even started his own engine-making company. In 1992, he sold his shares and invested heavily in real estate. He’s now one of Australia’s richest men.
9. Hour of Decision
The show that gave us Billy Graham.
Hour of Decision didn’t introduce American audiences to televangelism; it introduced them to the televangelist who would change America—Reverend Billy Graham.
Other evangelists had hosted TV shows in the 1950s, including Bishop James Pike, Norman Vincent Peale (of self-help-book fame), and Oral Roberts, but few were able to use the medium as effectively as the charismatic Reverend Graham. Based on his wildly successful radio program of the same name (which is still on the air), a typical TV episode of Hour of Decision featured religious music, a short sermon by Graham, and a prerecorded interview with a person of interest. Although the show lasted only three years, Graham made the leap to prime time a couple of years later with a series of live telecasts that allowed TV audiences to be a part of his Madison Square Garden crusades.
Graham’s telecasts were a huge hit, and the Reverend became a bona fide national celebrity. Year after year, he appeared in Gallup Polls as one of the “most admired Americans,” and by 1974, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was receiving some 50,000 viewer letters a week. Also, in a telling illustration of Graham’s influence over the American people, President Richard Nixon made certain he and Reverend Graham were regularly seen together. Nixon even spoke at one of Graham’s rallies in 1970. However, after Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, Graham (who usually claimed to be apolitical) was conspicuously absent from White House dinner parties.
10. The Living Planet
The show that made us go green.
Sir David Attenborough is possibly Britain’s most influential and venerated environmentalist—all thanks to the power of television. A wildlife buff, Attenborough made a name for himself beginning in the 1950s as the host for the BBC show Zoo Quest. But in 1979, he hit it big with the acclaimed 13-part miniseries Life on Earth, in which he traveled the world studying the chronology of every type of plant and animal he could find. (All told, the film crew traveled some 1.5 million miles to 30 countries during a three-year period, and shot nearly 250 miles of footage.)
The tremendous success of Life on Earth led to its Emmy-winning 1984 sequel, The Living Planet, which focused on all the ways species adapt to their natural environment—and in the case of humans, plunder it. Each episode in this 12-part miniseries ended with a warning from Attenborough that the environment was in danger. “The natural world is not static, nor has it ever been,” Attenborough explained. “But man is now imposing such swift changes that organisms seldom have time to adapt to them … The continued existence of life now rests in our hands.”Attenborough wasn’t the first person to make such warnings, but he was the first person people really listened to—not just in Britain, but around the world. The Living Planet aired in 100 countries, and audiences came to revere him so much that they took the caution to heart. The show became a major inspiration for the Green Movement. Not coincidentally, the program peaked in popularity during the late 1980s.