Television Shows in the 1960s

While America burned, television played the fiddle. That is as simple a way to describe television shows in the 1960s as anything else. From groundbreaking sitcoms to serious, thought-provoking dramas, the 1960s offered something for everyone, forever changing the landscape of television.

Reflecting Social Change Through 1960s TV Shows

As America became embroiled in social unrest, primetime television became a relatively undisturbed universe, offering an increasingly world-weary country a chance to escape into the fantasy worlds of suburban witches (Bewitched) and hillbillies in LaLa Land (The Beverly Hillbillies), coddling audiences with comforting platitudes to their easily resolved dilemmas at the end of half-hour programs.

Bewitched -
The Beverly Hillbillies -

These shows offered a sense of conformity and stability lacking in the United States, which, through the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, resulting in what was called the White Flight to the suburbs, and the growing tensions resulting from the generation gap between adults and youth, saw a rise in civil unrest over racial segregation, the civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam.

Shows such as the Andy Griffith ShowGreen Acres, and Petticoat Junction created a close-knit small-town reality that was a balm against the alienation many Americans were now experiencing in the cities and suburbs, with characters as colorful and friendly as they were familiar to audiences. Other shows, such as The Dick Van Dyke ShowPerry MasonLassieMy Favorite MartianBatman, and My Three Sons, likewise presented characters and ideas that were comforting to American audiences and rarely challenged or presented the problems afflicting the United States during this period.

The Dick Van Dyke Show -
Perry Mason -
Lassie -
My Favorite Martian -
Batman -
My Three Sons -

Still, the influence of the real world had an effect on television. Due to the civil rights struggles that were at their height during this period, programs began to slowly open the way for inclusivity for nonwhite actors.

One of the most daring examples of these shows was the 1965 NBC drama I Spy. Starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, I Spy featured one of the first dramatic lead roles in broadcast history for African Americans. Cosby’s Alexander Scott was groundbreaking also in that he demolished previous stereotypes of Black men. A Rhodes scholar and tennis champion, Scott was urbane, sophisticated, and sexy. But, unfortunately, like most Black characters of this period, Scott’s portrayal only went so far, and the character, unlike his white counterpart, was rarely in romantic situations. Still, I Spy was a major step in the right direction for the portrayals of African Americans in primetime.

Actress and singer Eartha Kitt made waves on the innocuously banal TV series Batman as the first Black actress to portray sexy villainess Catwoman. Other shows later in the decade, such as The Mod SquadMission ImpossibleRoom 222, and the Diahann Carroll-starring vehicle Julia, also pushed the door open for Black actors to find work on television.

The Mod Squad -
Mission Impossible -
Room 222 -

The Green Hornet, featuring the popular comic book character, presented TV audiences with their first glimpse of karate-phenom Bruce Lee in the role of Cato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick. Cato was also one of the first Asian characters to appear in primetime.

But one show that made a point of integrating primetime television was the poorly rated Gene Roddenberry creation Star Trek. Characters including Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nicholls) and Sulu (George Takei) rounded out a multicultural cast in their adventures in outer space. Though Star Trek was canceled after three years, it went on to become a much-beloved cult classic, spawning various feature film versions as well as television sequels. Roddenberry’s vision of multiculturalism in outer space and intergalactic peacekeeping became a model for other science fiction TV shows.

Popular TV Genres from the 1960s

During the 1960s, variety programs became the main venue for most African American appearances on television.

As Motown became the dominant sound for young Americans, performers such as The Supremes, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye were featured regularly on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and the teen-oriented dance programs American Bandstand and Hullabaloo. These appearances offered the opportunity for teen audiences, both black and white, to see African Americans as both sophisticated and glamorous, images not usually found in primetime.

But this form of integration also opened up a variety of programs to controversy. One particular well-known event was on The Petula Clark Show, when singer Harry Belafonte, in a duet with the show’s host, touched her elbow during the performance and set off a firestorm of protest from viewers.

The 1960s Dramas That Brought Social Commentary to Primetime

Despite the lack of interest from network executives to tackle important issues of the day, there were a few primetime dramas that bucked that trend.

Shows like The Twilight Zone, which was still airing during this period, and The Outer Limits approached political and societal problems through science fiction. Issues such as nuclear annihilation and racism were tackled through each weekly episode, offering viewers food for thought in ways that neither intimidated nor preached. The 1963 NBC short-lived drama Eastside/Westside was one of the few shows, however, which addressed social issues head-on. Daring and groundbreaking for its time, Eastside/Westside featured future film screen star George C. Scott in the role of a New York City social worker.

Like many of its predecessors during the 1990s and 2000s, Eastside/Westside was a gritty drama that tackled such urban problems as poverty, racism, child abuse, prostitution, and alcoholism. The program didn’t offer comfortable bromides to its audiences and didn’t always resolve its problems within an hourly episode. Featuring a wide variety of guest starring turns from actors such as Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Lee Grant, Richard Dysart, and others, the show also became a showcase for many prominent black stage actors as well. Unfortunately, Eastside/Westside was ahead of its times and only lasted a season on NBC.

Clearly, American audiences were not ready for such gripping and gritty dramatizations of the social problems afflicting the country. The legal drama The Defenders, starring Robert Reed and E.G. Marshall, featured father-son attorneys who took on hot-button issues such as euthanasia, abortion, censorship, and the House un-American activities with far more success, lasting on air for four years between 1961 to 1965.

Another show during the 1960s that aggressively courted controversy by tackling the problems of that decade was the unlikely candidate The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The show often targeted the war in Vietnam, presidents Johnson and Nixon, and racism as sources for satirical sketches, often upsetting network executives and advertisers. The Brothers’ refusal to toe the company line eventually caused the show’s cancellation, but The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was extremely popular with younger audiences, not only for their attacks against the status quo but for their musical guests, which numbered some of the more popular acts in rock and roll. One infamous appearance included The Who when drummer Keith Moon set off explosives in his drum set at the end of a performance of their rock classic “My Generation.”

The Twilight Zone -
The Outer Limits -
Eastside/Westside -
The Defenders -
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour -

Challenging Women’s Representation in ’60s Television

Though the second-wave feminist movement was still in its infancy during much of the ’60s, the concerns women had about their portrayals in television were very much a concern.

The image of women in television was still modeled after the 1950s ideals, with such shows as The Donna Reed Show offering traditional models of feminity and maternity. Ironically, though, there were many family sitcoms that did away with maternal figures altogether. These shows focused on the male figures as lone heads of the family, either as confirmed bachelors raising children in shows like Family Affair or widowers likewise raising their children in The Andy Griffith ShowMy Three Sons, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. When women did play a role in these shows, they were either indirectly involved matriarchs such as Aunt Bee in The Andy Griffith Show or various girlfriends of the lead male characters.

In shows such as Petticoat JunctionI Dream of JeannieGilligan’s Island, and Green Acres, the female characters had more prominent roles, though their portrayals tended more toward traditional models.

Petticoat Junction -
I Dream of Jeannie -
Gilligan's Island -
Green Acres -

In the case of Lisa Douglas (Eva Gabor) in Green Acres, whose own interests and desires for the urbane lifestyle to which she was accustomed were often put on the backseat in favor of her husband’s interests in becoming a gentleman farmer, was a stark and common feminine model in 1960s programming. While her frustrations were often the focus of much of the character’s comedic output, the show’s ultimate message was that Lisa’s needs were second only to her husband’s. In I Dream of Jeannie, the lead character’s (Barbara Eden) only purpose was to literally serve her “master” (Larry Hagman).

During the late sixties, though, the portrayal of women was changing. Though Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the sitcom Bewitched was a suburban housewife who also happened to be a witch, her identity never suffered under her husband’s shadow; in fact, it was her husband who had a difficult time trying to re-define her to fit within the narrow confines of his middle-class aspirations.

Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, was a single black working mother raising her young son. Though critics at the time blasted the show’s tame portrayal of a black woman during the height of the Black Power movement, Julia nonetheless offered a strong portrayal of a woman making it on her own in primetime television.

The 1966 Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl offered a glimpse of young working women that would pave the way for the 1970s hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the 1990s Ally McBeal.

Tyler Moore herself played a strong and quirky character in the Dick Van Dyke Show, while other sitcoms and dramas, such as Star Trek and Room 222, featured strong, competent female characters.

Action and adventure shows, such as Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE, were popular during this period. While most of the lead characters in these programs were men, women had interesting, derring-do roles in Mission: Impossible (Barbara Bain), The Mod Squad (Peggy Lipton), and even the sitcom Get Smart (Barbara Feldon as Agent 99). The popular British TV series The Avengers created a strong, iconic female character in Miss Peel (Diana Rigg), whose black leather catsuits also set fashion trends.

Mission: Impossible -
The Man from UNCLE -
The Mod Squad -
Get Smart -

How 1960s Network News Broadcasts Illuminated Civil Rights and the Vietnam War

While most primetime television ignored what was happening in the United States or presented these problems through the coded language of analogies and metaphors, the network news broadcasts were the only real venues in which these issues were presented and discussed. In fact, during this decade, the news broadcasts played an enormous role in shaping social attitudes and policies toward civil rights and the Vietnam War.

One such stark example of the power the broadcast news had in shaping public sentiment toward the civil rights movement included reports of young children in a Birmingham, Alabama march who were set upon by Bull Connor’s snarling dogs and water hoses. The images of young children being attacked by dogs had an immediate and visceral response from the American public and convinced President Kennedy, who was noncommital during much of the civil rights struggles, to finally send in the National Guard to quell the racial violence.

The Vietnam War was the first real war fought right in the living rooms of America as news broadcasts brought back reports of the fighting in the South Asian country. Unable to compartmentalize the conflict as previous generations had, Americans were forced to address the issues that brought their country to war in Vietnam’s otherwise civil unrest and the casualties of the young men who fought there.

During the late sixties, Walter Kronkite, anchorman for CBS News, finally brought home just how powerful the network news broadcasts could be in shaping opinion when he turned against the war. At that point, most Americans were already turning against the quagmire in Vietnam, but Kronkite’s pronouncement proved to be the final blow to President Johnson’s hopes of a second term in office. Not long afterward, he announced he was not running for reelection.

But one event during the 1960s that really showed the galvanizing power television had as a force of communal reconciliation was the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Millions of Americans tuned in to their television sets as a way to share the national mourning in the wake of Kennedy’s death. News broadcasts interrupted daily programming to announce the news of the shooting and later death and continued broadcasting over that November weekend to Kennedy’s state funeral in DC. Broadcasts also followed the arrest of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and included what was to be the first live killing on television when Oswald was shot to death by mob affiliate Jack Ruby while being escorted by police out of a Dallas police station.

Television rallied and unified the fractious nation during Kennedy’s assassination in a way not seen since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 some thirty-eight years later.

The Creation of PBS in 1969

The boundaries of what commercial television could present, though, posed a problem for educators who thought children’s and community programming was lacking. To combat this issue, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a non-profit public broadcasting service, was founded in 1969.

Featuring programs that addressed community issues and educational programming, PBS became an alternative to viewers who felt commercial television dumbed down the American intellect.

It was part of a larger movement towards expanding the educational and cultural possibilities of television, providing a platform for content that commercial networks were less inclined to produce. This included not only children’s educational programming like “Sesame Street,” which debuted in 1969, but also in-depth news analysis, documentaries, and arts programming that could engage with the complexities of society and culture in ways that commercial television often did not.

Funded by the government, though, PBS came under attack over the years by conservatives who felt the network and its affiliates had a liberal bias and who also thought the service socialized what should ostensibly be a free market enterprise. Still, during the ’60s, PBS offered alternatives to broadcast programming and broadened the definitions of what television could offer to its audiences.

The 1960s TV Legacy

The impact of 1960s television extends far beyond the decade itself, with many of the era’s shows continuing to influence modern TV. The bold storytelling and willingness to tackle controversial subjects paved the way for the complex, nuanced programming of today.

Moreover, the 1960s laid the groundwork for the diversity and representation that has become increasingly important in contemporary television. By breaking new ground in the portrayal of race and gender, 1960s TV shows set a precedent for future generations of storytellers, challenging them to reflect the richness and complexity of the world around them.

Television shows in the 1960s were more than just a form of entertainment; they were a mirror of the societal changes and cultural shifts of the era. Through innovative storytelling, groundbreaking portrayals of race and gender, and a willingness to engage with the pressing issues of the day, 1960s television left an indelible mark on the medium and on American culture. As we look back on this pivotal decade, we can appreciate how these shows not only entertained but also challenged, enlightened, and inspired audiences, setting the stage for the rich, diverse landscape of television that we enjoy today.

Scroll to Top