The Nielsen television research agency and Sony Electronics last week released the results of a survey asking American viewers what was the most memorable moment they watched on TV.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ranked as the most memorable moment on TV during the past 50 years. Nothing else came close except for the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and its aftermath. However, the Associated Press reported that the assassination was only a strong contender in the eyes of people aged 55 and above who witnessed the drama unfold firsthand.
I wish these scholars had talked to me about this. While I fit the demographic of those who would rank the assassination first, I would place Sept. 11 a close second. Yet I have some personal favorites.
Without regard to any order, here are some memorable moments I viewed on television.
I remember when we acquired our first new television that did not require a warm-up period of several minutes. The set had the groundbreaking feature known as “instant on” so that when you pushed the button to activate it, the picture arrived simultaneously.
Our family’s first color TV. We turned it on, and some World War II Navy movie was on. The water was actually blue and not a blend of black and white.
John Glenn’s trip into space in 1962 was a big deal. None of the classrooms in our school were equipped with a TV, so a different parent took turns delivering one to my second grade teacher day after day in order for us to witness history. The Atlas rocket and Mercury capsule were less dependable as our parents, as several flight postponements meant a seemingly endless number of academic interruptions.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While anti-war protestors tormented the Chicago Police Department outside, old-school Democrats were in the process of nominating Hubert Humphrey for president.
Network officials were torn between showing the violence in the street and the drama atop the rostrum. The frosting on the political cake came when Sen. Abraham Ribicoff screamed into the microphone in nominating Sen. George McGovern.
“With George McGovern as president, we wouldn’t need Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” he declared. That sure beats Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe
malfunction” at halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl, ranked 26th in the Nielsen survey.
There are many significant sporting events worthy of a place on the list.
Who can forget the night in 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played? Viewers felt dugout-close as Ripken trotted around the field at Camden Yards and made disillusioned fans feel good about the national pastime again.
On the downside, we remember watching the Buffalo Bills’ first encounter with football’s impossible dream go wide right.
The fact that television is shared makes it a memorable medium. At the time of the Civil War, news arrived via more private means. It came in letters or telegrams designed for single-use recipients. The poet Walt Whitman wrote about how he and his wife silently shared copies of numerous newspapers to learn details of the Lincoln assassination. When the New York Times published a review of a public showing of photos taken by Matthew Brady after the battle of Antietam, it recognized the shock value of documentary photography.
“The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. If (Brady) has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote the Times.
The mass media of the last half-century has been crafted for much broader audiences, but what we have seen has been no less dramatic.
So when we watched the Twin Towers fall, we were connected with millions of other viewers witnessing the event at the same terrifying moment. There was nothing private about it.
Television is part journalism, part farce and part an escape from reality.
Thank goodness for Tim Russert and Ed Sullivan. And Captain Kangaroo.