CNN’s new 10-part documentary series The Sixties premiered Thursday (May 29th) with an installment entitled “Television Comes of Age.” Spanning the entire decade, the hour featured the likes of Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, Sally Field, George Schlatter and Dick and Tom Smothers reminiscing about their respective television shows during the 1960s, plus a variety of current television critics and even Tom Hanks discussing the influence television made on society throughout the decade. I hadn’t planned on watching the series but for obvious reasons the topic of the first episode piqued my interest so I decided to check it out.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch the episode on my DVR this morning. Not having lived through the 1960s myself I can’t speak to the impact of The Ed Sullivan Show, the first televised presidential debate, the introduction of color television, or Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on a personal level, to name but a few of the topics covered. The episode jumped around constantly rather than taking a chronological look at the decade, which may not have been the best choice.
Still, I think the episode did a pretty good job describing in broad strokes some of the ways that television developed over the course of the 1960s, both by its influence on society and the influence that society had on it. I was pleasantly surprised that the emphasis wasn’t solely on the big names — Dick Van Dick, Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith. It was particularly interesting to see so much time spent on talk shows and variety shows.
Surprisingly, there was almost no time spent on the Space Race, which played out on television throughout the decade, or the Moon Landing. The Kennedy assassination, one of the defining television events of all time, received little mention. The same goes for The Beatles. That could be because later episodes of The Sixties (some of which have aired before as standalone specials) will focus exclusively on Kennedy’s assassination, the British Invasion and the Space Race.
My favorite bit of footage was a brief segment from The Merg Griffin Show in which TV Guide TV critic Cleveland Amory attacked the use of recycled scripts on television. Like all of the footage used throughout the episode, it was undated. This unfortunately sometimes made it difficult to place the footage in its proper historical context.
Even more egregious, however, was CNN’s decision to crop or stretch all of the 1960s television footage from its original 4:3 aspect ratio to a 16:9 aspect ratio. PBS has been guilty of this practice as well with its Pioneers of Television series. I’m of the opinion that television programs and footage should be seen in their original aspect ratio, as they were originally seen by viewers. Cropping or stretching to fill current widescreen television sets is at best an inaccurate representation.
You can watch “Television Comes of Age” online at CNN’s website. If you’ve seen the episode, hit the comments with your thoughts.