John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at the Nixon-Kennedy debate
If you were to put 1960s television on a psychiatrist's couch, it would be diagnosed as schizophrenic. Primetime was loaded with frothy, high-concept sitcoms, such as Gilligan's Island and I Dream of Jeannie, that became baby boomer favorites, while network news delivered grim images of the Vietnam War, social unrest, and assassinations.
You'll see both ends of the spectrum in Television Comes of Age on the May 29 premiere episode of The Sixties (9/8c), CNN's 10-week documentary series from Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone. "Some of those sitcoms were not as fulfilling or enriching as you remember them to be," says producer Mark Herzog. "As Dick Cavett says at the end of the episode, there was so much turbulence going on, they were probably the escape that everyone needed."
As the decade progressed, entertainment shows became more connected to the upheaval occurring in the real world. The Smothers Brothers, who made their bones as a clean-cut comedy-folk singing act, infused their Sunday night CBS variety show with material that criticized American military involvement in Vietnam and acknowledged the counterculture. Their defiance of network censors ultimately got them fired. In Television Comes of Age, Tom and Dick Smothers express no regrets over those battles — even though they never approached the same level of popularity after their hit show was cancelled.
But it was television news that matured first in the decade, from the first presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 to the moon landing in 1969. Television gained the trust of the public with its saturation coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Soon TV news was shaping the nation's attitudes on the issues of the day. "With Vietnam, the things that happened in every war were for the first time being broadcast," Herzog notes. "It changed America's perspective of what war really is."
Vietnam is among the topics that get a full hour on The Sixties, along with the space race, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement and the British Invasion. The stories are told largely through archival TV news footage, some of which has not been shown since it first aired. Television Comes of Age appropriately sets the scene — a time when CBS, NBC and ABC had a lock on a nation not wired for cable.
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