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The 75 most impactful TV moments are debuts, farewells and historic firsts

Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem during the pregame show at Super Bowl XXV while tens of thousands of football fans wave tiny American flags in a show of patriotism during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

And they say TV’s not good for you.

It was through a television screen that most people witnessed the 1969 lunar landing and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Together, viewers saw firsts like Mister Rogers sharing a foot bath with his Black policeman neighbor, Officer Clemmons, on a hot day. They listened as Whitney Houston’s transcendent voice soared through “The Star-Spangled Banner” during her iconic Super Bowl performance in 1991.

These and more indelible moments appear on the Television Academy’s new list of the 75 most impactful moments in TV history, spanning introductions, endings and history-making events.

Released in conjunction with the 75th Annual Emmy Awards, the list includes moments from every decade, from the premiere of “Meet the Press” in 1947 to an emotional episode of “The Last of Us” that aired just last year.

As we know, TV isn’t just a medium for entertainment, and many of the moments on these list speak to larger chapters in our history. The response to the footage of George Floyd’s murder, which in 2020 inspired activists to protest anti-Black racism and police violence, showed how challenging and influential the medium can be.

TV can be a point of connection, too, inspiring conversations about a silly gag on “I Love Lucy” at the office water cooler or gobsmacked tweets about the shocking ending to an episode of “Game of Thrones.”

Although our relationship with television and its technology has changed drastically over the last few decades, this list is proof that the medium continues to engage and inspire us.

Moments of history in the making

With the advent of national broadcast news shows in the 1950s, viewers no longer had to wait until the next morning’s newspaper dropped on their doorstep to watch history unfold. The evening news in the 20th century offered a window to world-altering events: In 1969, an estimated 650 million people watched a blurry image on their TV sets as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Live news coverage has shepherded viewers through unimaginable tragedies like the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. In 1994 the nation watched, rapt, in real time while police chased NFL legend O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco — the closest one could get back then to the immediacy of today’s social media.

TV also has helped viewers make sense of the news as it happens, as an emotional Walter Cronkite did in 1963 when he announced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Even now, with the world at our fingertips, people still turned anxious eyes to their television sets on January 6th, 2021, as protests at the US Capitol turned into an insurrection.

These were the historic moments on the Television Academy’s list:

1. The moon landing, 1969

2. 9/11 coverage, 2001

5. John F. Kennedy’s death announced by Walter Cronkite, 1963

6. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech

12. CNN’s coverage of Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, 1986

16. O.J. Simpson Bronco car chase, 1994

18. First Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, 1960

20. Footage of George Floyd’s murder, 2020

23. January 6 insurrection, 2021

28. President-elect Barack Obama’s Election Night speech, 2008

34. Footage of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of police, 1991

38. O.J. Simpson trial verdict airs, 1995

58. Princess Diana’s funeral, 1997

59. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, 1953

63. Los Angeles riots in wake of Rodney King verdict, 1992

Groundbreaking ideas

TV programs have also served to challenge audiences and interrogate social norms. In 1969, beloved children’s TV host Mister Rogers invited his neighbor Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer, to cool his feet in a pool on a hot day — a simple but quietly revolutionary act during a time when many pools across the country still banned Black Americans from swimming.

“Star Trek’s” passionate 1968 smooch between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura wasn’t just a huge moment for Trekkies. It was also one of the first interracial kisses on TV, and caused such a response that Nichols said she received more fan mail for the episode — most of it positive — than for any other during her stint on the show.

What happens on TV happens in the real world, too. The same month Ellen DeGeneres’ character on her eponymous ‘90s sitcom came out as gay, the comedian came out on a Time magazine cover. DeGeneres’s admission was praised by LGBTQ rights groups, but her show was canceled a year later after ratings declined and network executives asked her not to include “gay content” in every episode. She returned to TV in 2003 to host her own daytime talk show, which ended in 2022.

And media was flipped on its head when MTV debuted in 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” kicking off its decades-long reign as the TV destination for young pop culture enthusiasts.

Here are the top moments that changed our culture:

7. Mister Rogers dips feet in a pool with Officer Clemmons, 1969

9. MTV premieres with its first music video – “Video Killed the Radio Star,” 1981

13. “Ellen” comes out, 1997

19. “All in the Family” – Sammy Davis, Jr. kisses Archie on the cheek, 1972

30. “I Love Lucy” – Lucy Ricardo gives birth to Little Ricky (and Lucille Ball gets a C-section offscreen), 1953

37. Live Aid concert features major artists, most famously Queen, in fundraising efforts for Ethiopian famine victims, 1985

43. “Maude” – Bea Arthur’s Maude decides she wants an abortion, 1972

44. Kelly Clarkson wins the first season of “American Idol,” 2002

50. “Star Trek” – Kirk and Uhura kiss, 1968

Must-see premieres

“Roots,” a miniseries about slavery, aired for eight consecutive nights, challenging viewers with its unflinching depiction of the cruelty faced by Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton).ABC/Getty Images

These are the series that changed the landscape of television upon their debuts – and occasionally helped change minds.

“Roots,” recently named one of the 10 greatest TV series of all time by Variety, was a landmark series for its unflinching depiction of slavery, racism and Black life in the US from the 19th century to its 1970s present. It aired over eight nights in 1977, signaling to viewers that “Roots” was a must-see event. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for Vulture that “Roots” amounted to “the first prolonged instance of not merely being asked to identify with cultural experiences that were alien to (White viewers), but to actually feel them.”

When “Sesame Street” debuted in 1969, it was one of the first TV series that aimed to educate and entertain child viewers from all backgrounds — and also happened to star a diverse cast of humans and Muppets. The stalwart series is still airing today, along with “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” — two other long-running programs that have influenced the current structures of comedy, sitcoms and American TV.

4. “Roots” premieres, introducing viewers to Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton), 1977

10. “Saturday Night Live” premieres, hosted by George Carlin, 1975

25. “Sesame Street” debuts with Gordon touring the neighborhood, 1969

29. “60 Minutes” debuts, 1968

31. “Breaking Bad” pilot introduces Walter White, fleeing police, recording a video for his family in his underwear, 2008

32. “All in the Family” – viewers meet the working-class Bunker family, 1971

35. “Schoolhouse Rock!” – The “Conjunction Junction” song introduces young viewers to “and,” “but” and “or” as boxcars at a train station, 1973

39. “The Simpsons” – Bart and Homer get a family dog named Santa’s Little Helper, 1989

41. CNN debuts, with an intro from Ted Turner, as the first 24-hour news channel, 1980

47. “The Golden Girls” – Sophia moves in with daughter Dorothy and her roommates Blanche and Rose, 1985

53. “The Twilight Zone” – A man is seemingly alone in a small town until it’s revealed he’s an astronaut hallucinating, 1959

57. “The Nat King Cole Show” – The famed musician became the most prominent Black celebrity to helm a TV show, though it ran for only a season, 1957

60. “Lost” – Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 crashes on a mysterious island, leaving its survivors to fight for their lives, 2004

64. “Game of Thrones” – The Night’s Watch meet their first White Walker, 2011

66. “The French Chef” – Julia Child makes boeuf bourguignon, 1963

67. “The Real World” – MTV’s reality show about a diverse group of young people sharing an apartment in New York premieres with a Southern dancer, a hip-hop performer, a bisexual artist, a model recovering from steroid use and a poet-activist, 1992.

69. “Julia” – Diahann Carroll’s single mother, Julia, moves to the suburbs with her young son, 1968.

70. “Will and Grace” – Will, Grace’s gay best friend, tells her that her impending marriage is a mistake, 1998

72. “Meet the Press” – The news commentary program debuts with guest James Farley, former Postmaster General and Democratic National Committee Chairman, 1947

Iconic goodbyes

“The Sopranos'” series finale was unbearably tense and provided little closure for viewers curious about the fate of mob boss Tony Soprano.Will Hart/HBO

When a beloved series signs off, it’s a huge television event. Before the streaming era, series finales were sometimes bigger than the Super Bowl, drawing millions of viewers eager to see how a series concludes.

The frequently silly “M*A*S*H” struck a bittersweet chord in its finale, reminding audiences of the mental toll of war, even during peacetime. It’s still the most-watched series finale of all time, with over 106 million viewers glued to their screens to witness Hawkeye bid his comrades goodbye.

One of the most acclaimed series of all time also had one of the most controversial endings. The tense final minutes of the 2007 series finale of “The Sopranos” ended with an abrupt cut to black so unexpected some viewers feared their cable service had cut out. Seventeen years later, fans are still dissecting and debating what happened to the Sopranos family in those last crucial moments.

8.” M*A*S*H” series finale, 1983

26. “Newhart” finale reveals that the entire series was just a dream of Dr. Robert Hartley, who Bob Newhart played in the earlier “Bob Newhart Show,” 1990

36. “The Sopranos” finale inspires confusion with its mysterious finale full of loose ends, 2007

42. “Six Feet Under” ends by showing how every main character lives – and dies, 2005

52. “Mary Tyler Moore Show” – Mary turns out the lights in the newsroom one last time, 1977

68. “Friends” – Everyone says goodbye in Monica and Rachel’s apartment for the last time, 2004

73. “Cheers” – Ted Danson’s Sam quips “he’s the luckiest son of a b***h on Earth,” 1993

75. “The Tonight Show” – Bette Midler sings a fond farewell to host Johnny Carson for his final episode, 1992

Talked-about drama

“The Rains of Castamere” — also known as “Game of Thrones'” Red Wedding episode — shocked fans who weren’t expecting Robb and Catelyn Stark’s murders.HBO

There’s a reason “Who shot J.R.?” is still in the pop culture parlance. People remember where they were when they succumbed to Beatlemania on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or when a shocking shooting went down on “Dallas,” or when they were subjected to the heartbreaking horror of the Red Wedding on “Game of Thrones.” These are the the TV beats you just couldn’t miss, lest you be left out of the conversation the next day.

Nowadays, those water cooler conversations are mostly happening online as the show airs. But these classic TV moments that stirred audiences when they first aired are still resonant and frequently referenced in contemporary culture.

For all she has done in her career, one of Oprah’s most immortal moments will always be a 2004 surprise giveaway on her show, which peaked with her bellowing, “You get a car! And you get a car!” to members of her screaming audience.

Although we may watch in the privacy of our own homes, these revelatory moments show TV’s power as a meeting place of sorts, where conversations begin and connections are made.

3. “The Ed Sullivan Show” – The Beatles make their US TV debut, 1964

11. “The Ed Sullivan Show” – Elvis performs “Hound Dog,” 1956

14. “Charlie Brown Christmas” – Linus shares with Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas, 1965

15. “The Carol Burnett Show” airs a “Gone with the Wind” parody, 1976

17. “I Love Lucy” – Lucy gets drunk shooting commercials for a liquor-filled vitamin, 1952

21. “Dallas” – J.R. is shot, 1980

22. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” – Mary can’t stop laughing during funeral of Chuckles the Clown, 1975

24. “M*A*S*H” – Radar announces that Col. Blake’s plane was shot down, and there were no survivors, 1975

27. “Seinfeld” – Jerry and the gang face off against the “Soup Nazi,” 1995

33. Academy Awards – Will Smith slaps Chris Rock, 2022

40. “The Twilight Zone” – bibliophile Harry Bemis is the last man on Earth, and finally gets to spend uninterrupted time with his books – until he breaks his glasses, 1959

45. “Roots” – Kunta Kinte is repeatedly whipped until he renames himself Toby, 1977

46. “Merry Melodies,” “What’s Opera, Doc?” segment in which Elmer Fudd (as Siegfried) carries Bugs Bunny (as Brunhilde) to Valhalla, 1957

48. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson’s video airs on MTV, 1982

49. “Oprah” – Host Oprah Winfrey gives everyone in her audience a new Pontiac, 2004

51. “Game of Thrones” – Red Wedding episode. Robb Stark is murdered along with his new wife, mother and supporters, 2013

54. “Sesame Street” – In “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper,” the cast teaches Big Bird (and viewers at home) about grief after the actor playing Mr. Hooper died offscreen, 1983

55. The ending of “The Day After,” a TV film about the nuclear apocalypse, 1983

56. “The Last of Us” – Lovers Bill and Frank die by suicide after fending off fungus zombies and would-be looters for over two decades, 2023

61. Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show – Justin Timberlake exposes Janet Jackson’s breast during their performance, 2004

62. “General Hospital” – Luke and Laura get married, 1981

65. Super Bowl XXV pregame – Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem, 1991

71. “Peter Pan” – the Darling children learn to fly in the TV musical, 1955

74. “Walt Disney’s Disneyland” – Disney introduces his new theme park, 1954


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