TV events that caught the public imagination
HBO

TV events that caught the public imagination

Though the pop culture landscape has gotten more fractured over the years, there are still universal events that can take hold of the cultural zeitgeist. Here are some of the most famous TV events through the years that have grabbed — or still grab — the public’s imagination.

 
1 of 20

Moon landing

Moon landing
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

C’mon. We went to the Moon! And it was on TV! It was one of the biggest things to ever happen in this country back in 1969. People were watching live, and there's nothing more eventful than witnessing history occur. 

 
2 of 20

"M*A*S*H" finale

"M*A*S*H" finale
Getty Images

Before the Super Bowls took over, the final episode of the Korean War comedy “M*A*S*H” was the top dog on the ratings block. Though “M*A*S*H” seems to have lost some of its adoration over the years, its series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” was a massive event when it happened. It’s still the highest-rated TV show episode of all-time, even though it aired in 1983. With the way the way TV ratings are now, it will almost assuredly never be beaten.

 
3 of 20

Super Bowl

Super Bowl
PA Images/Sipa USA

We’re tackling the Super Bowl as one entity. Otherwise, this list would theoretically be brimming with NFL championships. Of the 20 most-watched television broadcasts in the United States, 17 of them are Super Bowls. The commercials cost millions of dollars because the audience is so huge. If you want to get more specific, fun fact: the most-watched Super Bowl ever was Super Bowl LI between the Patriots and Falcons.

 
4 of 20

"The Day After"

"The Day After"
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Apparently 1983 was a good year for television events. The same year as the “M*A*S*H” finale, we got “The Day After.” The Cold War was still going strong, so naturally, a made-for-TV film about the United States being devastated by a nuclear attack. Not only did audiences at home tune in, it’s still the highest-rated TV movie ever, but apparently Ronald Reagan was so shaken by it he changed his thoughts on the idea of nuclear proliferation.

 
5 of 20

"Roots"

"Roots"
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

The 1977 miniseries “Roots,” which chronicled a section of American history through the eyes of slaves, was a massive seachange in the world of television. Audiences loved it, and the ratings were huge. It won nine Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody. Naturally, it also sparked a lot of conversation. For years after it aired, you could find it being screened in high schools across the nation.

 
6 of 20

"Who Shot J.R.?"

"Who Shot J.R.?"
Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images

Season-ending cliffhangers are commonplace these days, but we owe that fact largely to “Who Shot J.R.?” The primetime soap “Dallas” ended its third season with J.R. Ewing being shot by a mysterious assailant. Fans went nuts speculating on who did it. It became a phenomenon over the summer as fans waited for the show to return. The question was answered in the episode “Who Done It?,” which held the title of the most-watched TV episode until “M*A*S*H” took over.

 
7 of 20

"Who Shot Mr. Burns?"

"Who Shot Mr. Burns?"
FOX

Sure, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” is something of a parody of “Who Shot J.R.?” but it worked. “The Simpsons,” a cornerstone of television history, was immensely popular when they decided to have somebody shoot evil businessman Mr. Burns on the account of the fact he had decided to block out the Sun. FOX turned it into a contest alongside 1-800-COLLECT (these were different times). Then, in the first episode of the seventh season, the two-parter (the only in “Simpsons” history) concluded. Turns out, Maggie did it. Yes, the baby.

 
8 of 20

"True Detective"

"True Detective"
HBO

Airing on HBO — and being a dark show not for the faint of heart — “True Detective” wasn’t the ratings darling of other shows on this list. However, it developed a fervor in its audience that made it a massive event nevertheless. People gushed over Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. They speculated on the potential supernatural elements of the show. Then, when we were waiting for the casting for the second season, seemingly everybody took to social media to give them dream choices with the hashtag #TrueDetectiveSeason2.

 
9 of 20

O.J. Simpson saga

O.J. Simpson saga
Kevork Djansezian/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

It all started with the insane car chase in the now-iconic white Bronco. Then, the actual trial happened. Judge Ito, Johnny Cochran, Marcia Clark: they are all indelible names. It was the trial of the century. Few trials were so momentous, and watched, that they can be turned into a (critically-acclaimed) prestige cable drama.

 
10 of 20

Johnny Carson’s final week

Johnny Carson’s final week
Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

No late night host will ever be as beloved and adored as Johnny Carson. Not even David Letterman got as much attention and love. Carson hosted “The Tonight Show” for decades at a time when options were limited. Almost everybody invited Carson into their homes at night. So when he retired, NBC pulled out all the stops, and the fans tuned in to pay their respects.

 
11 of 20

The first season of "Survivor"

The first season of "Survivor"
Monty Brinton/CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

Nobody knew what to expect when “Survivor” debuted in 2000. Reality shows hadn’t quite taken over television yet. However, people fell in love with the show, and the motley crew stranded on an island vying for a million dollars. The ratings were huge, as was the influence on the TV landscape. By the way, the show is still going on almost 20 years later.

 
12 of 20

"Saturday Night Live" after 9/11

"Saturday Night Live" after 9/11
Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“Saturday Night Live” is a quintessential New York show. As such, arguably nothing on TV was impacted more by the events of 9/11. The question of when it was OK to make comedy again was something literally being asked. “SNL” returned to air on September 29 with Reese Witherspoon as the host. Rudy Giuliani helped Witherspoon and Co. begin the process of trying to be funny on TV. It’s not the best episode of “SNL,” but it is one of the most memorable.

 
13 of 20

"Seinfeld" finale

"Seinfeld" finale
NBC via Getty Images

Any time you hear something like “Soup Nazi” or “yada, yada, yada,” the impact of “Seinfeld” is still being felt. It’s the quintessential '90s sitcom, and fans got themselves all revved up for the two-part finale. An audience of 76 million people tuned in, but not all of them were fans. In fact “The Finale” has proven quite polarizing, even to this day. People don’t talk about the “M*A*S*H” finale much, but the “Seinfeld” finale remains a cultural sticking point.

 
14 of 20

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
Maria Melin/ABC via Getty Images

“Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” did not have auspicious origins. It began life as a half-hour primetime event that aired for a week. However, it turned out people loved it. When the show returned that fall, it was an hour long. It became so popular that eventually it was airing five days a week. Needless to say, every network soon had their own knockoffs. Eventually, the passion died, but for a little while there Regis Philbin and Co. had captured the zeitgeist.

 
15 of 20

The Red Wedding

The Red Wedding
HBO via Getty

The people who had read the “Song of Ice and Fire” books knew it was coming. Still, when the Red Wedding occurred on “Game of Thrones” everybody, whether they read the books or not, seemingly lost their minds. It was the biggest moment on the incredibly popular HBO show.

 
16 of 20

"Moonlight" wins the Oscar… eventually

"Moonlight" wins the Oscar… eventually
Eddy Chen/ABC via Getty Images

It can be hard to make an awards show interesting. That seemed likely to be the case in 2017 when the Best Picture was about to be handed out at the Oscars. Faye Dunaway said “La La Land,” and we went about our business. Then, things got weird. It turned out that Dunaway and Warren Beatty had been given the wrong card. “Moonlight” had actually won Best Picture. It was chaos, but we will never forget it.

 
17 of 20

Nixon versus Kennedy

Nixon versus Kennedy
Art Selby/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Television changed a lot of things when it became prominent in homes. That includes the world of politics. Prior to the 1960 election, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy had the first ever televised Presidential debate. You’ve likely heard before that people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won and people who watched thought Kennedy won. Politics was permanently changed, for better or worse.

 
18 of 20

"The Puppy Episode"

"The Puppy Episode"
Getty Images

Maybe the title “The Puppy Episode” doesn’t mean anything to you. Even so, you surely know the episode in question. It’s the episode of “Ellen” where her character comes out as a lesbian. This mirrored Ellen DeGeneres’ own personal coming out. The show got huge backlash at the time, but thankfully, the world is different than it was at the time of “The Puppy Episode.”

 
19 of 20

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan
CBS via Getty Images

Here’s all you need to know about when the Beatles, the biggest band of all-time, appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV show in 1964: a 50th-anniversary television special made about it was called “The Night That Changed America.” This moment didn’t just change the trajectory of television. It changed pop music in America as well.

 
20 of 20

Kanye West and Taylor Swift

Kanye West and Taylor Swift
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Taylor Swift was on the ascent when she won Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV VMAs. Many people were happy for her, but Kanye West wasn’t. The never-shy West stormed the stage, took the mic and proclaimed that Beyonce should have won — as she had the “best video of all time.” Since that moment, Swift and West have been forever intertwined, and the phrase “I’m-a let you finish” entered our vocabularies.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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