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How the 1970’s changed television

The first commercial televisions were released to the American public in 1938, and if TV was in its infancy in the ’40s, growing up through the 1950s and ’60s, the ’70s were kind of like an adolescence: The medium got a little edgier, experimenting with new approaches and pushing social boundaries. The decade marked a turning point for the small screen, ushering in the modern era of TV we know today. Here are five ways the 1970s changed television.

Prime time got real

Compared to the wholesome, idyllic worlds created in 1960s TV shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Leave It to Beaver, the shows of the ’70s were shocking in their realism, thanks in large part to writer and producer Norman Lear. He created a string of hit series such as All in the Family, Good Times, and Maude that were groundbreaking in their depictions of racial tensions, marital problems, and class struggles — all while being some of the funniest shows of all time. All in the Family starred a politically incorrect Archie Bunker espousing opinions and using language that had not been heard on “polite” TV before. The series was the top-rated show in the U.S. from 1971 to ’76, a record run at the time.

Sunny days came to children’s television

Compared to the wholesome, idyllic worlds created in 1960s TV shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Leave It to Beaver, the shows of the ’70s were shocking in their realism, thanks in large part to writer and producer Norman Lear. He created a string of hit series such as All in the Family, Good Times, and Maude that were groundbreaking in their depictions of racial tensions, marital problems, and class struggles — all while being some of the funniest shows of all time. All in the Family starred a politically incorrect Archie Bunker espousing opinions and using language that had not been heard on “polite” TV before. The series was the top-rated show in the U.S. from 1971 to ’76, a record run at the time.

Miniseries got big ratings

The 1970s saw an explosion of a new kind of television production with the miniseries. Debuting on PBS on January 10, 1971, Masterpiece Theatre introduced British TV serials to the United States, frequently with stories that were based on novels and thus had a predetermined endpoint. Soon after, U.S. production companies started making their own versions of these limited-run series. Rich Man, Poor Man was one of the first American miniseries, based on a 1969 Irwin Shaw novel of the same name. The 12-hour miniseries aired on ABC over the course of six weeks in 1976. Meanwhile, 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth was so popular, it was even endorsed by the pope at the time. That same year saw the debut of Roots, a groundbreaking hit about a family’s journey through slavery; over its eight-night run, it drew more viewers than any drama in TV history.

War meets comedy

It’s rare that a TV show adapted from an Oscar-nominated film goes on to be even bigger than the original movie, but that’s just what M*A*S*H did after debuting on CBS in 1972. Set during the Korean War, M*A*S*H was revolutionary for depicting a tragic subject as a comedy show, and it’s considered the first popular “dramedy.” It aired during the time of the Vietnam War and took an openly anti-warstance, but despite the potentially divisive political message, it reached a level of popularity that almost no TV show has seen since. The series finale brought in around 106 million viewers, still a record for a scripted show. In its 11-year run, M*A*S*H won 14 Emmys and a Peabody Award. 

NFL goes prime time

When the Jets played the Browns on September 21, 1970, it marked the NFL’s full-time debut in prime time. The very first Monday Night Football broadcast featured all-stars not only on the field but in the booth, with famed commentators Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and “Dandy” Don Meredith calling the game. TIME magazine wrote that the banter between Cosell and Meredith came “close to upstaging the action on the field.” Monday Night Football’s highly rated national broadcasts eventually led to the league expanding to other weekly prime-time features, including NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and Thursday-night games on various networks. MNF remains one of the most highly rated prime-time shows each season.

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