The concept of television programming has served as an unofficial barometer of technological and social progress. As technology advanced, so did the medium of television, from black and white to color. Standard definition turned to high definition, which developed into 4K, and analog eventually became digital. But there's a lot more to TV than nuts and bolts: an entire range of social stigmas and politics determined by executives and policed by the FCC.
With TV programs piping straight into household living rooms around the world, the images and stories brought to families can sometimes reflect current events in society. And as trends and political systems evolve, so do the TV shows that reflect these transformations.
Over the years, attitudes toward gender, race, and sexuality have shifted since the introduction of TVs in American homes. Profanity and nudity standards have also loosened to a degree in scripted programs and commercials. What's standard today was forbidden in the early days of the small screen, such as the inclusion of same-sex and interracial relationships.
Looking back at television's wide-ranging history, Stacker selected 50 significant firsts. Compiled from observations made by many other television critics and historians, the gallery includes firsts in television technology, easing sentiments on certain taboos, and groundbreaking creative decisions that increased representation for specific demographics. These firsts may seem menial today, but when these pioneering moments debuted on TV screens, they created uproar, controversy, and debate.
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Drama is the fundamental storytelling building block of most scripted TV shows, so it's fitting the first television drama was an adaptation of a play. In 1922 Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello wrote "The Man with the Flower in His Mouth." The British Broadcasting Corporation used it in 1930 for an experiment, considered a success. It used only three characters and a short half an hour, but it paved the way for future scripted television.
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin made many strides to modernize the Olympics. It was not only the first Olympic Games to broadcast on TV, but the first live televised sporting event in the world. More than 70 hours of it was broadcast to special rooms throughout Berlin. The U.S. held its first local televised sporting event three years later: a college baseball game between the Columbia Lions and Princeton Tigers.
Before people were familiar with televangelists, standard religious services were broadcast to the public. On March 24, 1940, The Protestant Easter Services became the first religious service to air on NBC in New York, followed by the Roman Catholic Easter Services an hour later.
Watch company Bulova is responsible for the first television commercial, advertising their watches on July 1, 1941, the first day commercial advertising was allowed on television. The commercial, which aired during a Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies game, cost between what was then $4 and $9 and touted the phrase "Bulova." Television ads and commercials have become an essential part of the television ecosystem.
The early days of television were full of experimentation with various formats, with one of the most prominent ones being that of the musical. "The Boys from Boise" is thought to be the first one, airing Sept. 28, 1944, on the New York DuMont station. With a cast of 20 and a budget of $10,000, "The Boys from Boise" was an ambitious production but still significant; recent years have brought a revival of televised musicals.
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Early innovators such as puppet shows "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," "Howdy Doody," and "Captain Kangaroo" were among the first television programs created for children. These shows would feature friendly hosts, and casts of colorful characters and props, making way for future shows such as "Sesame Street" and fare from the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon.
It may be more common today to see a couple on TV sharing a bed, but in the 1940s, it was taboo. While "Mary Kay and Johnny," the first sitcom broadcast on network television, had the eponymous married couple share a bed, it would take until the 1960s for other mainstream TV shows to do the same.
Airing on the long-defunct DuMont Television Network, "The Walter Compton News" was thought to be the first evening news show broadcasted on television. The 15-minute newscast aired with minimal production from Washington D.C., with movie publicist Walter Compton reading from a script and accompanied by the occasional slide. The program only aired about six months before its end, and no episodes are known to have survived.
Radio used pre-recorded "canned" laughter to recreate the atmosphere of live comedy shows, allegedly born from Bing Crosby's radio show to "save the laughs." For television, this technique was utilized for "sweetening," as some shows would be filmed from different angles with one camera, and laugh patterns would differ with each take. "The Hank McCune Show" was the first television show with a laugh track.
While animated feature films were not unusual by the late 1930s and 1940s, it would take several years more for a fully-fledged animated TV show to make it on air. "Crusader Rabbit" was the first of its kind, featuring an adventurous rabbit in several stories that satirized movie serials. One of the show's producers, Jay Ward, went on to create "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."
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The 1960s was when color television took hold of the industry, but broadcasting companies had dabbled with the technology early in the 1950s. At exactly 4:35 p.m. on Monday, June 25, 1951, CBS aired the hour-long "Premiere" in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington as the first commercial color broadcast. The variety show directly promised audiences that color television was the future and featured figures such as Faye Emerson and Ed Sullivan as presenters.
Radio broadcaster Joe Franklin became the host of the first televised talk show, "The Joe Franklin Show." The show is one of the longest uninterrupted runs, starting as a daytime talk show and moving to late-night, lasting until 1993. Franklin became somewhat of an icon, even being parodied by Billy Crystal on "Saturday Night Live" and making cameo appearances as himself in films like "Ghostbusters." Today, many daytime chat shows and comedy late-night talk programs crowd the airwaves.
"I Love Lucy" brought many famous TV firsts, among them the distinction of being the first show to be filmed in 35mm in front of a live studio audience. What made this show's approach groundbreaking was the use of a multi-camera format, which essentially married television production with stage play technique and became everyday use in the decades to follow.
One of the longest-running television programs in history also serves as the first early morning network news show. "The Today Show," known as "Today," is still ongoing and remains one of the most-watched morning news shows. NBC's "Today" led the way for competitors such as ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "CBS This Morning" to rise.
When "I Love Lucy" star Lucille Ball became pregnant in real life, the trailblazing show she headlined wrote it into the show's storyline. Almost 72% of homes with television sets tuned in to watch the debut of baby "Little Ricky," creating a significant rating bonanza, even overtaking the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in total viewership. With the word "pregnancy" still too much for television, the show referred to Lucy as "expecting."
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The public fascination with reality television and big prizes can likely trace back to "Queen for a Day." Originating as a radio program, "Queen for a Day" had the host (most famously Jack Bailey) ask individual women about their financial hardships and struggles, gaining sympathy from the audience. The winner, based on applause, would be seated on a throne and awarded gifts.
Led by MTV starting in the 1980s, music video television became a standard genre in broadcasting. In 1956, as Tony Bennett would claim in his autobiography, a video for the song "Stranger in Paradise" was the first music video aired on TV. Later in 1981, the first music video that MTV would air was "Video Killed the Radio Star."
In today's era of "peak television," the possibility of favorite and major characters getting killed off is one of the main points of tension and discussion. Some track the first major character death in a television show to "The Danny Thomas Show," which was in the midst of being rebranded from "Make Room for Daddy." Actress Jean Hagen left the show due to her dissatisfaction with her character's direction; writing her off as having a divorce from the main character would have been taboo, so the writers decided to kill her off instead.
What seems menial and ridiculous today was a source of discussion and scrutiny in the 1950s: The producers of "Leave it to Beaver" had an extended back and forth with network executives about a scene involving a toilet. Showing bathrooms on television was taboo, but in one episode of this show, the kid characters needed to hide a pet alligator in a toilet tank, making the toilet essential to the plot. Ultimately, the network agreed to the scene as long as the characters never actually had to do their business in the restroom.
Televised presidential debates are a standard component of every United States election cycle. Still, it wasn't common until the 1960 election between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Television audiences who watched the Kennedy/Nixon debate recalled the confident and attractive Kennedy on the television screen, while Nixon came across as nervous and sweaty. Conversely, many listeners on the radio believed that Nixon won the debate.
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Many considered televised animation a kid-focused genre, but "The Flintstones" challenged preconceptions when it became the first animated show to hold a primetime slot. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, the show had a standard sitcom structure while featuring the high-concept juxtaposition of modern everyday problems with a Stone Age setting. The success of "The Flintstones" was succeeded by "The Simpsons" decades later.
The First Lady of the United States is an important public figurehead to any administration, but television provided a new opportunity in its heyday. Jackie Kennedy began the unofficial tradition of the First Lady giving a televised tour of the White House, helping to humanize Jackie and John Kennedy in the middle of their term.
Secret agent show "I Spy" broke new ground by being the first American television drama to feature a Black actor in a leading role. Bill Cosby portrayed Alexander Scott opposite white actor Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson. Cosby's race was rarely addressed in the show, making the casting a "non-statement statement." The show was ultimately successful because of the chemistry and banter between Culp and Cosby.
British imports on American television are not hard to come by today, but the espionage show "The Avengers" was the first to air in a U.S. primetime slot. The show aired on ITV in the U.K., but the ABC network paid a considerable sum of $2 million in 1966 to air the show in the U.S. Nowadays, shows like "Sherlock" and "Downton Abbey" have found equal success in America.
The first Super Bowl wasn't known as the "Super Bowl" just yet, instead officially being known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. American football fans could finally watch the animosity between the rival AFL and NFL leagues play out on live television, with the Kansas City Chiefs representing the AFL and the Green Bay Packers from the NFL. The sportscast was aired simultaneously on CBS, which had NFL broadcast rights, and NBC, which had AFL broadcast rights; this would be the only Super Bowl to air on two networks simultaneously.
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Gene Roddenberry's original "Star Trek" show outlined a vision for a utopian future far past outdated notions like racism. The episode "Plato's Stepchildren" featured Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), a white man, and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), a Black woman, kissing. At the time, it was daring for television. However, some have pointed out that other shows like "I Spy," "The Wild Wild West," and even "Star Trek" showed white and Asian characters kissing. Nevertheless, the Kirk/Uhura kiss has left a legacy and is a crucial moment in television.
Upon the airing of its pilot, "All in the Family" included a warning: "The program you are about to see is 'All in the Family.' It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are."
Similarly (if more seriously), the 1975 Normal Lear show "Hot l Baltimore," with controversial topics and characters including prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and same-sex couples, had a warning label attached to every episode of the show.
Videotape eventually became an essential technology in television production thanks to its cost and versatility. "All in the Family" became the first television show videotaped in front of a live studio audience, even making a point to announce this fact at the beginning of every episode, a standard that would repeat in many sitcoms afterward.
"Another World" in 1964 had two characters discussing abortion. But the most famous case, just two months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, was "Maude," in which the title character, played by Bea Arthur, found herself pregnant at age 47, with her and her husband deciding to terminate the pregnancy. Some stations ended up dropping the show entirely as a result.
Profanity was not taken lightly in the early days of television; this applied to the minor and relatively tame word "hell." A season one episode of "Star Trek," called "The City at the Edge of Forever," ended when William Shatner's Capt. Kirk uttered, "Let's get the hell out of here," causing discord amongst the crew. Show creator Gene Roddenberry and Shatner had to fight for the line to remain.
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It may seem tame by today's decency standards on television, but many shows went out of their way to prevent female actresses from exposing their midriffs on screen. Network executives forbade actress Barbara Eden from revealing her belly button on "I Dream of Jeannie," and several actresses on "Gilligan's Island" were forced to cover up. Popstar Cher did not abide by these standards, however, showing off her belly on "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" in the 1970s.
Acclaimed character actor Vincent Schiavelli introduced television viewers to the first recurring gay character in a show called "The Corner Bar." Some might consider the character Peter Panama over-the-top by today's standards. Still, gay characters would continue to appear regularly as main characters in numerous mainstream television afterward.
The most famous case of a male character showing it all on screen is the R-rated "NYPD Blue," which constantly pushed the envelope regarding mature television content. However, the first instance of male nudity was actually in the crowd-pleasing "M*A*S*H" in an episode called "The Sniper" when Radar (Gary Burghoff) briefly loses his towel while fleeing from a sniper's view.
Coincidentally, the first instance of intentional female nudity on television came the same year as the first scripted scene of male nudity. In a PBS production of the play "Steambath," actress and former showgirl Valerie Perrine would flash her breasts to the camera. Even before, instances of unintentional female nudity showed up on television due to what is known today as "wardrobe malfunctions." Most notably, this happened to Jayne Mansfield at the 1954 Academy Awards.
A theme song's staying power can be a good indicator of a television show's impact, with some purchasable theme songs even hitting the Billboard charts. "S.W.A.T." was the first such theme song that hit #1 on the pop charts, followed by "Welcome Back, Kotter" in 1976, "Miami Vice" in 1985, and "The Heights" in 1992.
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With casual sex and contraception serving as highly sensitive topics in TV's early days, condoms were not common as props or plot points on television. A San Jose television station in 1975 aired an ad promoting safe sex and "responsible parenthood" from Trojan. Network TV's first condom advertisement came in 1991 on the Fox network through a 15-second ad during the teen show "Howard's Head."
Norman Lear was ahead of his TV peers with "Hot l Baltimore," despite its short and controversial run. With a content warning for mature themes at the beginning of every episode, "Hot l Baltimore" (spelled this way to represent a burned-out "e" on the hotel sign) featured a same-sex couple, George and Gordon.
HBO began its pioneering streak by broadcasting a famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier via satellite. The "Thrilla in Manila" was seen by a record-setting 1 billion viewers, with 500,000 viewers tuning in through pay-per-view buys on HBO home cable TV. This prize fight in Quezon City, Philippines, helped to launch cable television to mass popularity.
The first use of the F-bomb tracks back to ITV's "Today" on British television, where punk musicians The Sex Pistols constantly used curse words. The band received a ban from live television as a result. On the other side of the Atlantic, "Saturday Night Live" cast member Charles Rocket ended an episode by saying the word live, resulting in the termination of his other cast and crew members' employment.
Rap and hip-hop were under scrutiny due to their content, but mainstream acceptance eventually came about with the help of some high-profile television performances. In 1979, The Sugar Hill Gang became the first hip-hop group to perform on "American Bandstand," which was hosted by Dick Clark. The group performed their hit song, "Rapper's Delight."
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With social stigmas surrounding sex, lingerie advertisements on television used mannequins to model the merchandise. This changed in 1987 when Playtex took advantage of loosened standards and aired television ads that featured real models wearing lingerie.
The first same-sex kiss between women on television occurred much earlier than the equivalent scene for males, with women locking lips on "L.A. Law." The kiss was between series regulars Abby Perkins (Michelle Greene) and C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe). GLAAD praised the show for the landmark scene.
Even before same-sex marriage was declared legal in all of the U.S., the sitcom "Roc" featured characters in a same-sex marriage. The show featured "Shaft" actor Richard Roundtree in a recurring guest role as the main character's uncle, who has a male partner. Later on, other TV shows, including "Northern Exposure," "Roseanne," and "Friends," would have same-sex married couples as characters well before gay marriage was fully legalized.
Daytime television's first openly gay teenage character was Billy Douglas (Ryan Phillippe) in "One Life to Live." This character would be followed in primetime television in 1994 through Rickie Vasquez, who Wilson Cruz portrayed in "My So-Called Life." These young, queer characters became role models, especially for youths who struggled with their sexuality at an early age.
While Ellen DeGeneres' show "Ellen" has been on the air since 1994, it would take until 1997 for Ellen—both the real-life figure and the character based on her—to come out as a lesbian. The coming out occurred in an episode called "The Puppy Episode," misleadingly named in reference to television executives' desire for Ellen's character to date, or at the very least, get a puppy.
Before airing, the episode received scrutiny from advertisers and religious groups, but the episode was an enormous rating success. The network canceled the show, but DeGeneres got the last laugh: Her award-winning talk-variety show "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" has aired since 2003 and is one of the most popular series on television.
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The hype surrounding rated-R shows like "NYPD Blue" using curse words was lampooned by "South Park" in 2001. However, the first time someone uttered the S-word on network television was by a character played by Mark Harmon on the hospital drama "Chicago Hope." He said, "S**t happens." The scene caused little controversy.
A plotline in the teen drama "Dawson's Creek" had the character of Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), having broken up with his girlfriend Joey (Katie Holmes) in the previous season, finding true love with the character of Ethan (Adam Kaufman). Before the beginning of the millennium, the first gay kiss was supposed to occur on "Melrose Place" in 1994, until a key advertiser threatened to pull advertising if the network showed the scene.
Only in recent decades have transgender performers been given significant roles in television. One of the first transgender actresses to receive a role on a primetime show was in "Dirty Sexy Money." Years later, transgender actress Laverne Cox made headlines for her role in Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black."
The Showtime program "Billions" represented growing acceptance for the singular "they/them/theirs" pronoun. Nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon portrays Taylor Mason, a nonbinary character who starts as an intern but proves their brilliance to the rest of the characters. Asia Kate Dillon's presence in the show has helped to spark more conversations about modern attitudes toward gender identity.
To depict the ballroom voguing scene of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, "Pose" creator Ryan Murphy assembled an authentically queer and transgender cast that includes Emmy winner Billy Porter and trans performers Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, and Indya Moore.
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"One Day at a Time" became the first primetime, multi-camera sitcom to film episodes without a studio audience due to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the safety of the cast and crew. The series joined other shows that temporarily went audience-free, including Comedy Central's "Lights Out with David Spade" and "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah."
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