The 20 Most Powerful Television Moments Of The Past 50 Years

There are some glaring omissions from a recent list of television's "most powerful" moments.

Sony Electronics and Nielsen are out with a survey that purports to discover the 20 most powerful moments in television history, and here they are:

1. Sept. 11 tragedy (2001)
2. Hurricane Katrina (2005)
3. O.J. Simpson verdict (1995)
4. Challenger space shuttle disaster (1986)
5. Death of Osama bin Laden (2011)
6. O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase (1994)
7. Earthquake in Japan (2011)
8. Columbine High School shootings (1999)
9. BP oil spill (2010)
10. Princess Diana’s funeral (1997)
11. Death of Whitney Houston (2012)
12. Capture and execution of Saddam Hussein (2006)
13. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech (2008)
14. The Royal Wedding (2011)
15. Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1963)
16. Oklahoma City bombing (1995)
17. Bush/Gore election results (2000)
18. L.A. riots (1992)
19. Casey Anthony verdict (2011)
20. Funeral of John F. Kennedy (1963)

The first thing that jumps out at me is the fact that seventeen of these twenty events occurred within the last twenty-two years and only two of them, both related to President Kennedy’s assassination, occurred before the 1980s. Partly, of course, this is likely a reflection of the manner in which the survey was conducted:

To measure impact, Nielsen and Sony created a score for each event derived by the number of people who viewed the event live, the number who could recall details about where they were during the occurrence and the number who could remember discussing what happened with others.

That, and the relative age of the respondents, is likely the reason why something like February’s death of Whitney Houston scored higher than the assassination of an American President, why the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton scored higher than the closest election in modern American history, why the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase scored higher than the L.A. Riots, or why the Casey Anthony verdict was even on the list at all.  The survey methods seemed predestined to lead to results that would give far more weight to those essentially trivial events than to events that are considered more historically important. It probably also explains why another event connected with the Kennedy Assassination, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, which occurred live on national television, did not even make the list.

There’s one glaring omission from the list, though, that really surprises me. Where is the entry for the coverage of July 20, 1969 when a human being first set foot on the Moon? How do you come up with a list of the most powerful moments of the past 50 years and not include what is arguably one of the most powerful moments of all of human history while including such trivialities as the wedding between the son of two people famous for being famous and a British girl? I don’t know if this is a function of the way the survey was conducted, or simply sad recognition of the fact that people don’t remember that event too well?

For that matter, where’s the coverage of the flight of Apollo 13 in 1970, when the nation waited with bated breath to see if three of our astronauts would even be able to return to Earth alive? That strikes me as more “powerful” than the outcome of a rather uninteresting criminal trial in Florida.

Those major caveats notwithstanding, I suppose I don’t have a problem with most of the list, or at least the Top 5. We will be hard-pressed to find another event that captivates the nation as much as the September 11th attacks did, and the same goes for events like the Challenger disaster, the Hurricane Katrina coverage, and the death of Osama bin Laden. Of course, as we move even further into a world where people are less and less likely to be watching the same things at the same time, it’s possible that we’ll see fewer of these “powerful” moments of television outside of truly earth-shattering breaking news events, which usually end up being tragedies of some kind or natural disasters. Or maybe, the next time we share a “powerful” moment it will be disbursed among many different forms of media. Indeed, the news that Osama bin Laden was dead broke on Twitter long before any of the news networks reported it that Sunday night in May, 2011. Perhaps that’s the future we’re looking at.

Exit question. Other than the Oswald shooting, Apollo 11, and Apollo 13, are there any other omissions from the list that seem surprising?

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Well, I would not have placed these in the top 20

    11. Death of Whitney Houston (2012)
    18. L.A. riots (1992)
    19. Casey Anthony verdict (2011)

  2. Westcliff says:

    The fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the 1993 WTC bombing are three that immediately come to mind.

    Seriously, no moon landing?

  3. B Mullen says:

    A lot of folks watched “last” shows … for ex. Johnny Carson’s last show. Maybe not as important as the ones listed, obviously, but there was a large # of viewers.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Along the lines of assassinations: RF Kennedy , Martin Luther King, Reagan (attempted)

  5. @B Mullen:

    Good point, although I think the intent of the survey was to limit it to news events rather than entertainment.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    14. The Royal Wedding (2011)

    I find it very humorous that Will and Kate’s is listed, but not the storybook wedding of his Father and Diane, tho her death is….. Which is really funny to me cause I didn’t know she had died until 2 weeks after her death. (Yes, I was living under a rock…. I was on a caving expedition).

  7. David says:

    Iranian hostage release. Assassination attempt on the pope. Resignation of Nixon.

  8. Console says:

    Damn, and I was all set to come in here and talk about the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    I can’t help but wonder how many of these were reported because people thought it was expected of them to report them. Specifically, I’d bet that a lot more people find this or that Super Bowl more “powerful” than several of the events in that list. 113 million people watched the Super Bowl 2012. Only a few million (!) watched the Casey Anthony verdict.

  10. Kinky Beats says:

    I’m surprised that Whitney Houston’s death makes the list, but Michael Jackson’s doesn’t. Also, why doesn’t the first Gulf War make the list? That was the event that truly catapulted 24 hour news into the American mainstream.

  11. Jay_Dubbs says:

    Take off:

    11. Whitney
    12. Saddam
    14. Royal Wedding
    19. Casey Anthony

    They clearly don’t belong.

    Add:
    Moon Landing
    Tianamie Square
    “Opening Night’ of First Gulf War
    Nixon Resignation

    Also I’m not sure I would have the Japan earthquake over the 2004 Tsunami.

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The absence of the moon landing along with several other obvious and glaring omissions (Ruby-Oswald, Iranian hostage crisis, Munich, assassination attempts on Reagan, MLK and the Pope, Gulf War I, Tiananmen Square, Berlin Wall, etc.), and the correlated presence of such complete nonsense as the Casey Anthony verdict and Whitney Houston, etc., really are not surprising when you factor in the lowest common denominator principle and the unfortunate reality that Zombieland by and large has been dumbed down nearly to catatonic levels.

  13. DRE says:

    @al-Ameda:
    Please tell me this is a joke I’m missing. You’d drop the LA Riots (1992) but keep the OJ Simpson Bronco chase(1994)?

  14. Kit says:

    If Whitney can make the list then how can one justify leaving off Janet Jackson’s nipple?

  15. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Oops, speaking of Zombieland, “assassination attempts on Reagan and the Pope and the assassination of MLK,” that is.

  16. Boyd says:

    Events such as Apollo XIII lose their impact because they didn’t happen all at once (in addition to occurring in what many would consider to be “the olden days”). The lack of the 24/7 news cycle also undermines older events.

  17. rudderpedals says:

    Watergate hearings, Air Florda in the drink in DC, anthrax attacks, and the financial sector bailout/TARP

  18. EMRVentures says:

    Howard Cosell’s announcement of John Lennon’s death on Monday Night Football.

    I thought about the issues of “most powerful” in terms of times when you were watching TV and something came on that turned your world a little cockeyed, not just a great pageant. 9/11, Challenger, etc. Royal Weddings, feh. Random criminal verdicts, feh.

  19. Neil Hudelson says:

    Along the lines of the Challenger explosion, I remember stopping in my tracks at work when I saw the headline on CNN for the Colombia disaster. I was exactly 1 year old during the Challenger disaster, but I’m guessing it was a similar experience for those watching it unfold.

  20. al-Ameda says:

    @DRE:

    Please tell me this is a joke I’m missing. You’d drop the LA Riots (1992) but keep the OJ Simpson Bronco chase(1994)?

    Sorry … just a sloppy omission on my part – OJ out along with the riots.

    Also, now that I think about it, anything with the Royal Family, out.
    Also, the Bush/Gore Election Results out.

  21. @Boyd:

    This is a fair point. It’s noteworthy that all but 3 of the 20 events listed happened in the cable news era

  22. @Neil Hudelson:

    Yea that’s another one. I remember that clearly. I was working on the computer and had the TV on in the background. CNN covered the beginning of Columbia’s return to Earth and then there was this long period, longer than it should have been, when we neither saw nor heard anything. Even though I was only paying attention in the background I stopped immediately because I knew something had gone wrong.

  23. Toby Vasconcellos says:

    RIGHT OFF THE BAT, I SEE NINE EVENTS THAT ARE NOT ON THIS LIST THAT SHOULD BE! WHAT DO YOU THINK?
    MISSING ARE: ( 1)KILLING OF LEE HARVEY OSWALD BY JACK RUBY LIVE ON TV IN 1963, (2) BEATLES ARRIVE IN NYC IN 1964 AND PLAY THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, (3) 1969 Apollo 11 LANDING ON THE MOON!, (4) 1970 APOLLO 13 PUBLIC WAIT WITH BATED BREATH TO SEE IF THE ASTRONAUNTS WILL BE ABLE TO RETURN TO EARTH ALIVE! , (5) THE 1972 MUNICH OLYMPIC GAMES KILLINGS OF ISRAELI ATHELETES BY TERRORISTS, (6) 1981 PRESIDENT REAGAN ASSASINATION ATTEMPT BY JOHN HINKLEY!, (7) 1980 KILLING OF JOHN LENNON, (8) 1979-80 IRANIAN HOSTAGE CRISIS THAT SPAWNED TV’S “NIGHT LINE” PROGRAM and (9) THE DEATH OF MICHAEL JACKSON!

  24. Toby Vasconcellos says:

    ALSO MISSING WERE THE RFK and MLK,JR. ASSASINATIONS, THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL, and THE TIANANMEN SQUARE PROTEST/MASSACRE. DROP THE FLUFF and STICK WITH REAL IMPACT NEWS!

  25. Toby Vasconcellos says:

    THERE IS A 21 YEAR GAP IN THE EVENTS LISTED HERE. NOTHING AT ALL FROM 1964 to 1985? WHO ANSWERED THIS SURVEY?

  26. Neil Hudelson says:

    Dude, Toby, look at your keyboard. Now look at your left hand’s pinky finger. Do you see where it is, located on the “a” key?

    Good.

    Now, move that finger ever so slightly to the left–about one half inch. That is called the “Caps lock” key.

    Push it. Just once!

    Good! Now people on comment threads won’t hate you with a passion that burns with the fires of 1,000 suns.