Time Travel Ethics: The 1961 ABC TV Schedule

I owe Ann Althouse for finding this; I never would have, especially since I’m disgusted with YouTube.

Above is a montage of all of the TV series offered to the public by ABC in the Fall of 1961. It’s worth noting that in 1961 the Fifties culture was still going strong, though JFK had replaced Ike as President. What we think of as the cultural Sixties didn’t really start until after Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. Also worth noting: ABC was the perennial least watched network on 1961. That meant they took the most risks, but ’61 was not a good year for ABC.

What can we learn from the montage? Culture is ethics and ethics is culture; this is a snapshot that shows what a large percentage of Americans watched at night, and what contributed to their worldview. It is fair to say, I think, that nothing in popular culture today influences an many people as even ABC’s prime time schedule did. The snap shot reveals where the nation has progressed, and what it has lost. In 60 years, there is a lot to consider.

Some Observations:

1. There are a lot of what I would rate as ethics show. This was the era of TV Westerns, and most Westerns were constructed to promote and teach ethical values. Not “Maverick,” perhaps, ironically the best of the Westerns of that period, but the others, especially “The Rifleman,” which Ethics Alarms has discussed before. There are TV shows today that raise ethical issues regularly—the various “Walking Dead” series are examples—but only a few that regularly raise ethics issues in a coherent and competent manner: “Blue Bloods” and the Dick Wolf Chicago trio (“Med,” “Fire” and “PD”) most notable among them.

2. The closest thing to a strong, working, female lead character who wasn’t there only as eye candy for male viewers was Dorothy Provine in “The Roaring Twenties,” and she played Prohibition era speakeasy entertainer. This means that there were no such characters.

3. The most prominent female star was Donna Reed, playing a housewife. ABC was stuffed with family sitcoms, and one single dad sitcom. One of them, the inexplicable “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” shows how undemanding audiences of the time were about what they called “entertainment.” This was the original show about nothing, except there were no jokes, no interesting performers, nothing. I didn’t understand why it was on the air then.

4. Also showing our cultural progress is the presence of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Thank God for the British Invasion. No culture is completely healthy that will accept that homogenized dreck week after week. That show alone almost justifies the smug contempt shown by “Pleasantville.” Almost. Arguably worse than Welk is the infamous sitcom “The Hathaways,” created by some madman because a chimp act was popular on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and was featured in some popular commercials. The “situation”: Peggy Cass and Jack Weston starred as suburban Los Angeles “parents” caring for a trio of performing chimpanzees, played by The Marquis Chimps. Some TV historians have opined that this was the worse TV show ever broadcast. It’s close: I saw “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour “and a few others that might have been worse, but none that were more insulting.

5. There are no significant black characters at all, anywhere, except this weird exception: ABC, trying to capitalize on the success of “The Flintstones,” added a bunch of prime time animated shows. None hung around, at least in prime time, but among them was “Calvin and the Colonel,” a cartoon adaptation of “Amos and Andy,” featuring the voices of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the white actors who voiced the black title characters in the famous radio comedy. ABC concluded that having a dumb cartoon bear who sounded just like of the dumb stereotype black guy in the radio show was enough African American vibe for enlightened Americans.

6. Politics was almost completely absent in the ABC schedule

7. There are several comments on the video as well as some on Ann’s post (She’s allowing comments again! <Yawwwn>) opining that what was on ABC in 1961 is wildly superior to what is available today. That may be true of network fare, since most of prime time is now game shows, reality shows, procedurals and treacly dramadies. And indeed, finding the quality shows takes a lot of work. Nonethless, there is a lot of excellent TV to be found, and 90% of 1961’s shows look shockingly naive empty by comparison.

However, the great advantage of one-stop-shopping for home entertainment—all right, maybe three stop, counting the number of networks—was that the entertainment held society together. There were disagreements, sure, but few violent ones, and the divisions between the attitudes of the generations, sexes, regions, classes, and even political parties weren’t regarded as overly serious or unbridgeable. The Red Scare had past; hardly anyone was supporting Communism anymore. But lurking just around the bend was the escalation of the Vietnam war, Rock ‘n Roll, abortion, drugs and “don’t trust anyone over 30.” We will never see the like Lawrence Welk and his bubbles again. Hallelujah . Yet I might accept Lawrence, and maybe even “The Hathaways,” if we could get close to a culture that was able to agree on basic values.

25 thoughts on “Time Travel Ethics: The 1961 ABC TV Schedule

  1. I remember one episode of “The Lawrence Welk Show’ that featured nostalgic songs about the doughboys in WW1. Most guys I knew in their teens considered Welk for the Geritol generation, corny and predictable. We would watch Dick Clark instead to see the Coasters clown around and Chubby Checker twist.

        • Sure. They could have spirituals on “Big Brother” too, but it wouldn’t be worth wading through the rest to hear them. Bobby and Cissy, all the accordion playing, Welk’s bizarre accent…ugh. I confess, I could take the Lennon Sisters now and then…

          • “Big Brother”? The reality TV show? I have no idea … I’ve never watched a single “reality show” in my life.

            But I think you missed my joke. After “Dale & Dale” cover Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus),” Larry refers to the song as “a modern spiritual.” (Not a “great American spiritual,” as I’d mis-remembered it.)

            The irony of Welk and his squeaky-cleans doing a number about getting high is just. Too. Much.

  2. My beloved grandmother adored Lawrence Welk, and when PBS featured Welk during their fund drives the blue-hair brigade gave generously.

  3. My recollection of Lawrence Welk is that it was the excruciatingly dull period of time before the Main Attraction started: The Muppet Show.


  4. Chuck Connors in, The Rifleman, was actually a remarkable show.
    A strong committed father with righteous morals raising a son alone with the help of the law in the character Micah, always striving to do the right thing. That show probably helped shape me and my younger brother into the decent men we are today because our own father wasn’t that interested plus that look that Connors gives in the intro signaled that he really meant business.

    • To each his own! It’s pretty funny that PBS has it, since the show was exactly the kind of programming the intellectuals who promoted public TV in the Sixties cited as the junk sophisticates had to have a place to escape from.

      • PBS stations grabbed Lawrence Welk for the same reason they put out Big Band specials and World War II retrospectives and (now) doo wop concerts – there’s money to be wrung out of geezers.

          • I’m definitely not a geezer (born in the 70s), I just think Lawrence Welk is a nice break from the smut that’s all over TV (i.e. Kardashians). And that’s a great point you made about how PBS was founded to air “intellectual” type programming that sophisticated people, who considered themselves to be above Lawrence Welk, could tolerate. Who knew at the time that PBS would eventually air Lawrence Welk because it would later be considered classic programming! 🙂

  5. The top ten shows (all three networks competing):

    1 Wagon Train (NBC)
    2 Bonanza (NBC)
    3 Gunsmoke (CBS)
    4 Hazel (NBC)
    5 Perry Mason (CBS)
    6 The Red Skelton Show (CBS)
    7 The Andy Griffith Show (CBS)
    8 The Danny Thomas Show (CBS
    9 Dr. Kildare (NBC)
    10 Candid Camera (NBC)
    19 Perry Mason (the only show I can remember from the time , and would watch reruns if I agreed to pay CBS for them)

    and in 1961 “In a speech on “Television and the Public Interest” to the National Association of Broadcasters in the United States, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow describes commercial television programming as a “vast wasteland” and tells the broadcasters that they could do a better job of serving the public.

    • I’ve watched Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Perry Mason recently, and periodically. There some duds, but for the most part, they hold up well. (Bonanza, in contrast, seems plastic and dated. The new Perry Mason on HBO is very good, and so unlike the TV version that you don’t even consider it a reboot—though the idea of a black Paul Drake in the thirties is ridiculous and gratuitous.) Hazel is suddenly in re-runs, and no more unwatchable now than it was then. I never “got” Red, not in his movies, not on TV, and never understood his appeal. Andy at least could sing. My invalid Aunt Edith loved him, so as kids we spent many evening watching Andy’s standard issue, mild and risk free variety show.The various incarnations of Thomas’s “Make Room For Daddy” held up well in re-runs: it was kind of an OK precursor of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with a less talented star and better kids.

      Andy Griffith’s show still works, is still funny and touching if you can ignore the laugh track and the sappy music the clues you in that you’re supposed to feel sorry for Aunt Bea. I haven’t seen Dr. Kildare in decades, and just commented to Grace that I wondered how it held up today compared to, say, “Chicago Med.” The Marshalls watched it regularly back in the day. Old Candid Cameras are, of course, exactly like today’s hidden camera/practical joke shows, but not as extreme, elaborate, or mean. That show looks trite now because it’s been imitated for so long and by so many.

  6. This short clip is pretty much a distillation of the Welk genre – absent the tap-dancing ‘man of color’, of course:

  7. As the saying goes, “where you stand often depends on where you sit,” and for me, growing up in the rural South in the 1960s, television shows (and books) were my windows into the larger world. Growing up around cattle and horses made the TV westerns an immediate attraction for me, and after listening to all my mother’s big-band records since infancy I was familiar with a lot of Welk’s repertoire. I guess that Welk’s show was the first time I actually saw anyone play an accordion, or anyone other than my mom play stride piano. One thing that I have noticed in watching some of the 60s shows more recently is that rural people were usually portrayed as generally unsophisticated but wise, and city-dwellers were frequently depicted as more worldly but foolish, or at least naive.

  8. Lawrence Welk was Minnesota or North Dakota immigrant schmaltz incarnate. There were lots of buyers for what he was selling. Was he a blight upon the country? No. There are still acts like his that are very popular in Europe. Well trained musicians playing dreck. It sells.

    In general, I’d say, “Forget it Jack, it was network television.” Did any of us take it seriously? I don’t think so. We were raised by our parents and the other adults in our lives: teachers, priests, nuns, cops, our friend’s parents and so forth.

    I will say seeing Eddie Haskell in action in the Cleaver household was enlightening. How many Eddie Haskells have we all had to endure and navigate around in our lives? I’ll name just one: William Jefferson Clinton.

    • Oh, I took it seriously. I STILL take it seriously. Next to my Dad, network TV probably did more to shape my values, attitudes and tastes than any influence, including all levels of school. (Baseball would be third.) I had to expand out from the networks, but TV is still a tremendous resource.

      • I guess being brought up Irish Catholic, we were brought up in a bubble that looked askance at most all of popular culture. TV was just TV and had little if anything to do with reality and important things.

        “The Andy Griffith Show” is a classic case in point. It’s North Carolina as imagined by Jewish writers from Brooklyn while living in LA. Ridiculous. I guess I was a realist at a very young age.

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