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Top TV Moments Of The Past 50 Years

Ana Gonzalez Ribeiro

Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? According to a recent survey conducted by Nielsen Research, this day was one of the most important in the 50-plus-year history of American television. The survey gathered data of the television moments that mostly resonated with a national sample of 1,077 adults, ages 18 and older. Coverage of 9/11 was more expansive than the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor due to the increased number of homes owning television sets.

According to the adults polled in the survey, viewers had reacted strongly to many notable moments, mainly news events that were seen live, including the Hurricane Katrina coverage of the levees breaking in 2005 and the 2010 BP oil spill. The coverage of Hurricane Katrina was watched by more than 89 million households. The BP oil spill also garnered much media attention, according to a Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism study, which states that the oil spill was "by far the dominant story in the mainstream news media in the 100-day period after the explosion, accounting for 22% of the newshole - almost double the next biggest story."

World Events
Other events that resonated with the public were the 2011 death of Osama Bin Laden and OJ Simpson's high-speed chase in 1994. Since the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism began tracking mainstream media coverage in January 2007, the death of Bin Laden was the biggest story measured in a single week. According to PEJ's weekly News Coverage Index, "The death of Osama bin Laden was the biggest story measured in any single coverage of the May 1 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Its aftermath, accounted for 69% of the newshole during the week beginning May 2, 2011. On cable television alone, the Bin Laden story accounted for 90% of the airtime during that week.

The 2011 Earthquake in Japan was also among the most memorable moments in television history. CNN dominated the news coverage with this story. At one point, it had the largest audience of people watching, with 2.273 million for the total day. This was CNN's largest audience since President Obama's inauguration in January 2009.

Entertainment Events

Although mainly news events topped the list, several entertainment events also had a deep impact on television viewers. The event that resonated most with television audiences in 2012 was the death of Whitney Houston. Other significant entertainment-related events that resonated with audiences include the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl, the 1977 miniseries Roots, and the 1994 Olympic figure skating scandal with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

Sporting Events

Michael Phelps' record-setting Olympic gold medal victory in 2008 was the top sports-related television moment, according to the survey. This was followed by golf star Tiger Woods' cheating scandal in 2009 and Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear in a 1997 boxing match. The Red Sox winning the World Series (breaking the "Curse of the Bambino") and the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris' MLB home-run record also topped the sports events category.

Events that most affected TV viewers varied based on age and sex. For example, baby boomers ages 55 and over probably remember the assassination of President Kennedy and the first moon landing, while viewers ages 35 to 54 seem to have been affected most by the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.

Royal weddings seemed to resonate with the female television audience, namely the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Military events seemed to resonate more with men. These included the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2006. Many male baby boomers remember Joe Namath's touchdown Hail Mary pass during Super Bowl III in 1969. They also remember the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier "Thrilla in Manila" boxing match in 1975. For those between the ages of 18 and 34, LeBron James' decision to move to the Miami Heat in 2010 made the biggest impression.

The Bottom Line
Undoubtedly, television has had an enormous impact on people of all ages. Most people probably remember exactly what they were doing and who they were with the moment they watched one of the above events unfold on television. News, sports and entertainment events have a way of shaping the cultural history that defines each generation. These events have formed our ideas and beliefs about the past and future, and these events are the stories we'll be telling our children.

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