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The 75 Most Unforgettable Moments in TV History

The biggest events and show highlights in history — are there any moments you remember that we should have included? Tell us in the Conversation below


VIDEO: Things You Didn’t Know About 7 Iconic TV Moments

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Emmy Awards, so it’s high time to look back on the high points of TV history — the historical events it brought into our living rooms and the shows we can’t forget. Here are 75 moments worth remembering.

April 30, 1939

In the first TV telecast, FDR opens the New York World’s Fair.

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spinner image top center mayor fletcher bowron below evie dewolf at the first annual primetime emmy awards
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

January 25, 1949

At the first Emmy Awards, Pantomime Quiz Time wins the most popular television program award. The award was originally supposed to be called the "Ike," short for the iconoscope tube that made TV possible (originally invented to guide flying bombs in World War II). But President Eisenhower was called Ike, and the device used in TVs was called the camera image orthicon tube, so they changed it to the "Immy," then feminized it to the "Emmy."

spinner image actor grouchp marx accepting his award at the third annual emmy awards
Groucho Marx (left) accepting his Emmy Award.
TVA/PictureGroup/Invision for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images

January 23, 1951

Groucho Marx hosts the Emmy telecast, and when he also wins Most Outstanding Personality, instead of taking his trophy, he carries Miss America Rosemary LaPlanche offstage, explaining that he thought she was the Emmy.

September 15, 1952

In one of the most celebrated episodes of TV’s No. 1 show, I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball works at a candy factory and can’t keep up with the conveyor belt, so she stuffs her mouth with chocolates.

September 23, 1952

Vice Presidential nominee Richard Nixon delivers his emotional “Checkers speech," saying he plans to keep the cocker spaniel named Checkers that a citizen gave his 6-year-old daughter, Tricia, and saves his career from a political donations scandal.

June 2, 1953

Defying advisors including Winston Churchill, England’s Queen Elizabeth II, 27, allows TV cameras into Westminster Abbey for the first time, so that 20 million Britons (and millions more in America) could watch her coronation – the first TV event whose audience outnumbered any radio audience.

September 11, 1954

Reality TV begins with the Miss America pageant’s TV debut.

September 9, 1956

60 million watch Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show, 82.6 percent of the TV audience. Despite Elvis’s scandalous swiveling hips, Sullivan calls him “a real decent, fine boy.”

September 26, 1960

In the first televised presidential debate, an estimated 70 million see sweaty candidate Nixon seemingly win on points against opponent John F. Kennedy but lose on looks.

September 30, 1960

The Flintstones make animation fun for the whole family, popularizing Fred’s catchphrase “Yabba-Dabba Doo!” (inspired by the Brylcreem slogan “A little dab’ll do ya”)

March 2, 1962

On The Twilight Zone, aliens invade earth, tell humans their goal is “to serve man” – turns out they mean to cook and eat us all.

November 22, 1963

Near tears, Walter Cronkite breaks into the broadcast of As the World Turns to announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

November 24, 1963

A CBS News camera records nightclub owner Jack Ruby’s assassination of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. In 2018, that camera sells to a collector for $16,000.

February 9, 1964

73 million viewers watch The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the antidote to the nation’s grief over the fallen young President.

spinner image william shatner on the star trek episode the trouble with tribbles
William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk in "Star Trek."
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

December 29, 1967

The ordinarily somber sci-fi show Star Trek does a comic episode about cute, uncontrollably reproducing furry creatures invading the U.S.S. Enterprise, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” inspired by invasive rabbits in Australia.

July 20, 1969

Ninety-three percent of​ Americans watch Neil Armstrong take one giant leap for mankind onto the moon.

September 25, 1970

The Partridge Family debuts. Star Shirley Jones had turned down the mom role on The Brady Bunch because she didn’t want to spend her time making sandwiches. Her band’s first No. 1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” outsells The Beatles' “Let It Be.”

March 30, 1971

In the proud tradition of Leave It to Beaver, which depicted the first toilet on TV in 1957 in an episode where the kids hide a pet alligator in the toilet tank, All in the Family features TV’s first toilet heard flushing.

spinner image left bea arthur right william macy on maude
Bea Arthur (left) and Bill Macy as Maude and Walter Findlay in "Maude."
Courtesy Everett Collection

November 14 and 21, 1972

Two months before Roe v. Wade, TV’s Maude gets an abortion at age 47.

April 2, 1974

A streaker races past David Niven, who’s about to present the Oscar for Best Picture. Niven quips, “But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

May 19, 1975

Emmy Awards presenter Lucille Ball realizes she forgot her glasses. Milton Berle leaps from the audience to give her the specs, and she gives The Mary Tyler Moore Show the first of its 29 Emmys.

October 25, 1975

Mary finds it impossible not to burst out laughing at the funeral of a famous clown in the legendary Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” The New York Times calls it “the funniest half-hour in television history.”

November 13, 1976

In The Carol Burnett Show’s most famous episode, “Went With the Wind,” she channels Scarlett O’Hara and wears an actual curtain for a dress, explaining, “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it.” The laugh is the longest in the show’s history and has to be edited down to fit on TV.

spinner image alex haley left and levar burton right in the nineteen seventy seven show roots
(Left to right) Alex Haley and LeVar Burton on the set of "Roots."
Warner Bros Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

January 30, 1977

Until the M*A*S*H finale in 1983, the 100 million viewers of the final episode of Alex Haley’s Roots, dramatizing the author’s search for his family’s African past and American experience, is the biggest audience for any show.

September 20, 1977

Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jumps the shark on water skis on Happy Days. In 1985, college student Jon Hein coins the phrase “jumping the shark” to signify the point where a show is doomed. It catches on big time; in 2006 Hein sells his company, Jump The Shark, Inc., for over $1 million. Later, on Arrested Development, Henry Winkler jumps over a tiny shark on a dock. Viewers get the joke.

September 9, 1979

Alan Alda celebrates his writing Emmy for M*A*S*H by doing a cartwheel down the aisle — he was the first ever to win Emmys for writing, acting and directing.

February 22, 1980

The U.S. Olympic hockey team beats the heavily favored Soviets in what became known as the "Miracle on Ice.”

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November 21, 1980

Eighty-three million watch TV’s trashiest show, Dallas, to find out who shot the nastiest man on TV, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). Spoiler: It was his mistress Kristin Shepard (Bing Crosby’s daughter Mary Crosby).

 

December 8, 1980

Howard Cosell interrupts Monday Night Football to announce the assassination of John Lennon.

spinner image princess diana and prince charles in a carriage after their wedding in nineteen eighty one
Princess Diana (left) and Prince Charles
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

June 29, 1981

Seven hundred fifty million people watch the storybook wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles.

August 1, 1981

MTV airs its first music video, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

September 13, 1981

Hill Street Blues, the startlingly innovative cop show with sprawling storylines, is the 87th-most popular show on TV, universally expected to lose the Best Drama Emmy to Lou Grant and get canceled soon. But it wins the first of 26 Emmys, the most of any drama at the time.

November 16-17, 1981

The wedding of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura is so popular, 30 million watch the two-night episode, Newsweek puts them on the cover, Elizabeth Taylor guest stars and Princess Diana sends the actors champagne.

spinner image a wedding on the finale of the t v show mash
20th Century Fox Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

February 28, 1983

M*A*S*H ends after 11 years (longer than the Korean War) with a 2½ hour episode watched by a total of 125 million.

July 13, 1985

Queen steals the all-star show at Live Aid, a benefit concert watched by over a billion people that raised over $125 million for African famine victims.

January 28, 1986

NASA’s space shuttle Challenger explodes live on TV 73 seconds after takeoff.

 

May 16, 1986

The entire ninth season of Dallas is revealed to be a dream of Pamela (played by Victoria Principal), wife of Bobby (Patrick Duffy).

April 19, 1987

The Simpsons make their debut in cartoon shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. In 1989, they get their own show.

 

October 14, 1987

A nation tensely watches for 58 hours as 18-month-old Jessica McClure is rescued from a well in Texas.

spinner image a man knocking a piece of stone from the berlin wall after the opening of the border on november ninth nineteen eighty nine
Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

November 9, 1989

The world watches in amazement as thousands of East Germans escape through the Berlin Wall, dancing and hugging and hacking the wall with hammers and picks.

April 8, 1990

David Lynch’s bizarre murder mystery Twin Peaks makes the entire nation ask, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

May 21, 1990

Outdoing Dallas, the Newhart show finale reveals that the entire series – not just one season – was actually a dream.

September 13, 1990

Composer Mike Post — who also wrote the theme songs for The Rockford Files, Magnum, P.I. and NYPD Blue — debuts the famous Law & Order "chung-chung!" sound effect.

January 16–17, 1991

CNN, formerly known as the little-watched “Chicken Noodle Network,” briefly becomes the most important network on earth because it has the only live feed from Iraq on the first day of Operation Desert Storm.

spinner image left bette midler right johnny carson on johnny carsons last episode of the tonight show
(Left to right) Bette Midler and Johnny Carson
Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

May 21, 1992

On Johnny Carson’s penultimate Tonight Show, Bette Midler serenades him with “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).”

 

October 3, 1992

On Saturday Night Live, Sinead O’Connor shockingly rips up the Pope’s picture to protest pedophile priests, demolishing her career. In 2014, the Pope apologizes for the pedophile scandal.

November 18, 1992

Seinfeld airs the classic episode “The Contest,” in which the characters nobly attempt (and fail) to become “masters of their domain” by avoiding self-abuse. What chance did Elaine have? JFK Jr. was in front of her in an exercise class.

spinner image motorists waving as police cars pursue the ford bronco driven by al cowlings carrying o j simpson on a ninety minute slow speed car chase
Jean-Marc Giboux/Liaison

June 17, 1994

In TV’s most famous low-speed chase, murder suspect O.J. Simpson eludes police in his Bronco for two hours as 95 million watch.

April 12, 1995

Drew Barrymore gives David Letterman a birthday present on his late night show by standing on his desk and flashing him.

July 19, 1996

An estimated 3.5 billion tune in to watch some of the Atlanta Olympics.

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Ellen Degeneres (left) and Laura Dern in "Ellen."
Courtesy Everett Collection

April 30, 1997

On her show Ellen, Ellen DeGeneres becomes the first lead character to come out as gay on TV, with Laura Dern playing her sweetie.

September 6, 1997

Princess Diana’s funeral attracts an estimated 2.5 billion grieving viewers.

January 26, 1998

President Bill Clinton tells the nation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

March 6, 2000

Katie Couric televises her colonoscopy, causing U.S. colonoscopy rates to zoom up over 20 percent.

spinner image richard hatch and susan hawk on season one of survivor
Richard Hatch (left)
CBS via Getty Images

August 23, 2000

Richard Hatch wins $1 million on the first Survivor season — but then loses it and spends years in prison for failing to pay taxes.

February 18, 2001

NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Sr. dies in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 race.

September 11, 2001

​America watches in horror as terrorists fly two hijacked jets into the World Trade Center.

May 9, 2002

After a lingering, two-season illness, ER’s Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) leaves Chicago to spend more time with his daughter and dies. In real life, Edwards quits the show to spend more time with his family.

May 16, 2002

After a tumultuously long courtship, Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) have a baby on Friends.

August 28, 2003

Madonna smooches Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards.

spinner image janet jackson and justin timberlake during the super bowl halftime show
Janet Jackson (left) and Justin Timberlake performing during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

February 1, 2004

At The Super Bowl XXXVIII live halftime show, Janet Jackson's wardrobe “malfunctions” while she performs “Rock Your Body” with Justin Timberlake.

May 23, 2004

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) orders the death of the beloved Adriana (Drea de Matteo) on The Sopranos, forcing viewers to question why they loved him so much.

 

September 19, 2004

Meryl Streep wins the Emmy for playing the angel in Angels in America, quipping, “There are some days when I myself think I’m overrated, but not today.”

May 23, 2005

To demonstrate his passion for his missus, Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise jumps up and down on a couch on The Oprah Winfrey Show, inspiring a torrent of internet memes and parodies on Family Guy and Sesame Street.

August 21, 2005

The final episode of Six Feet Under, about a family of undertakers, depicts the moment of death of every major character. Some call it the most moving series finale of all time.

spinner image Michael K. Williams as Omar Little in "The Wire."
Michael K. Williams as Omar Little in "The Wire."
Nicole Rivelli/HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

February 24, 2008

The most popular character on The Wire, tough Omar (Michael K. Williams), who refuses to harm innocent citizens and strikes fear into the Baltimore drug lords he robs, is shockingly shot to death in the street by an ambitious little kid.

September 13, 2009

As Taylor Swift accepts her MTV Video Music Award, Kanye West invades the stage to proclaim that Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” is better.

April 29, 2011

About 162 million watch Prince William and Kate Middleton’s $30 million wedding, breaking the Guinness Book of World Records record for Most Live Streams for a Single Event.

September 18, 2011

Every nominee for Best Comedy Lead Actress — Amy Poehler, Laura Linney, Melissa McCarthy, Martha Plimpton, Tina Fey and Edie Falco — goes onstage together, and the winner (McCarthy) gets roses and a tiara. “We were kissing her like she won Miss America!” gloats Poehler.

June 2, 2013

On Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” episode, inspired by the real-life murder of guests of England’s King James II’s at the Black Dinner of 1440, Stark clan members were massacred, shocking audiences and even some of the actors in the scene who didn’t see it coming.

May 17, 2015

In the Mad Men finale, Don Draper finds peace at last in the lotus position in California — and possibly writes the great, real-world “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial.

September 20, 2015

Viola Davis becomes the first woman of color to win the Lead Actress Emmy for a drama series, in How to Get Away with Murder, saying, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” She has earned four more Emmy noms to date.

February 26, 2017

La La Land’s producers accept the Oscar for Best Picture — but a producer interrupts them, saying, "There's a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke!"

spinner image the coffin of queen elizabeth the second being carried into westminster palace by guardsmen
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

September 18, 2022

Over 50 million people watch Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.

January 2, 2023

Nearly 24 million viewers watched as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffers cardiac arrest on the playing field during Monday Night Football.

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