How Television Shaped Baby Boomers

When "Davy Crockett" debuted on ABC in 1954, the show was supposed to be a flop. "Crockett" was an earnest series of dramas based on the manly exploits of the American adventurer, starting with "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter." The show was the brainchild of Walt Disney himself, who devised it to promote Frontierland at his new amusement park, Disneyland. Yet Disney's faith in the show was so minimal that before the first episode aired, the third one, "Davy Crockett at the Alamo," had been filmed—and Crockett had died. Something amazing happened when that first episode aired, however: 40 million people watched. And that was just the beginning. "Crockett" doodads—toy wagons, guitars and, especially, coonskin caps—sold faster than a wild mustang can run. Within a year, the merchandise generated more than $300 million—in today's dollars, about $2 billion. Not surprisingly, Disney quickly brought Crockett back from the dead. Now that's what you call the magic of television.

You can't blame old Walt for almost missing the ur-Happy Meal. He'd been blindsided by the perfect storm—a new medium plus a postwar baby boom. T. S. Eliot once said TV "permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome." Maybe true for individuals, but as the boomers and the boob tube grew up, they created a generational bond—what boomer can't sing the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme? In the '50s and '60s, they bought coonskin caps and mouse ears; in 1977, after Fonzie got his library card, approximately 500,000 kids applied for theirs, too.

All very nice—and lucrative. But it's hard to believe the notoriously self-aware and self-absorbed boomers spent an estimated 12,000-plus hours apiece watching TV before they turned 16 without searching for something deeper. So what, exactly, did the baby-boomer generation learn from TV? Not from "Sesame Street" or the evening news, but from the entertainment programs that dominated and defined so much of their common experiences. What did television teach this generation about themselves?

At first, not much beyond mainstream values. Married couples slept in separate beds. Horses could talk back, but children rarely did. Nearly all the people were white. "Everybody looked old," says Tim Brooks, author of "The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows." "They all had suits, even Milton Berle." Sure, it was entertaining—"I Love Lucy" is still one of the two funniest shows ever (the other is "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"—go ahead, argue with us). But it was pure escapism. In 1968, the No. 3 show on television was "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," about a bumbling private played by Jim Nabors; it never mentioned Vietnam. "The year of the Tet Offensive you've got a show set in the contemporary Marine Corps where the worst thing you have to worry about is will Gomer's locker be clean enough for inspection," says Syracuse University TV and pop-culture scholar Robert Thompson. He argues that what boomers ultimately took from early TV was a collective sense of irony. "Television was showing a vision completely at odds with the consciousness-raising world that they grew up in," Thompson says, "but they can't reject it because they like it. The only way they can deal with it is to take an ironic stance. You saw that later with the 'Brady Bunch' movie, which is a masterpiece of loving and mocking something simultaneously."

As the '60s rolled on, TV opened its eyes a bit. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" launched comic Pat Paulsen on a mock presidential campaign in 1968. (You know that somewhere young Stephen Colbert was watching.) "Gunsmoke" incorporated stories about discrimination against American Indians, both as an acknowledgement of their plight and as a parallel to the civil-rights movement. "Star Trek" presented a multiethnic cast, as if to coax boomers into believing that, in the future, race won't matter. An episode of "Ironside" celebrated draft dodgers, and a "Mod Squad" show ("A Far Away Place So Near") seemed a parable about the 1968 massacre at My Lai. "The film industry wouldn't go near this type of material," says Aniko Bodroghkozy, author of "The Groove Tube," an analysis of '60s TV. "It was gutsy to make those kinds of arguments during the heart of the Vietnam War."

Of course, shows with an agenda were exceptions to the "Lucy" and "Bonanza" rule. Producer Norman Lear spent three years trying to sell a show about a bigot and his liberal son-in-law. When CBS finally aired "All in the Family" in 1971, the network slapped a parental advisory on it and put some 20 extra phone operators on duty to field the protests. But what happened? "They were amazed by how few calls they got," Lear says. "There wasn't anything Archie was saying that you couldn't hear in the schoolyard, or in the parking lot of a church on Sunday." "All in the Family" became the No. 1 show of the season, and TV changed immediately. "Maude," an "All in the Family" spinoff, did a show about abortion. "Good Times" explored life in the projects. "M*A*S*H" was set in Korea, but it was clearly a commentary on the tragic absurdities of Vietnam. "When 'The Mary Tyler Moore' show came out in 1970," says Thompson, "one executive is reported to have said he wouldn't allow Mary to be divorced because Americans will not accept people with New York accents, people with mustaches, divorced people or Jews in leading roles. When 'Rhoda' comes on four years later, she's a Jew from New York who separates from her husband in a special two-part episode."

If divorced New York Jews played in Peoria, what was taboo? Less and less. "Roots" taught boomers more about the black experience than any high-school course. The TV movie "An Early Frost" tackled AIDS long before Hollywood movies dared focus on it. Then there was "thirtysomething," which—years before "Seinfeld"—didn't purport to be about anything at all. It simply followed the lives of a group of ordinary boomers as they struggled with their careers, relationships, families and, most of all, their own angst. "It was a very polarizing show," says cocreator Marshall Herskovitz. "There were a lot of people who criticized it, saying, 'These people are rich, they're yuppies, they don't have any real problems'."

If there's an irony to all this—and boomers love their irony—it's that TV today has lost almost all its taste for social commentary. The most popular shows are still crime procedurals ("CSI") or soaps ("Grey's Anatomy")—slick and sexy, but not about much. The reality shows "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" are so retro, they're practically "The Lawrence Welk Show." When "The Unit" or "24" does dare to focus on something like the war on terror, their take is uncritically gung-ho—no network today would risk satire on the level of "M*A*S*H." (Cable, of course, is a brave, and edgy, new world.) To the degree that TV taught boomers to look thoughtfully at their world, that lesson may be lost. When Archie and Edith sang "Those Were the Days," they were more prescient than anyone knew.