The Monday Morning Quarterback

Oh, TV Memories, Where’d You Go?

The Nielsen research company and Sony Electronics recently teamed up to ask a lot of people about my favorite subject: television.

Specifically, they wanted to know what people of all ages remembered most from television, and how they shared the experience. The goal of the research was to test a theory: that TV was the grandmother of social media, and that sharing TV experiences made them more memorable.

The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center is the most memorable moment shared by television viewers during the past 50 years – years that, by the way, included a Presidential assassination and resignation, several wars, and several landings on the moon.

The Kennedy assassination and its aftermath came close, but only among the respondents aged 55 and older – the generation that experienced those events as they were broadcast and not when they were replayed as historical films.

The Associated Press reported that the survey by Nielsen Research and Sony Electronics ranked TV moments for their impact by asking people if they remembered watching them. But more than that, the researchers asked if people remembered where they were when they watched it, who they were with, and whether they talked to other people about what they were seeing.

According to the research, the September 11 tragedy had twice the impact as the second ranked moment, the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Minutes after the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, TV began covering the event and stayed with it for several days. Across the country and around the world, hundreds of millions of people either saw the events live or caught up with them within minutes.

Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, was a far more cumulative event, with the extent of the disaster only becoming clear with the passage of days. The impact on Americans, particularly young Americans, appears to have been significant.

Almost everyone can share stories about where they were and what they were doing when the other biggest TV events happened: the 1995 verdict in O.J. Simpson’s first murder trial, the devastating Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 and the death of Osama bin Laden, announced by the President last year on a Sunday night.

Do you remember seeing these events on TV? Where were you, who were you with?

For the Kennedy assassination, I was home from school, watching TV when Walter Cronkite broke into a sitcom rerun and made the first tentative announcement that “shots had been fired.” In 2001, I was getting ready for work when the phone rang and a friend told us nervously to turn on the TV. The Challenger explosion happened during a workday, and we all gathered around my computer monitor/TV to watch the coverage. I remember the O.J. verdict happened on a weekday morning. A few people in my office and a UPS delivery guy stood silent and watched.

Hurricane Katrina coverage was another matter. I remember two separate TV programs: Katie Couric and Harry Connick, Jr. walking and wading through New Orleans the day after the hurricane as Connick implored the nation to focus on the disaster in his native city. Then, that night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper showing the dead and asking where the Army was.

AP reports that the Nielsen researchers anticipated that entertainment events like the final episode of MASH (which was ranked at 42), the Beatles’ appearances on Ed Sullivan  (ranked 43) or the Who Shot J.R.? episode of Dallas (ranked 44) would have been more memorable than they were. Instead, live, unscripted events apparently made the biggest difference in people’s lives.

For instance, the Super Bowl is the most-watched annual TV event – this year’s game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots (and a halftime show by Madonna) set an all-time record with 111 million viewers. The only Super Bowl event to rank anywhere in the study happened in 2004 (ranked at 26). It was the pre-one that featured Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “wardrobe malfunction.”

Though there were differences between generations, men and women agreed on the three most memorable television events — Sept. 11, Katrina and O.J. Simpson. After that, some of the interests diverged.

For example, the 1997 funeral of Princess Diana was ranked by women as the fourth most memorable event, while men ranked it at 23. Women ranked the recent death of Whitney Houston at 5, with men placing it at 21.

On the other hand, the 2003 Baghdad bombing at the start of the Iraq War was seen as the 14th most memorable moment by men, but only 37 among women.

Men listed boxer Mike Tyson biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear as a significant TV moment. Women did not.

Some moments many would consider to be unforgettable have been dimmed by time, and probably because so many respondents simply weren’t alive when they happened. Man’s giant leap to the moon in 1969 ranked only at 21. President Nixon’s resignation was not mentioned by anyone 18-34. In fact, the oldest event to appear in their rankings was the 1980 shooting of John Lennon.

The Associated Press reported that the study was based on an online questionnaire of 1,077 adults selected as a scientific sample from among Nielsen’s panel of people measured for television ratings. It was conducted in February this year.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive

One thought on “The Monday Morning Quarterback”

  • That’s interesting Art and thank you for posting. One moment in history that is burned into my memory was the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. I was in my 5th grade science class watching it live with the rest my classmates. When I saw it explode on TV, I didn’t really know what to make or feel about it at the time. My teacher, Mr. Jones, quickly shut it off and went next door to talk to the other teachers. We all sat without making a sound. I was sitting at the back of the class and I could see him talking with the other teachers about what we all had seen. That was my first experience seeing adults cry, morn and comfort one another openly for the death of people they didn’t know; this was an important lesson for me. Class was dismissed early that day and the bus ride home was a quiet one.

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