It was the year that introduced us to “The Brady Bunch,” “Hee Haw” And “Marcus Welby,” and a year that marked the cancellation of “Star Trek” and “The Smothers Brothers.”
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine
Here’s the story …
If you can name that tune (The Brady Bunch theme) in three notes, then you can appreciate that while 1969 represented the end of an era, one of history’s most turbulent decades, on TV it was the beginning of another. For preteen boomers like myself, the blended Brady family was an all-American ideal, a tradition of Friday-night viewing that extended well into the next decade.
And here’s another story. Almost all of television had transitioned to color by 1969 — around the same time when Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on NBC changed its name to The Wonderful World of Disney because the distinction was no longer a novelty. But it was a black-and-white live transmission from the most remote location imaginable that defined the year in TV for millions. In mid July, an estimated 530 million viewers around the globe watched with fascination as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission.
Like other epochal moments captured on TV, everyone who saw it remembers where they were at the time. (For me, it was during a family vacation in Clearwater, Fla., and we watched raptly on a flickering motel TV.) A giant leap for mankind, with ginormous TV ratings to boot.
Sadly, the fascination with space didn’t translate to a long run for NBC’s Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s visionary “wagon train to the stars,” with the USS Enterprise‘s ethnically and culturally diverse (including a Vulcan!) crew, ended its three-season voyage in 1969. It was an ignominious departure for such a distinguished show when the final episode was pre-empted in March because of the death of former President Eisenhower, not airing until June. (The episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” wasn’t exactly a critical favorite, featuring one of William Shatner’s campier performances — and that’s saying something — after Captain Kirk’s body is possessed by a female villain.)
Star Trek, of course, would eventually become a monster hit in syndication, spawning three series of successful movies and five live-action TV spinoffs to date, including the current Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access. (A new series built around The Next Generation‘s Captain Jean-Luc Picard is in development.) But back in 1969, the only fictional TV astronaut to get a happy ending was I Dream of Jeannie‘s Maj. Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman), who married his magical companion (Barbara Eden) in a December episode. (Even their marital bliss was short-lived, because Jeannie went off the air the following spring.)
Another cancellation that generated much bigger headlines at the time reflected the volatile political climate and generational divide of the 1960s when CBS abruptly canceled the controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in April — not for low ratings like Star Trek, but because the musical-variety show’s bold brand of political satire, highly critical of the Vietnam War, created headaches for network censors and advertisers. (Despite the cancellation, the show won that year’s Emmy for writing in a variety series.)
By June, CBS had replaced the progressively hip, countercultural Smothers Brothers with its polar opposite: Hee Haw, a countrified Laugh-In with cornball humor unlikely to offend anyone, except maybe stuffed shirts.
More serious attempts to integrate country music into the variety format included CBS’ laid-back The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which premiered in January 1969, and later in the year, ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, which presented the legendary “Man in Black” with wife June and the Carter Family, plus the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”) as early regulars.
The year 1969 was also a renaissance for the TV medical drama, with Robert Young (already an icon from his years on Father Knows Best) emerging from retirement to play the avuncular and compassionate doctor in Marcus Welby, M.D., which soared to the top of the ratings and soon became ABC’s first ever series to rank No. 1. Also popular: CBS’ Medical Center, which, like Welby’s cross-generational pairing of Young with James Brolin, starred James Daly as chief of staff Paul Lochner and Chad Everett as his younger associate, Joe Gannon.
Other notable shows that premiered in 1969 ranged from the kids Saturday morning favorite Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and This Is Tom Jones, a primetime showcase for the Welsh singing sex symbol, to an influential and irreverent comedy smash across the pond in the U.K., Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which wouldn’t make it to the U.S. until PBS stations began airing episodes in the mid 1970s).
By the end of the 1960s, Johnny Carson had solidified his position as king of late-night TV on NBC’s The Tonight Show — which didn’t stop competitors from trying to knock him off his perch. CBS thought it had a winner with The Merv Griffin Show, plucking the congenial host from syndication (where he’d later return with enduring success in 1972). ABC conceded defeat after two years with The Joey Bishop Show and, right before ringing in 1970, launched the highbrow The Dick Cavett Show in late night on Dec. 29.
Neither would make much of a dent in the national phenomenon of Carson’s show, which achieved a ratings high on Dec. 17 with the freakish sideshow of cult performer Tiny Tim’s on-air marriage to Miss Vicki (Victoria Budinger), 20 years his junior, to an audience of 40 million.
Perhaps not as consequential as a moon landing, but it was definitely out of this world.
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