DPTV Spotlights Sullivan's "Really Big Shooow"

This past weekend, viewers of Detroit Public Television were treated to a rare glimpse back at true “mass media’ in its heyday. “Ed Sullivan-The 60s” was a nostalgic return to a time before audience fragmentation—when shared media experiences where not the occasional exception (ala the Super Bowl or final episode of “M*A*S*H”) but, rather, the rule. 

Sunday nights, virtually all black & white TV sets across North America were tuned in to see the latest comedians, vaudevillian performers and musical artists; the latter including the first televised, live performance, in 1964, of the Beatles. Susan Whitall’s recent column in the Detroit News runs down many of the special’s highlights. 

Before “American  Bandstand” and, as Whitall notes, long before YouTube, the “Sullivan Show” was virtually the only way to get a glimpse at the emerging rock groups of the 1960s. Though odd in look and demeanor (ala a caricature of Richard Nixon), Sullivan stood in stark, unhip contrast to the likes of the rebellious Jim Morrison and the psychedelic Byrds, yet, people tuned in by the millions. If you were on Sullivan, you were somebody. And, if you were anybody, you watched.

Today, to relive such a phenomenon, one must look to “American Idol,” which is routinely watched by more than 30 million people each week with an audience that stretches across a multi-generational demographic, including parents and their children.

To be sure, “Sullivan” is a refreshing and welcome time capsule of pop culture and media that demonstrates both how far we’ve come and how much we’ve changed—for better or worse.