2/10/12 - america in 1963

In today's excerpt - culturally, on the evening before President John F. Kennedy's assassination, America was an astonishingly monolithic country when compared to today:

"On this Thursday, November 21, television's prime-time lineup included The Flintstones, The Donna Reed Show, My Three Sons, Perry Mason, and The Perry Como Show, but it was the fourteenth-rated show, Dr. Kildare, that made Time magazine's recommended viewing. The story that week involved a pregnant unmarried teen who had gotten an abortion. She was so psychologically shattered by the experience that even Dr. Kildare couldn't help. He had to refer her to a psychiatrist in another CBS program, The Eleventh Hour, for an episode that would air a week later. ...

"[With its new anchor, Walter Cronkite], CBS might have been number two in evening news, but it was number one in prime-time programming. The Neilsen ratings that week placed eight CBS programs in the top ten, led by The Beverly Hillbillies with a rating of 34.9, meaning that 34.9 percent of all American homes with a television set were watching it. Since 93 percent of American homes had a television set by 1963, the upshot was that the same program was being watched in almost a third of all the homes in the United States. Those same staggering numbers went deep into the lineup. All of the top thirty-one shows had ratings of at least 20. By way of comparison, the number one show in the 2009-10 season, American Idol, considered to be a gigantic hit, had a rating of 9.1.

"The explanation for the ratings of 1963 is simple: There wasn't much choice. Most major cities had only four channels (CBS, NBC, ABC, and a nonprofit station of some sort) at most. People in some markets had access to just one channel—the monopoly in Austin, Texas, where the lone station was owned by Lady Bird Johnson, was the most notorious example.

"The limited choices in television viewing were just one example of something that would come as a surprise to a child of the twenty-first century transported back to 1963: the lack of all sorts of variety, and a simplicity that now seems almost quaint.

"Popular music consisted of a single Top 40 list, with rock, country, folk, and a fair number of Fifties-style ballads lumped together. No separate stations specializing in different genres, except for country music stations in a few parts of the nation. Except in university towns and the very largest cities, bookstores were small and scarce, usually carrying only a few hundred titles. No Amazon. If you didn't see a movie during the week or two it was showing in your town, you would probably never see it. No DVDs. With television, you either saw a show the night it played or waited until it was repeated once during the summer. No TiVo.

"People drove cars made in the United States. Foreign cars from Europe were expensive and rare. Cars from Japan had just been introduced in 1963, but had not been greeted with enthusiasm—'made in Japan' was synonymous with products that were cheap and shoddy. You might see an occasional sports car on the road—Ford's Thunderbird or Chevrolet's Corvette—but the vast majority of customers chose among sedans, convertibles, and station wagons made by General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler.

"The typical American city of 1963 had appallingly little choice in things to eat. In a large city, you would be able to find a few restaurants serving Americanized Chinese food, a few Italian restaurants serving spaghetti and pizza, and a few restaurants with a French name, which probably meant that they had French onion soup on the menu. But if you were looking for a nice little Szechuan dish or linguine with pesto or sauteed fois gras, forget it. A Thai curry? The first Thai restaurant in the entire nation wouldn't open for another eight years. Sushi? Raw fish? Are you kidding?"


Charles Murray


Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010


Crown Forum


Copyright 2012 by Cox and Murray, Inc.


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